The following is the final installment in a nine-part series analyzing every position, from the front office to the defensive backfield. To access previous installments, click here.
Anyone who thinks special teams play is not critical to the outcome of games need only look to the 2011 NFC Championship game where San Francisco’s Kyle Williams’ two turnovers on punt returns cost the 49ers a trip to the Super Bowl.
Likewise, the Chargers' specials teams unit was so abysmal in 2010 it ruined any chance the team had at making the postseason.
As a result, one of the longest tenured coaches in Chargers history, Steve Crosby, was fired. Rich Bisaccia was brought in from Tampa Bay and general manager A.J. Smith used several draft picks to bolster the team’s coverage unit.
Despite a change at coach and the addition of several new players, 2011 got off to a shaky start. Minnesota wide receiver Percy Harvin returned the opening kickoff 103 yards for a touchdown. On the same play, the Chargers lost kicker Nate Kaeding for the season with a torn ACL. Coaches, players and fans couldn’t help but think “Here we go again.”
Harvin’s return proved to be an exception rather than the norm, as the Chargers' special teams played consistently well throughout the year. Safety Darrel Stuckey rebounded from an injury-plagued rookie season to tie for the team lead in special teams tackles with Mike Tolbert and rookie Andrew Gachkar.
San Diego native Nick Novak was signed to replace Kaeding and performed reasonably well, converting on nearly 80 percent of his field-goal attempts. Punter Mike Scifres did nothing to tarnish his reputation as one of the best drop-kick specialists in the league.
In 2012, the Chargers will have several important decisions to make that will impact special teams.
Both Mike Tolbert and special teams captain Jacob Hester are without contract. Conversely, both Nate Kaeding and Nick Novak are under contract. In all likelihood, only two of the four players will be with the team when the season starts.
The most compelling battle will be Novak vs. Kaeding for the lone kicker spot. Kaeding is currently the most accurate kicker in NFL history with a success rate of 85.6. Of course, that’s just in the regular season, which doesn’t include his six misses in 14 attempts in the playoffs.
Novak has never attempted a kick in the playoffs but did have key misses in big opportunities that were the difference in a loss to the Denver Broncos. One thing to consider is that Novak is set to earn less than half of Kaeding’s $2 million salary for 2012.
There is no question the Chargers missed Darren Sproles on offense in 2011, but Sproles was also a staple in the return game. The Chargers' attempt to replace Sproles with Richard Goodman on kickoffs and Patrick Crayton on punts was largely disappointing.
Look for the Chargers to add a versatile wide receiver or running back in the draft who can spice up their return game.
Another thing to watch for in 2012 is second-year player Jonas Mouton, who missed his entire rookie season with a shoulder injury. The Chargers selected Mouton in the second round, which was widely considered the biggest reach of the 2011 draft.
Mouton had a solid college career at Michigan but was considered a mid-to-late draft prospect due to his lack of speed and size at the linebacker position. The Chargers were impressed with Mouton’s tacking ability and drafted him almost exclusively as a special teams contributor.