The Ultimate NFL Power Ranking – Part 3, Special Teams

This is the third of what will be four articles in the Ultimate Power Ranking series, this time covering the special teams.  Check out the first article on the offense for more information on what this project is about, but in short, I was motivated to improve upon Pete Prisco’s woefully incomplete “Four-Pronged Approach” in his early Power Ranking released several weeks ago.

As I mentioned before, this Ultimate Power Ranking is not my prediction for how each team will finish the 2013 season.  Rather, it is a Power Ranking of where the teams are as of this moment.  Using the end-of-regular-season data from 2012, and taking into account free agency and the draft, this power ranking takes into account every team’s current depth chart, as posted on ESPN.  I have ranked every starter listed on the depth charts as well as coverage units, and then simply added up every ranking number to come up with a “team” total.  So teams with more highly ranked players will have a higher overall score.

Special Teams consist of many dependent elements.  You’ve got the placekicker who is usually responsible for kickoffs and field goals, and you’ve got the punter who is responsible for punts (and sometimes kickoffs).  But there are also the coverage units who are responsible for tackling the returners and limiting return yards.  The coverage units are dependent on the kickers, and vice versa which can make it difficult to get an objective assessment on either one.  Never-the-less this Ultimate Ranking is about comparing individual performers to their peers, and in some cases comparing groups to one another (as in the case of coverage units being ranked by team).  While PFF does include ratings for every individual Special Teams player in the NFL, the consistency of those players who participate on Special Teams and the “depth chart” so to speak is impossible to work with, because it’s a different 11 guys on coverage every week.  So, trying to rank individuals is almost a useless exercise.  Thankfully, Football Outsiders has a calculation for both kicking and punting efficiency that accounts for a coverage team’s ability to limit return yards.  So, using both Pro Football Focus and Football Outsider rankings, here is what the ranking numbers will look like by position:

Placekickers: 128-97
Punters: 64-33
Kick Returners: 64-33
Punt Returners: 64-33
Kickoff Coverage: 64-33
Punt Coverage: 64-33

Since teams typically employ several different players as returners and in some cases multiple kickers, I will once again be using ESPN Depth Charts to determine who the starters are for 2013.  And just like the other rankings, if a rookie is the new starter, they will be placed at the bottom of the rankings.  I have given increased weight to the Placekicker since they are responsible for not only kickoffs but also field goals, and can influence a game in the most direct manner, and they more frequently score points in the game.  Also, the point totals have been doubled, in order to give the Special Team’s total score enough weight when compared to the offense and defense rankings.  For example, if a team had the top ranked player or unit at every position, they would max out with a score of 448.  On the flipside, if they had the worst ranked player or unit at every position, they would bottom out at 262.  An average Special Teams score would be roughly 355.  This means that having the best special teams in the NFL won’t have quite the impact that having the best offense or defense will in the Overall Rankings, but also having the worst special teams won’t have quite the same negative impact either.  In other words, it treats Special Teams rankings appropriately, in that it matters, but not quite as much in either direction when compared to Offense or Defense.  If you are interested in taking a look at the ranking spreadsheet, check it out here.  So, without further ado, here are the Special Teams rankings:

 Ultimate Power Ranking – Special Teams

1.            Baltimore Ravens            405

The Ravens have an excellent Special Teams unit, headed up by #3 ranked place kicker Justin Tucker.  They have one of the better all-around returners in Jacoby Jones, ranked as the #6 kick returner and #13 punt returner.  Even their punter Sam Koch is pretty good, ranked #13 overall.  Their coverage units are both Top 10 as well.  While none of the individual Special Teams pieces of the Ravens are the best in the NFL, they are all very good and the sum of the parts puts them in the #1 overall spot.

2t.           Chicago Bears                    390

A first guess might assume that the presence of Devin Hester is what shoots the Bears special teams unit into the #2 spot, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate.  While it is true that Hester is good, he has slipped some in recent years and is ranked as the #11 kick returner and the #16 punt returner.  It is actually the ranking of their place kicker, Robbie Gould at #7 overall, and the elite coverage units, both ranked #2 overall that propels the Bears near the top.  If they had a better punter than Adam Podlesh, ranked #26 overall, they would easily be the best special teams unit in the NFL.

2t.           Seattle Seahawks            390

Tied with the Bears for 2nd, the Seahawks get a boost in the rankings thanks to trading for Percy Harvin.  They have a pair of good kickers in #13 ranked Steven Hauschka and #12 ranked punter Jon Ryan.  Like the Bears, their coverage units are elite with a #5 ranked kicking coverage unit and a #6 ranked punting coverage unit.  Harvin is the #2 kick returner in the NFL, but apparently they have plans to also use him on punts, where he only ranks #26.  If they could find a better punt returner the Seahawks could likewise find themselves with the top overall Special Teams unit.

4.            New England Patriots    389

The Patriots sport the best kicking coverage unit in the NFL, and it helps that they have #4 ranked placekicker Stephen Gostowski too.  Julian Edelman is a great punt returner, ranked #9 overall.  But they could do better than Leon Washington, who they brought in this offseason to return kicks, as he ranked an average #18 overall.  Their punter, Zoltan Mesko may have the coolest name in the NFL, but his punting is below average, ranked #22.  The Patriots have a very good Special Teams, but it’s not perfect.

