Janikowski and Lechler form perhaps the NFL's best punter-kicker duo.
Special teams is the ultimate equalizer in the NFL—it impacts field position, leads to points, and can mask a team's greatest deficiency.
Devin Hester's back still hurts from carrying Rex Grossman to the Super Bowl in 2006.
Elite return men add another dimension to their respective teams and often tilt the playing field one way or another, just as top-tier kickers and punters can leave their footprints on the outcome of a game, demanding a rare shimmer of respect from their harder-working teammates.
An NFL team is allowed to carry 53 players on its active roster, which means there are 1,696 jobs in total between the 32 franchises. Of those 1,696 jobs, starters on offense or defense account for 704, and specialists--punters, kickers and long snappers--take up 96. The rest of the NFL is left to fight over the remaining 896 job opportunities on NFL rosters.
What's the deciding factor for players on the bubble? Often, it's special teams.
By no means is special teams more important than an explosive offense or a dominant defense—the last two Super Bowl Champions ranked in the bottom-half of the league—but it can be the difference between winning or losing close games.
In such highly competitive games, special teams can be what "makes" or "breaks" a football team. Which teams are lacking, and which teams are loaded? Let's take a closer look at the special teams units for all 32 NFL teams.
Josh Scobee is currently one of the best kickers in the NFL.
P) Bryan Anger
K) Josh Scobee
KR) DuJuan Harris
2011 ST Rank) 31st
Jacksonville's offense was a train-wreck in Blaine Gabbert's rookie season, but the defense may be one of the NFL's best ten units. Their special teams looked more like the offense in 2011.
Punt returner Mike Thomas averaged an abysmal 4.6 yards on 19 returns, and the Jags didn't receive much more production from their kick returners. Deji Karim is now with the Colts, so 2nd year running back DuJuan Harris is expected to take the job after averaging 22.0 yards per kick return last season. Jacksonville has clearly made it a priority to improve its special teams by placing the franchise tag on Josh Scobee and spending the 70th overall pick on California punter Bryan Anger.
We'll see if the Jaguars' special teams moves pay off in 2012, but there's really (almost) nowhere to go but up from 31st in the league.
Moorman averaged 48.2 yards per punt last season.
P) Brian Moorman
K) Rian Lindell
KR) Brad Smith
2011 ST Rank) 26th
Buffalo started the 2011 season by going 5-2, but they won just one of their last nine games. And their 24th-ranked special teams certainly didn't do them any favors.
Brad Smith took a huge step back in production during his first season with the Bills. After averaging 31.0 and 28.6 yards per return, and scoring three touchdowns the previous two seasons. Smith averaged just 18.8 yards per kick return in 2011. Rian Lindell connected on 13 of 15 attempts but missed eight games to injury, while Brian Moorman continued his solid play, ranking 5th in the NFL with an average of 47.9 yards per punt.
Expectations are high for the Bills this year, and if they're going to rise to the top of the AFC East, an improved special teams unit is vital.
Brandon Banks is fast. Really, really fast.
P) Sav Rocca
K) Graham Gano
KR) Brandon Banks
2011 ST Rank) 27th
Washington struggled in every area in 2011, but they enter 2012 in hopes of having an improved offense, defense and special teams.
Sav Rocca ranked in the middle of the league in average yards per punt, net punting average and punts inside the 20, but Graham Gano had a more disappointing season as he converted only 31 of 41 field goal attempts. Gano was atrocious on kicks between 30-39 yards, connecting on just five of nine such kicks. Brandon Banks was equally as bad in the return game, as he averaged only 22.6 yards per kick return and 8.9 yards per punt return.
There isn't much to like about Washington's current special teams unit, but there's certainly a lot of room for improvement after being ranked 27th last season.
Josh Cribbs is a two-time All-Pro kick returner.
P) Reggie Hodges
K) Phil Dawson
KR) Josh Cribbs
2011 ST Rank) 32nd
It's never a good sign when the face of your franchise is a left tackle. And unfortunately for the Browns, Joe Thomas can't play special teams.
The team was dead-last in the NFL in special teams, as Phil Dawson ranked in the middle of the league after converting on 82.8 percent of his field goal attempts, but their production from punter Brad Maynard was far below average. The Browns signed journeyman Reggie Hodges to replace Maynard in 2012. Josh Cribbs has had a great career as a return man and had another successful campaign in 2011, averaging 11.8 yards per punt return and scoring a touchdown, and averaging 25.0 yards per kick return.