5t.           Cincinatti Bengals           381

The Bengals have one of the best punting units in the NFL.  Punt Returner Adam Jones is ranked #3 overall, while their punter Kevin Huber is #11 overall and their punt coverage unit is ranked #3.  But they have an average placekicker in Mike Nugent, ranked #15, and they could do better than Brandon Tate as a kick returner, ranked #20.  Also, their kick coverage is below average, ranked #21.

5t.           Minnesota Vikings          381

The Vikings have completely remade their Special Teams unit in recent years by replacing Ryan Longwell with Blair Walsh, replacing Chris Kluwe with Jeff Locke and trading Percy Harvin.  And so far, those have all been good moves.  Walsh took the NFL by storm his rookie year ranked as the #1 placekicker overall.  Marcus Sherels sits atop the depth chart at returner, and he’s an underrated player ranked as the #5 punt returner and #13 kick returner.  Mike Priefer has completely turned around what used to be a weakness and now the Vikings have above average coverage units too with a kicking coverage unit ranked #11 and a punt coverage unit ranked #12.  The only question mark is rookie punter and 5th round draft choice Jeff Locke.  If he can perform as an above average punter, then the Vikings could easily shoot to the top of the Special Teams ranking.  As a side note, if they had kept Chris Kluwe, they would have moved up only 1 spot.  Locke likely has more upside than Kluwe, but until he can prove his worth, the Vikings sit tied for 5th with the Bengals.

7.            San Francisco 49ers         373

The 49ers have one of the better punt teams in the NFL, with #4 ranked punter Andy Lee and a #5 ranked punt coverage unit.  LaMichael James is an excellent kick returner too, ranked #9.  But they signed an average place kicker in #18 ranked Phil Dawson in free agency, and it’s unlikely that he can improve their kicking coverage, which is also below average and ranked #23.  Kyle Williams is also a below average punt returner, ranked #22.  The 49ers have a lot of great things happening on Special Teams, but they also have a few areas to improve upon.

8.            Miami Dolphins               371

The Dolphins have maybe the best all-around returner in the NFL with Marcus Thigpen.  He’s ranked as the #3 kick returner and the #7 punt returner.  Brandon Fields is also an excellent punter, ranked #5.  However, their coverage units are average or below, with a kick coverage unit ranked #16 and a punt coverage unit ranked #20.  They are also relying on rookie placekicker Caleb Sturgis to replace Dan Carpenter.  If Sturgis is an above average kicker that could shoot this Special Teams into the Top 5, but until he proves it on the field, this unit remains at #8.

9.            St. Louis Rams                   369

Like the Vikings, the Rams secured an elite rookie kicker out of last year’s draft.  Greg Zuerlein ranked #5 overall and he is what puts this Special Teams in the Top 10.  The rest of this Special Teams is simply average.  Punter Johnny Hecker is #15, kick returner Chris Givens is #16, punt returner Austin Pettis is #17, and their coverage units are ranked #14 (kicking) and #18 (punting).  The good news is, there is no major weakness for the Rams’ Special Teams, and they have an elite placekicker.  That’s good enough to put them in the Top 10.

10t.        Denver Broncos                368

The Denver Broncos sneak into the Top 10 with a three-way tie, thanks to the #2 ranking of placekicker Matt Prater.  He’s one of the best in the NFL.  Trindon Holliday is a good kick returner, ranked #12, but a not-so-good punt returner ranked #25.  While they have an excellent punt coverage unit, ranked #4, their punter Britton Colquitt is below average ranked #23.  Their kick coverage unit could also be better, ranked #20.  This is a Special Teams that excels at some things and not others.

10t.        Green Bay Packers          368

The Packers find themselves tied for 10th thanks to the skill of #7 kick returner Randall Cobb, and a #7 ranked punt coverage unit.  The rest of their Special Teams is average or below.  Jeremy Ross is an average punt returner ranked #14.  Mason Crosby is an average or below placekicker, ranked #19 and their kick coverage unit is not much better, ranked #18.  Their punter Tim Masthay is probably the weakest link though, ranked below average at #21.  Like the Broncos, this is a Special Teams that excels at some things and not others.

10t.        San Diego Chargers         368

Rounding out the three-way tie for 10th place is the San Diego Chargers who sport the #8 punter Mike Scifres and the #6 kicking coverage unit.  They have an average placekicker in Nick Novak ranked #16 and an average kick returner in Richard Goodman, ranked #14.  Eddie Royal is a below average punt returner these days, ranked #20.  But their punt coverage unit is their weakest link, ranked #22.

13.          Indianapolis Colts           367

It might be surprising to see the Colts out of the Top 10 when they have the #3 punter Pat McAfee, the #2 punt returner in T.Y. Hilton and an excellent kick coverage unit ranked #9.  But their punt coverage unit is below average, ranked #19 and Adam Vinatieri is old (he’s 40!) and only ranked #26 overall.  They also have a pretty bad kick returner in Cassius Vaughn, who ranked a lowly #28.  If they can upgrade those last two pieces, they could find themselves back in the Top 10.

14t.        Atlanta Falcons                 362

The Falcons best weapon on Special Teams is kick returner Jacquizz Rodgers, ranked #4.  Their kick coverage unit is also very good ranked #7.  But they have an average punter in Mike Bosher, ranked #16 and their punt coverage unit is also merely average, ranked #14.  The bigger issues reside in their placekicker as Matt Bryant fell to the bottom half of the NFL, ranked #24.  They also need a better punt returner than #27 ranked Dominique Franks.  The Falcons Special Teams has some good and some bad, and find themselves buried in the middle of the pack.

14t.        New York Giants              362

Tied with the Falcons, the Giants find themselves this high because of #1 kick returner David Wilson, who excelled in his rookie year.  The rest of the Giants special teams is average or below.  Their coverage units are ranked #13 (kicking) and #15 (punting) while punt returner Rueben Randle ranked #18 and so did punter Sean Weatherford.  They signed 34-year old veteran free agent kicker Josh Brown from the Bengals, who ranked #27, and I can’t help but think they could have done better.  If not for the outstanding performance of David Wilson, this unit would likely have been ranked below average.  As it stands, they are merely average, buried in the middle of the pack.

16.          Philadelphia Eagles        360

Like the Giants, the Eagles have a #1 ranked player in punter Donnie Jones after signing him in free agency when the Texans let him go (why, I don’t know).  But that didn’t stop them from bringing in LSU’s famed punter Brad Wing as an undrafted free agent anyway who will compete with Jones.  And they’ll need it as their punt coverage is ranked worst in the NFL.  But, they do have a #10 ranked kick coverage unit.  They have average pieces the rest of the way, with placekicker Alex Henery #17, kick returner Brandon Boykin #15 and punt returner Damaris Johnson ranked #19.  If Jones or Wing can turn their punt coverage around, this team could crack the Top 10.

17.          Arizona Cardinals            350

The Cardinals have an excellent punter in #7 ranked Dave Zastudil and the #1 punt coverage unit in the NFL.  Their placekicker Jay Feely is also very good, ranked #10.  But their skill after that falls off a cliff.  Patrick Peterson is maybe the most overrated punt returner in the NFL, as he ranked a measly #29.  While Feely is excellent, their kick coverage unit is not, ranked #27, and kick returner William Powell is dreadful, ranked #30.  Just like the other middle-of-the-pack teams, the Cardinals excel in some areas, and struggle in others.

18.          Cleveland Browns           349

The Browns signed 35-year old veteran free agent placekicker Shayne Graham, ranked #23, and hopefully he won’t impact the Browns kicking coverage unit, ranked #4 as one of the best in the NFL.  And similarly, their punter Spencer Lanning is a 2nd year undrafted free agent, ranked #30 until he plays in an actual NFL game.  Hopefully Lanning won’t negatively impact their punt coverage, ranked #13 which was pretty good.  Travis Benjamin is a good punt returner, ranked #11, but a not-so-good kick returner ranked #24.  The Browns have a lot of new pieces on Special Teams, and therefore have a lot of questions to answer.

19t.        Houston Texans               348

I’m trying to wrap my head around why the Texans got rid of the #1 ranked punter Donnie Jones after he had his best year in the NFL in 2012 and replaced him with the #14 punter Shane Lechler.  Likewise, they ditched Shayne Graham in favor last year’s 5th round draft pick Randy Bullock after he missed his rookie year with a groin tear, who is ranked #31 until he can prove otherwise.  If they had kept Jones and Graham they would have had two more highly ranked players from 2012.  Never-the-less, they have one of the better all-around returners in Keyshawn Martin, ranked #5 as a kick returner and #8 as a punt returner.  Perhaps the reason they moved on from Jones and Graham had to do with their coverage units.  They had the worst ranked kick coverage unit in the NFL and the #16 ranked punt coverage unit.  So, if their new kickers can improve those areas, perhaps it will be a net gain.  But until then, the Texans are an average Special Teams unit, at best.

19t.        New York Jets                   348

The Jets find themselves in a three-way tie for 19th primarily because of #8 ranked kick returner Joe McKnight.  The rest of their Special Teams is average or below.  Jeremy Kerley is an average punt returner ranked #15, and so is their punter Robert Malone, ranked #17.  Their kick coverage unit is ranked #17 and their punt coverage unit is ranked #24.  But their weakest link may be their place kicker, Nick Folk, ranked #25 overall.  There just isn’t very much on the Jets Special Teams that is, well, special.

19t.        Tennessee Titans            348

The Titans have a pair of good kickers in #11 ranked Rob Bironas and #10 punter Brett Kern.  Darius Reynaud was signed as a free agent last year and was a great punt returner ranked #4, but a not-so-good kick returner, ranked #25.  But until they improve their coverage units which are some of the worst in the NFL ranked #27 (punt) and #29 (kick), they will be stuck in the bottom half of the league.

22t.        Kansas City Chiefs           345

The Chiefs have one thing going for them: their punt team and that is never a good sign.  Punter Dustin Colquitt ranked #6 last year, and their punt coverage unit ranked #8.  Ryan Succop is a below average place kicker ranked #21, and the kick coverage unit was similarly below average ranked #19.  But their returners are not good.  Shaun Draughn was one of the worst kick returners in the NFL last year, ranked #31, and Devin Wylie wasn’t much better, ranked #24.

22t.        New Orleans Saints        345

Like the Chiefs, the Saints also had one thing going for them: their punt team.  Thomas Morstead was the #2 punter in the NFL, and the punt coverage unit was ranked #9.  Darren Sproles was also the #12 punt returner.  But for as good as their punt team was, their kick team was on the opposite end of the spectrum.  Their placekicker Garrett Hartley was terrible ranked #29 overall, and so was the kick coverage unit ranked #28.  Even their kick returner Travaris Cadet was bad, ranked #29.  Until the Saints can figure out how to kick and return kicks, they will be a below average Special Teams unit.