Cleveland figures to be a slightly improved unit behind Trent Richardson in 2012, but they'll need a vastly improved defense and special teams if they have any hopes of being competitive in the AFC North.
Ryan Succop has had a solid career after being Mr. Irrelevant.
P) Dustin Colquitt
K) Ryan Succop
KR) Javier Arenas
2011 ST Rank) 30th
Kansas City boasted the 11th-best defense in the NFL last season, but they were held back by an injury-riddled offense and a porous special teams unit.
The exception to the Chiefs' special teams struggles is punter Dustin Colquitt, who has been great since coming into the league in 2005. Colquitt ranked in the top 12 in terms of yards per punt, net average and punts inside the 20. Ryan Succop was not as good in 2011 as Colquitt, converting on just 63.6 percent of his attempts between 40 and 49 yards. Javier Arenas was terrific as a punt returner, averaging 12.8 yards per return, but he was unimpressive as a kick returner, averaging just 21.3 yards per return—28th in the NFL.
With several key players returning from injury, the Chiefs figure to be an improved team in all three facets.
Percy Harvin is one of the most feared return men in the NFL.
P) Chris Kluwe
K) Blair Walsh
KR) Percy Harvin
2011 ST Rank) 29th
Minnesota had a very forgettable 2011 season for a variety of reasons, perhaps the least of which being their 29th-ranked special teams unit.
Percy Harvin is a difference maker as a kick returner, but given the current depleted state of the Vikings' wide receivers, he'll likely continue to be seen as too valuable to play on special teams full-time, which would open the door for Marcus Sherels to take the job. Minnesota cut ties with Ryan Longwell, and they hope Blair Walsh can pick up right where Longwell left off. Chris Kluwe had a less than stellar 2011 season, but he was still right around league average in average yards per punt and net punting average.
Regardless of how much they utilize Harvin, the Vikings will likely be an improved special teams unit in 2012. We'll see how many wins that leads to.
Adam Vinatieri didn't have many opportunities to show his "clutch gene" in 2011.
P) Pat McAfee
K) Adam Vinatieri
KR) Joe Lefeged
2011 ST Rank) 16th
Indianapolis had its fair share of problems in 2011, starting with their four-time MVP quarterback missing the entire season to injury.
The Colts' kicking game, however, was not an issue by any means. Adam Vinatieri was consistent as usual, converting 85.2 percent of his field goal attempts. Pat McAfee was one of the top punters in the NFL last season, ranking in the top ten in yards per punt as well as net punting average. Top return man Joe Lefeged averaged just 4.7 yards per punt return and only 18.6 yards per kick return in 2011. In hopes of improving their return game, the Colts signed Quan Cosby to compete with Lefeged.
With a rookie quarterback, a new coach, and a new defensive scheme, an improved special teams would be crucial in guiding the Colts back on the winning path.
Danny Amendola returns to the field in 2012 as the Rams' primary return man.
P) Tom Malone
K) Greg Zuerlein
KR) Danny Amendola
2011 ST Rank) 25th
St. Louis took a massive step back as a team, and as a special teams unit, last season.
The Rams boasted one of the best special teams in the NFL in 2010, but they fell all the way to No. 25 in 2011. Danny Amendola's return from injury will surely improve the Rams' special teams unit this season. Josh Brown is no longer with the team, so St. Louis will look to either Greg Zuerlein or Garrett Lindholm to take over as the starting kicker. The Rams will also need a replacement for Donnie Jones at punter, and they'll look to Tom Malone or Johnny Hekker to compete for the job.
Playing in a winnable NFC West, an improved special teams unit would help a Rams offense that struggled mightily in 2011.
Olindo Mare enters his 16th NFL season, 2nd with Carolina.
P) Brad Nortman
K) Olindo Mare
KR) Kealoha Pilares
2011 ST Rank) 21st
Any conversation regarding the Panthers begins and ends with Cam Newton, who had an incredible rookie season filled with stat-stuffing performances and explosive plays.