22t.        Pittsburgh Steelers         345

The Steelers have a good place kicker in Shaun Suisham ranked #9 and an excellent punt returner in Antonio Brown, ranked #6.  But the rest of this Special Teams unit is bad.  Emmanuel Sanders was only ranked as the 21st best kick returner.  And punter Brian Moorman was one of the worst in the NFL, ranked #28.  Their kick coverage units were both ranked poorly at #22 (kick) and #23 (punt).

25.          Jacksonville Jaguars       343

The Jaguars rookie punter Bryan Anger had an excellent year, ranked as the #9 punter in the NFL, but there isn’t too much else to get excited about.  Josh Scobee is a league average placekicker ranked #14, and Jordan Shipley is a below average returner, ranked #19 (kick) and #23 (punt).  Their coverage units are in need of improvement though as they are ranked #25 (kick) and #21 (punt).

26.          Buffalo Bills                       341

While the Bills punt returner Leodis McKelvin was the #1 punt returner and #10 kick returner in the NFL, their Special Teams skill level drops off a cliff after that.  Kicker Ryan Lindell was dreadful, ranked #30 and punter Shawn Powell was only slightly better, ranked #20.  Their coverage units were also bad, both ranked #26.  Put it all together and you have a Special Teams ranked in the bottom half of the NFL.

27.          Washington Redskins    327

The Redskins don’t really excel in anything on Special Teams.  Sure, they have the #10 ranked punt returner in Richard Crawford, but there isn’t much else to say.  Kicker Kai Forbath was terrible, ranked #28, and the kick coverage was only slightly better ranked #15.  Punter Sav Rocca was below average ranked #19, and the punt coverage unit was ranked a dreadful #29.  They need a new kick returner as Niles Paul was not effective, ranked #26 overall.

28.          Dallas Cowboys                                320

Like the Redskins, the Cowboys also don’t really excel in any particular area on Special Teams.  Kicker Dan Bailey was ranked a respectable #12, which keeps this team from being dead last, but the kick coverage unit was ranked poorly at #24.  But Punter Chris Jones hasn’t been very effective, ranked #29 and the punt coverage unit is only slightly better ranked #24.  What they really need though, are better returners.  Dwayne Harris was a bad kick returner ranked #22, and as good of a receiver as Dez Bryant is, he was one of the worst punt returners in the NFL, ranked #30.

29.          Carolina Panthers            316

At this point in the rankings, there isn’t much to like.  Graham Gano is a below average kicker, ranked #22, although the kick coverage unit is ranked #8.  Punter Brad Nortman is pretty bad, ranked #27 and his punt coverage unit is even worse, ranked #28.  The Panthers brought in Ted Ginn via free agency from San Francisco, and as much hype as he gets for being a returner, it doesn’t play out in the rankings.  Ginn was a below average punt returner ranked #21, and the worst kick returner in the league, ranked #32.  Maybe he’ll do better with the Panthers, but I doubt it.  Give the Panthers credit for trying to upgrade though, because last year’s rookie Joe Adams was ineffective as a returner.

30.          Tampa Bay Bucs                314

There was only one part of the Bucs Special Teams ranked in the top half of the league last year: their kicking coverage unit ranked #12.  The rest of their Special Teams pieces were ranked no higher than 20th.  Kicker Connor Barth was a disappointing 20th, punter Michael Koenen was bad, ranked #24 and the punt coverage was one of the worst in the NFL, ranked #30.  Kick Returner Tiquan Underwood was below average ranked #23 and punt returner Jeff Demps was one of the worst in the NFL, ranked #31.  The Bucs need to do a major overhaul of their Special Teams.

31.          Oakland Raiders               312

The Oakland Raiders have one thing keeping them out of last place: kicker Sebastien Janikowski who is ranked #6 overall.  They also have an average kick returner in Coye Francis.  But newly acquired punter Chris Kluwe is below average, ranked #25.  And that’s about it.  Denarius Moore was the worst punt returner in the NFL last year, and their coverage units were both second worst.  If it wasn’t for Janikowski, this would be hands down the worst Special Teams unit in the NFL.

32.          Detroit Lions                      304

The Lions Special Teams were a much-maligned unit last year, and rightly so.  They finally parted ways with one of the oldest place kickers in the league, Jason Hanson when they signed 38-year old veteran kicker David Akers.  But hey, at least he is 5 years younger than Hanson!  Akers was a highly ranked kicker last year though, ranked #8 overall.  Hopefully he can get over his groin surgery and perform similarly.  After that though, the Lions have league worst or almost at every other position.  Like the Vikings, they drafted a punter in the 5th round of the 2013 Draft, and Sam Martin ranks #32 until he can prove otherwise.  Joquie Bell is a bad kick returner, ranked #27, and Mike Thomas is a worse punt returner ranked #28.  Their coverage units are also pretty bad ranked #30 (kick) and #25 (punt).  It’s good that they are replacing their kickers from last year, but I’m not sure if that will be enough as they’re relying on a 38-year old coming back from surgery and a rookie.

A Few Observations

There are an unusually large number of ties in this ranking, but that can be attributed to a smaller pool of ranked variables, and therefore a much smaller point spread.  The teams are just a lot more closely ranked on Special Teams than they are on Offense and Defense, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.  I felt that these rankings were perhaps the least definitive, since Special Teams coverage units are so dependent on the kicker, and vice versa.  But, this is probably as good as can be done, without going into immense detail with the individual performers on the special teams coverage units.  And as I said above, I don’t think that level of detail would be helpful at all, because of the lack of consistency in which players start on Special Teams.  So, in the end, I’m happy with the results.  Look for Part 4 of the Ultimate Power Ranking combing all three elements (Offense, Defense and Special Teams) to be posted very soon!

This is the third of what will be four articles in the Ultimate Power Ranking series, this time covering the special teams.  Check out the first article on the offense for more information on what this project is about, but in short, I was motivated to improve upon Pete Prisco’s woefully incomplete “Four-Pronged Approach” in his early Power Ranking released several weeks ago.

As I mentioned before, this Ultimate Power Ranking is not my prediction for how each team will finish the 2013 season.  Rather, it is a Power Ranking of where the teams are as of this moment.  Using the end-of-regular-season data from 2012, and taking into account free agency and the draft, this power ranking takes into account every team’s current depth chart, as posted on ESPN.  I have ranked every starter listed on the depth charts as well as coverage units, and then simply added up every ranking number to come up with a “team” total.  So teams with more highly ranked players will have a higher overall score.

Special Teams consist of many fluid elements.  You’ve got the placekicker who is usually responsible for kickoffs and field goals, and you’ve got the punter who is responsible for punts (and sometimes kickoffs).  But there are also the coverage units who are responsible for tackling the returners and limiting return yards.  These are all very different elements and some are more difficult to measure than others.  This Ultimate Ranking is about comparing individual performers to their peers, and in some cases comparing groups to one another (as in the case of offensive lines being ranked by team).  So, with special teams, the kickers and punters will obviously be ranked individually as will the returners on each team, and Pro Football Focus provides excellent data there.  But the coverage units are more difficult.  While PFF does include ratings for every individual Special Teams player in the NFL, the consistency of those players who participate on Special Teams and the “depth chart” so to speak is impossible to work with, because it’s a different 11 guys on coverage every week.  So, trying to rank individuals is almost a useless exercise.  Thankfully, Football Outsiders has a calculation for both kicking and punting efficiency that accounts for a coverage team’s ability to limit return yards.  So, using both Pro Football Focus and Football Outsider rankings, here is what the ranking numbers will look like by position:

Placekickers: 128-97
Punters: 64-33
Kick Returners: 64-33
Punt Returners: 64-33
Kickoff Coverage: 64-33
Punt Coverage: 64-33

Since teams typically employ several different players as returners and in some cases multiple kickers, I will once again be using ESPN Depth Charts to determine who the starters are for 2013.  And just like the other rankings, if a rookie is the new starter, they will be placed at the bottom of the rankings.  I have given increased weight to the Placekicker since they are responsible for not only kickoffs but also field goals, and can influence a game in the most direct manner.  Also, the point totals have been doubled, in order to give the Special Team’s total score enough weight when compared to the offense and defense rankings.  For example, if a team had the top ranked player or unit at every position, they would max out with a score of 448.  On the flipside, if they had the worst ranked player or unit at every position, they would bottom out at 262.  An average Special Teams score would be roughly 355.  This means that having the best special teams in the NFL won’t have quite the impact that having the best offense or defense will, but also having the worst special teams won’t have quite the same negative impact either.  In other words, it treats Special Teams rankings appropriately, in that it matters, but not quite as much in either direction when compared to Offense or Defense.  If you are interested in taking a look at the ranking spreadsheet, check it out here.  So, without further ado, here are the Special Teams rankings:

 

Ultimate Power Ranking – Special Teams

1.            Baltimore Ravens            405

The Ravens have an excellent Special Teams unit, headed up by #3 ranked place kicker Justin Tucker.  They have one of the better all-around returners in Jacoby Jones, ranked as the #6 kick returner and #13 punt returner.  Even their punter Sam Koch is pretty good, ranked #13 overall.  Their coverage units are both Top 10 as well.  While none of the individual Special Teams pieces of the Ravens are the best in the NFL, they are all very good and the sum of the parts puts them in the #1 overall spot.

2t.           Chicago Bears                    390

A first guess might assume that the presence of Devin Hester is what shoots the Bears special teams unit into the #2 spot, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate.  While it is true that Hester is good, he has slipped some in recent years and is ranked as the #11 kick returner and the #16 punt returner.  It is actually the ranking of their place kicker, Robbie Gould at #7 overall, and the elite coverage units, both ranked #2 overall that propels the Bears near the top.  If they had a better punter than Adam Podlesh, ranked #26 overall, they would easily be the best special teams unit in the NFL.

2t.           Seattle Seahawks            390

Tied with the Bears for 2nd, the Seahawks get a boost in the rankings thanks to trading for Percy Harvin.  They have a pair of good kickers in #13 ranked Steven Hauschka and #12 ranked punter Jon Ryan.  Like the Bears, their coverage units are elite with a #5 ranked kicking coverage unit and a #6 ranked punting coverage unit.  Harvin is the #2 kick returner in the NFL, but apparently they have plans to also use him on punts, where he only ranks #26.  If they could find a better punt returner the Seahawks could likewise find themselves with the top overall Special Teams unit.

4.            New England Patriots    389

The Patriots sport the best kicking coverage unit in the NFL, and it helps that they have #4 ranked placekicker Stephen Gostowski too.  Julian Edelman is a great punt returner, ranked #9 overall.  But they could do better than Leon Washington, who they brought in this offseason to return kicks, as he ranked an average #18 overall.  Their punter, Zoltan Mesko may have the coolest name in the NFL, but his punting is below average, ranked #22.  The Patriots have a very good Special Teams, but it’s not perfect.