Kealoha Pilares was a rather explosive kick returner last season, averaging 25.7 yards per return and returning one for a touchdown. Olindo Mare is heading into his 16th season in the NFL, and he's proven that he's still a somewhat reliable kicker after converting 22 of 28 attempts last year. The Panthers will turn to either Nick Harris or former Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman to be the starter since Jason Baker is no longer with the team.
Carolina's special teams ranked 10th in 2010 before falling to 21st last season, and with the NFC South wide open after the Saints' troubled offseason, the Panthers would benefit greatly from having a special teams unit similar to what they had in 2010.
DeSean Jackson is more receiver than returner, but he's great at both.
P) Chas Henry
K) Alex Henery
KR) Brandon Boykin
2011 ST Rank) 28th
Philadelphia enters 2012 under much different circumstances than they did in 2011. The Eagles are now simply a team hungry for success, without the pressure that came along with the "Dream Team" label.
DeSean Jackson is a dangerous return man when given the opportunity to play special teams, but he's too valuable to be the Eagles' top option at punt returner. Instead, Philadelphia will likely turn to rookie cornerback Brandon Boykin to be the team's top punt and kick returner. The Eagles received solid production from kicking game in 2011, with Alex Henery converting over 88 percent of his field goal attempts. Chas Henry could quite duplicate Henery's success, as he averaged just 42.9 yards per punt--well below the league average.
With the amount of talent on their roster, the Eagles will surely be a popular pick to go deep into the NFC Playoffs. An explosive special teams wouldn't hurt their chances to do some serious damage in their division.
Connor Barth missed only two kicks last season.
P) Michael Koenen
K) Connor Barth
KR) Preston Parker
2011 ST Rank) 18th
Tampa Bay was one of the NFL's biggest success stories in 2010, but they declined dramatically in 2011 in nearly every area.
Connor Barth enjoyed a stellar 2011 season, in which he converted 26 of his 28 field goal attempts, while Michael Koenen had a respectable 45.1-yard average per punt. The success of Tampa's kicking game did not extend to the return game, as Preston Parker left a lot to be desired after a largely unimpressive 2011 campaign. Parker averaged just 22.0 yards per kick return and 9.0 yards per punt return, which left him firmly planted in the bottom half of the league.
If the Bucs are going to take advantage of a wide open NFC South and contend for a division championship, they'll certainly hope to have an improved special teams unit.
Danieal Manning was a key addition to Houston's defense and special teams.
P) Donnie Jones
K) Neil Rackers
KR) Danieal Manning
2011 ST Rank) 17th
Houston's offense continued its impressive play in 2011, the defense rose dramatically from one of the league's worst to one of the best, and the Texans' special teams unit stayed right where they were in 2010 at 17th in the NFL.
Speedy return man Jacoby Jones left Houston for greener pastures in Baltimore, leaving Danieal Manning as the Texans' only proven kick returner, whereas Jones's shoes will be filled at punt returner by either Quintin Demps or Shiloh Keo. Neil Rackers was average by most standards, but converted on an impressive four of five kicks of at least 50 yards, while Donnie Jones ranked in the top-half of the league's punters in most statistical categories with the Rams last season.
If the offense and defense can maintain their 2011 form, perhaps the only thing the Texans need is a little help from their special teams to make a deep run into the playoffs.
McKnight averaged 31.6 yards per kick return last season.
P) T.J. Conley
K) Nick Folk
KR) Joe McKnight
2011 ST Rank) 24th
The Jets have been one of the hottest topics of the 2012 offseason, and not because of Rex Ryan. Instead, it's because they signed a new backup quarterback, who just might see some time on special teams.
Jets special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff is considered a bit of a special teams pioneer because of creativity and willingness to go against the norm. With Tim Tebow now in New York, Westhoff has a new asset that he hopes will improve his 24th-ranked unit from a year ago. The Jets' punter, T.J. Conley was very average, although his 32 punts inside the 20 yard-line were the 7th-most in the league, and their kicker, Nick Folk ranked 27th in the NFL with a 76 percent conversion rate. Kick returner Joe McKnight was absolutely electric in the return game, and he could be a candidate for an expanded role with the offense in 2012.
There are several questions surrounding the Jets as the 2012 season is set to begin, but nobody will talk about any of them. When you have a guy named Tebow on your team, whether he's a starter or a backup, he's all you talk about.
Rob Bironas hasn't missed more than five kicks in five straight seasons.