5t.           Cincinatti Bengals           381

The Bengals have one of the best punting units in the NFL.  Punt Returner Adam Jones is ranked #3 overall, while their punter Kevin Huber is #11 overall and their punt coverage unit is ranked #3.  But they have an average placekicker in Mike Nugent, ranked #15, and they could do better than Brandon Tate as a kick returner, ranked #20.  Also, their kick coverage is below average, ranked #21.

5t.           Minnesota Vikings          381

The Vikings have completely remade their Special Teams unit in recent years by replacing Ryan Longwell with Blair Walsh, replacing Chris Kluwe with Jeff Locke and trading Percy Harvin.  And so far, those have all been good moves.  Walsh took the NFL by storm his rookie year ranked as the #1 placekicker overall.  Marcus Sherels sits atop the depth chart at returner, and he’s an underrated player ranked as the #5 punt returner and #13 kick returner.  Mike Priefer has completely turned around what used to be a weakness and now the Vikings have above average coverage units too with a kicking coverage unit ranked #11 and a punt coverage unit ranked #12.  The only question mark is rookie punter and 5th round draft choice Jeff Locke.  If he can perform as an above average punter, then the Vikings could easily shoot to the top of the Special Teams ranking.  As a side note, if they had kept Chris Kluwe, they would have moved up only 1 spot.  Locke likely has more upside than Kluwe, but until he can prove his worth, the Vikings sit tied for 5th.

7.            San Francisco 49ers         373

The 49ers have one of the better punt teams in the NFL, with #4 ranked punter Andy Lee and a #5 ranked punt coverage unit.  LaMichael James is an excellent kick returner too, ranked #9.  But they signed an average place kicker in #18 ranked Phil Dawson in free agency, and it’s unlikely that he can improve their kicking coverage, which is also below average and ranked #23.  Kyle Williams is also a below average punt returner, ranked #22.  The 49ers have a lot of great things happening on Special Teams, but they also have a few areas to improve upon.

8.            Miami Dolphins               371

The Dolphins have maybe the best all-around returner in the NFL with Marcus Thigpen.  He’s ranked as the #3 kick returner and the #7 punt returner.  Brandon Fields is also an excellent punter, ranked #5.  However, their coverage units are average or below, with a kick coverage unit ranked #16 and a punt coverage unit ranked #20.  They are also relying on rookie placekicker Caleb Sturgis to replace Dan Carpenter.  If Sturgis is an above average kicker that could shoot this Special Teams into the Top 5, but until he proves it on the field, this unit remains at #8.

9.            St. Louis Rams                   369

Like the Vikings, the Rams secured an elite rookie kicker out of last year’s draft.  Greg Zuerlein ranked #5 overall and he is what puts this Special Teams in the Top 10.  The rest of this Special Teams is simply average.  Punter Johnny Hecker is #15, kick returner Chris Givens is #16, punt returner Austin Pettis is #17, and their coverage units are ranked #14 (kicking) and #18 (punting).  The good news is, there is no major weakness for the Rams’ Special Teams, and they have an elite placekicker.  That’s good enough to put them in the Top 10.

10t.        Denver Broncos                368

The Denver Broncos sneak into the Top 10 with a three-way tie, thanks to the #2 ranking of placekicker Matt Prater.  He’s one of the best in the NFL.  Trindon Holliday is a good kick returner, ranked #12, but a not-so-good punt returner ranked #25.  While they have an excellent punt coverage unit, ranked #4, their punter Britton Colquitt is below average ranked #23.  Their kick coverage unit could also be better, ranked #20.  This is a Special Teams that excels at some things and not others.

10t.        Green Bay Packers          368

The Packers find themselves tied for 10th thanks to the skill of #7 kick returner Randall Cobb, and a #7 ranked punt coverage unit.  The rest of their Special Teams is average or below.  Jeremy Ross is an average punt returner ranked #14.  Mason Crosby is an average or below placekicker, ranked #19 and their kick coverage unit is not much better, ranked #18.  Their punter Tim Masthay is probably the weakest link though, ranked below average at #21.  Like the Broncos, this is a Special Teams that excels at some things and not others.

10t.        San Diego Chargers         368

Rounding out the three-way tie for 10th place is the San Diego Chargers who sport the #8 punter Mike Scifres and the #6 kicking coverage unit.  They have an average placekicker in Nick Novak ranked #16 and an average kick returner in Richard Goodman, ranked #14.  Eddie Royal is a below average punt returner these days, ranked #20.  But their punt coverage unit is their weakest link, ranked #22.

13.          Indianapolis Colts           367

It might be surprising to see the Colts out of the Top 10 when they have the #3 punter Pat McAfee, the #2 punt returner in T.Y. Hilton and an excellent kick coverage unit ranked #9.  But their punt coverage unit is below average, ranked #19 and Adam Vinatieri is old (he’s 40!) and only ranked #26 overall.  They also have a pretty bad kick returner in Cassius Vaughn, who ranked a lowly #28.  If they can upgrade those last two pieces, they could find themselves back in the Top 10.

14t.        Atlanta Falcons                362

The Falcons best weapon on Special Teams is kick returner Jacquizz Rodgers, ranked #4.  Their kick coverage unit is also very good ranked #7.  But they have an average punter in Mike Bosher, ranked #16 and their punt coverage unit is also merely average, ranked #14.  The bigger issues reside in their placekicker as Matt Bryant fell to the bottom half of the NFL, ranked #24.  They also need a better punt returner than #27 ranked Dominique Franks.  The Falcons Special Teams has some good and some bad, and find themselves buried in the middle of the pack.

14t.        New York Giants              362

Tied with the Falcons, the Giants find themselves this high because of #1 kick returner David Wilson, who excelled in his rookie year.  The rest of the Giants special teams is average or below.  Their coverage units are ranked #13 (kicking) and #15 (punting) while punt returner Rueben Randle ranked #18 and so did punter Sean Weatherford.  They signed 34-year old veteran free agent kicker Josh Brown from the Bengals, who ranked #27, and I can’t help but think they could have done better.  If not for the outstanding performance of David Wilson, this unit would likely have been ranked below average.  As it stands, they are merely average, buried in the middle of the pack.

16.          Philadelphia Eagles        360

Like the Giants, the Eagles have a #1 ranked player in punter Donnie Jones after signing him in free agency when the Texans let him go (why, I don’t know).  But that didn’t stop them from bringing in LSU’s famed punter Brad Wing as an undrafted free agent anyway who will compete with Jones.  And they’ll need it as their punt coverage is ranked worst in the NFL.  But, they do have a #10 ranked kick coverage unit.  They have average pieces the rest of the way, with placekicker Alex Henery #17, kick returner Brandon Boykin #15 and punt returner Damaris Johnson ranked #19.  If Jones or Wing can turn their punt coverage around, this team could crack the Top 10.

17.          Arizona Cardinals            350

The Cardinals have an excellent punter in #7 ranked Dave Zastudil and the #1 punt coverage unit in the NFL.  Their placekicker Jay Feely is also very good, ranked #10.  But their skill after that falls off a cliff.  Patrick Peterson is maybe the most overrated punt returner in the NFL, as he ranked a measly #29.  While Feely is excellent, their kick coverage unit is not, ranked #27, and kick returner William Powell is dreadful, ranked #30.  Just like the other middle-of-the-pack teams, the Cardinals excel in some areas, and struggle in others.

18.          Cleveland Browns           349

The Browns signed 35-year old veteran free agent placekicker Shayne Graham, ranked #23, and hopefully he won’t impact the Browns kicking coverage unit, ranked #4 as one of the best in the NFL.  And similarly, their punter Spencer Lanning is a 2nd year undrafted free agent, ranked #30 until he plays in an actual NFL game.  Hopefully Lanning won’t negatively impact their punt coverage, ranked #13 which was pretty good.  Travis Benjamin is a good punt returner, ranked #11, but a not-so-good kick returner ranked #24.  The Browns have a lot of new pieces on Special Teams, and therefore have a lot of questions to answer.

19t.        Houston Texans               348

I’m trying to wrap my head around why the Texans got rid of the #1 ranked punter Donnie Jones after he had his best year in the NFL in 2012 and replaced him with the #14 punter Shane Lechler.  Likewise, they ditched Shayne Graham in favor last year’s 5th round draft pick Randy Bullock after he missed his rookie year with a groin tear, who is ranked #31 until he can prove otherwise.  If they had kept Jones and Graham they would have had two more highly ranked players from 2012.  Never-the-less, they have one of the better all-around returners in Keyshawn Martin, ranked #5 as a kick returner and #8 as a punt returner.  Perhaps the reason they moved on from Jones and Graham had to do with their coverage units.  They had the worst ranked kick coverage unit in the NFL and the #16 ranked punt coverage unit.  So, if their new kickers can improve those areas, perhaps it will be a net gain.  But until then, the Texans are an average Special Teams unit, at best.

19t.        New York Jets                   348

The Jets find themselves in a three-way tie for 19th primarily because of #8 ranked kick returner Joe McKnight.  The rest of their Special Teams is average or below.  Jeremy Kerley is an average punt returner ranked #15, and so is their punter Robert Malone, ranked #17.  Their kick coverage unit is ranked #17 and their punt coverage unit is ranked #24.  But their weakest link may be their place kicker, Nick Folk, ranked #25 overall.  There just isn’t very much on the Jets Special Teams that is, well, special.

19t.        Tennessee Titans            348

The Titans have a pair of good kickers in #11 ranked Rob Bironas and #10 punter Brett Kern.  Darius Reynaud was signed as a free agent last year and was a great punt returner ranked #4, but a not-so-good kick returner, ranked #25.  But until they improve their coverage units which are some of the worst in the NFL ranked #27 (punt) and #29 (kick), they will be stuck in the bottom half of the league.

22t.        Kansas City Chiefs           345

The Chiefs have one thing going for them: their punt team and that is never a good sign.  Punter Dustin Colquitt ranked #6 last year, and their punt coverage unit ranked #8.  Ryan Succop is a below average place kicker ranked #21, and the kick coverage unit was similarly below average ranked #19.  But their returners are not good.  Shaun Draughn was one of the worst kick returners in the NFL last year, ranked #31, and Devin Wylie wasn’t much better, ranked #24.

22t.        New Orleans Saints        345

Like the Chiefs, the Saints also had one thing going for them: their punt team.  Thomas Morstead was the #2 punter in the NFL, and the punt coverage unit was ranked #9.  Darren Sproles was also the #12 punt returner.  But for as good as their punt team was, their kick team was on the opposite end of the spectrum.  Their placekicker Garrett Hartley was terrible ranked #29 overall, and so was the kick coverage unit ranked #28.  Even their kick returner Travaris Cadet was bad, ranked #29.  Until the Saints can figure out how to kick and return kicks, they will be a below average Special Teams unit.