P) Brett Kern
K) Rob Bironas
KR) Marc Mariani
2011 ST Rank) 23rd
Tennessee quietly compiled nine impressive wins last season, and if not for their below average defense and special teams, the Titans may have made the playoffs.
Rob Bironas was his typically great self in 2011. He hasn't missed more than five field goal attempts in five consecutive seasons, and he hit on 90.6 percent of his kicks last season. Brett Kern was around league average in most statistical categories, but he tied for the league lead with 35 punts inside the 20. Marc Mariani isn't the biggest or the strongest guy in the league, but he's one of the NFL's better return men.
The Titans have made a handful key additions this offseason, and several newcomers will be asked to play on special teams.
Dan Bailey had an impressive rookie season with Dallas.
P) Chris Jones
K) Dan Bailey
KR) Dwayne Harris
2011 ST Rank) 22nd
There are certainly no questions surrounding the level of talent on the Dallas Cowboys roster, but they still have their fair share of issues headed into the 2012 season.
In limited opportunities, Dwayne Harris was stellar on kick returns as he averaged 28.9 yards per return. With Dez Bryant firmly entrenched as a starting wide receiver, his time on special teams is declining, leaving more opportunities for Harris as a return man. Dan Bailey had a very respectable season, converting 32 of 37 field goal attempts, while Chris Jones was less than impressive in his two appearances averaging only 41.5 yards per punt.
Dallas has as much talent as anyone, and an improved special teams unit could be enough to put them over the top in an ultra-competitive NFC East
Mike Nugent has been solid in his first two seasons in Cincinnati.
P) Kevin Huber
K) Mike Nugent
KR) Brandon Tate
2011 ST Rank) 14th
The headlines in Cincinnati last season were stolen by rookie sensations A.J. Green and Andy Dalton, but the Bengals were aided by an above-average special teams unit.
Cincinnati never attempted a field goal of over 50 yards, but Mike Nugent made the most of his opportunities by converting 33 of his 38 attempts--his 86.8 percent efficiency ranked 8th in the NFL. Kevin Huber was relatively average in most statistical categories among punters, but his 30 punts inside the 20 ranked him 8th in the league. Brandon Tate proved to be a respectable threat in the return game, as he returned a punt for a touchdown and averaged 10.8 yards per punt return.
The young Bengals play in an extremely tough division, and they could potentially suffer a bit of a sophomore slump, but a proficient special teams would certainly make things easier for the offense.
Hanson is still getting the job done for the Lions at age 42.
P) Ryan Donahue
K) Jason Hanson
KR) Stefan Logan
2011 ST Rank) 20th
Detroit enjoyed a resurgent 2011 season, making the playoffs for the first time since 1999. Detroit has a young corps on offense and defense, but their special teams is highlighted by a group of veterans.
Jason Hanson is old enough to be the father of some of his teammates, but he's proven to remain an effective kicker after converting five of seven field goal attempts over 50 yards last season. The Lions used three different punters in 2011 and saw limited success, so they'll hope either Ben Graham or Ryan Donahue separates from the other in training camp. Stefan Logan is a lightning bug as a return man, as he averaged 25.2 yards per kick return and 8.4 yards per punt return.
In terms of special teams, the Lions were tenth in the NFL in 2010 before falling to 20th in 2011. An improved special teams unit in 2012 would go a long ways in sustaining Detroit's recent success.
Matt Bryant has been terrific the past two seasons with Atlanta.
P) Matt Bosher
K) Matt Bryant
KR) Dominique Franks
2011 ST Rank) 13th
Atlanta is one of the most consistent teams in the NFL. Unfortunately, that theme extends to being one-and-done in the playoffs each of the past two years.
Consistency is one of strengths of kicker Matt Bryant, as he's converted over 90 percent of his field goal attempts in each of the past two seasons. Matt Bosher was in the bottom-half of punters in punting average and net yardage, but his 20 punts inside the 20 ranked 10th in the league. After becoming one of the best return men in the NFL with Atlanta, Eric Weems signed with the Chicago Bears this offseason and left a huge hole at both punt and kick returner for the Falcons. Dominique Franks is slated to step into Weems's shoes, but it's unlikely that he'll be able to play at the same Pro Bowl level that Weems had been playing at.
Atlanta boasted the best special teams unit in the NFL in 2010 before falling to 13th in 2011. They'll hope to be closer to the top this season if they want to reverse their misfortune in the playoffs.