22t.        Pittsburgh Steelers         345

The Steelers have a good place kicker in Shaun Suisham ranked #9 and an excellent punt returner in Antonio Brown, ranked #6.  But the rest of this Special Teams unit is bad.  Emmanuel Sanders was only ranked as the 21st best kick returner.  And punter Brian Moorman was one of the worst in the NFL, ranked #28.  Their kick coverage units were both ranked poorly at #22 (kick) and #23 (punt).

25.          Jacksonville Jaguars       343

The Jaguars rookie punter Bryan Anger had an excellent year, ranked as the #9 punter in the NFL, but there isn’t too much else to get excited about.  Josh Scobee is a league average placekicker ranked #14, and Jordan Shipley is a below average returner, ranked #19 (kick) and #23 (punt).  Their coverage units are in need of improvement though as they are ranked #25 (kick) and #21 (punt).

26.          Buffalo Bills                       341

While the Bills punt returner Leodis McKelvin was the #1 punt returner and #10 kick returner in the NFL, their Special Teams skill level drops off a cliff after that.  Kicker Ryan Lindell was dreadful, ranked #30 and punter Shawn Powell was only slightly better, ranked #20.  Their coverage units were also bad, both ranked #26.  Put it all together and you have a Special Teams ranked in the bottom half of the NFL.

27.          Washington Redskins    327

The Redskins don’t really excel in anything on Special Teams.  Sure, they have the #10 ranked punt returner in Richard Crawford, but there isn’t much else to say.  Kicker Kai Forbath was terrible, ranked #28, and the kick coverage was only slightly better ranked #15.  Punter Sav Rocca was below average ranked #19, and the punt coverage unit was ranked a dreadful #29.  They need a new kick returner as Niles Paul was not effective, ranked #26 overall.

28.          Dallas Cowboys                                320

Like the Redskins, the Cowboys also don’t really excel in any particular area on Special Teams.  Kicker Dan Bailey was ranked a respectable #12, which keeps this team from being dead last, but the kick coverage unit was ranked poorly at #24.  But Punter Chris Jones hasn’t been very effective, ranked #29 and the punt coverage unit is only slightly better ranked #24.  What they really need though, are better returners.  Dwayne Harris was a bad kick returner ranked #22, and as good of a receiver as Dez Bryant is, he was one of the worst punt returners in the NFL, ranked #30.

29.          Carolina Panthers            316

At this point in the rankings, there isn’t much to like.  Graham Gano is a below average kicker, ranked #22, although the kick coverage unit is ranked #8.  Punter Brad Nortman is pretty bad, ranked #27 and his punt coverage unit is even worse, ranked #28.  The Panthers brought in Ted Ginn via free agency from San Francisco, and as much hype as he gets for being a returner, it doesn’t play out in the rankings.  Ginn was a below average punt returner ranked #21, and the worst kick returner in the league, ranked #32.  Maybe he’ll do better with the Panthers, but I doubt it.  Give the Panthers credit for trying to upgrade though, because last year’s rookie Joe Adams was ineffective as a returner.

30.          Tampa Bay Bucs                314

There was only one part of the Bucs Special Teams ranked in the top half of the league last year: their kicking coverage unit ranked #12.  The rest of their Special Teams pieces were ranked no higher than 20th.  Kicker Connor Barth was a disappointing 20th, punter Michael Koenen was bad, ranked #24 and the punt coverage was one of the worst in the NFL, ranked #30.  Kick Returner Tiquan Underwood was below average ranked #23 and punt returner Jeff Demps was one of the worst in the NFL, ranked #31.  The Bucs need to do a major overhaul of their Special Teams.

31.          Oakland Raiders               312

The Oakland Raiders have one thing keeping them out of last place: kicker Sebastien Janikowski who is ranked #6 overall.  They also have an average kick returner in Coye Francis.  But newly acquired punter Chris Kluwe is below average, ranked #25.  And that’s about it.  Denarius Moore was the worst punt returner in the NFL last year, and their coverage units were both second worst.  If it wasn’t for Janikowski, this would be hands down the worst Special Teams unit in the NFL.

32.          Detroit Lions                      304

The Lions Special Teams were a much-maligned unit last year, and rightly so.  They finally parted ways with one of the oldest place kickers in the league, Jason Hanson when they signed 38-year old veteran kicker David Akers.  But hey, at least he is 5 years younger than Hanson!  Akers was a highly ranked kicker last year though, ranked #8 overall.  Hopefully he can get over his groin surgery and perform similarly.  After that though, the Lions have league worst or almost at every other position.  Like the Vikings, they drafted a punter in the 5th round of the 2013 Draft, and Sam Martin ranks #32 until he can prove otherwise.  Joquie Bell is a bad kick returner, ranked #27, and Mike Thomas is a worse punt returner ranked #28.  Their coverage units are also pretty bad ranked #30 (kick) and #25 (punt).  It’s good that they are replacing their kickers from last year, but I’m not sure if that will be enough as they’re relying on a 38-year old coming back from surgery and a rookie.

A Few Observations

There are an unusually large number of ties in this ranking, but that can be attributed to a smaller pool of ranked variables, and therefore a much smaller point spread.  The teams are just a lot more closely ranked on Special Teams than they are on Offense and Defense, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.  I felt that these rankings were perhaps the least definitive, since Special Teams coverage units are so dependent on the kicker, and vice versa.  But, this is probably as good as can be done, without going into immense detail with the individual performers on the special teams coverage units.  And as I said above, I don’t think that level of detail would be helpful at all, because of the lack of consistency in which players start on Special Teams.  So, in the end, I’m happy with the results.  Look for Part 4 of the Ultimate Power Ranking to be posted very soon!

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