Weatherford and Tynes are one of the best punter-kicker duos in th NFL.
P) Steve Weatherford
K) Lawrence Tynes
KR) Jerrel Jernigan
2011 ST Rank) 19th
The defending Super Bowl Champions are one of the most complete teams in the NFL in terms of offense, defense and special teams. Eli Manning enters 2012 coming off the best season of his career, in which he constantly came through for his team when they needed him most.
Lawrence Tynes has also had his fair share of clutch moments, but he was nothing more than average in 2011, hitting on just 19 of 24 field goal attempts. That same mediocrity was mirrored in the Giants' return game, and now last year's primary kick returner, Devin Thomas, and punt returner, Aaron Ross, are both playing elsewhere in 2012. The openings at kick and punt returner could mean additional opportunities for Jerrel Jernigan, a 3rd round pick in 2011. Steve Weatherford was the best part of New York's special teams in 2011, ranking in the top-half of the league's punters in most major statistical categories.
The Giants' offense is explosive and their defense is relentless. If their special teams can be anything more than average, they'll certainly be in position to repeat as Super Bowl Champs.
Antonio Brown was a Pro Bowl returner in 2011.
P) Jeremy Kapinos
K) Shaun Suisham
KR) Antonio Brown
2011 ST Rank) 12th
The Steelers have historically been known for their defense, but they've been a more complete squad since Big Ben arrived in Pittsburgh. However, before last season, their special teams has not been nearly as good as their offense or defense.
From 2008-2010, Pittsburgh's special teams unit ranked 29th, 27th and 30th in the NFL. Last year, the Steelers rose all the way to No. 12 in the league, with much of the credit going to Pro Bowl returner Antonio Brown. According to Pro Football Focus, Brown graded out behind only Darren Sproles as the league's most effective return man. Pittsburgh's kicking game, however, wasn't nearly up to the level of its return game. Jeremy Kapinos ranked towards the bottom of the league in his eight games, while Shaun Suisham had a forgettable season, converting only six of 13 attempts from 40 yards or more, and just 74.2 percent total.
The Steelers hope competition from undrafted rookies Drew Butler and Danny Hrapmann will benefit Kapinos and Suisham, and if it does, Pittsburgh's special teams will continue its upward trend that began last season.
Patrick Peterson exploded onto the scene in 2011.
P) Dave Zastudil
K) Jay Feely
KR) Patrick Peterson
2011 ST Rank) 15th
The Cardinals selected Patrick Peterson with the 5th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft in hopes that he'd one day become a shutdown cornerback. They probably never expected him to be the league's top return man as a rookie.
Peterson averaged an impressive 15.9 yards per punt return, which ranked 2nd to only Devin Hester, but Peterson's four punt return touchdowns trump Hester's two. Arizona is home to another dynamic return man in kick returner LaRod Stephens-Howling, who seems to make the most of every opportunity he's given. Kicker Jay Feely was better on kickoffs than field goals, ranking 7th in the NFL in average distance per kickoff, while Dave Zastudil was a steady, albeit unspectacular, punter in 2011.
Sometimes an explosive return game is enough to carry a team into the playoffs, and with several question marks surrounding Arizona's quarterback situation, the Cardinals may go as far as Peterson can carry them.
Kaeding was one of the best kickers in the NFL before a season-ending injury in 2011.
P) Mike Scifres
K) Nate Kaeding
KR) Eddie Royal
2011 ST Rank) 9th
It's hard to find a better example of "feast or famine" than with the San Diego Chargers. They have the talent, and they've been close, but they never seem to put a full season together.
San Diego's special teams experienced a dramatic increase last season. After ranking 30th in the NFL in 2010, the Chargers rose all the way to 9th in 2011. This dramatic improvement was in spite of losing starting kicker Nate Kaeding in the first game of the season. Nick Novak stepped into Kaeding's shoes and was one of only ten kickers to convert at least four field goals of at least fifty yards. Chargers punter Mike Scifres is one of the best in the league, as he's ranked in the top ten in terms of punting average in each of the past four seasons. After adding Eddie Royal and Roscoe Parrish, San Diego's return game should be an improved unit as well.
If Philip Rivers can bounce back from a poor 2011 season, and if San Diego's special teams can continue its solid play, the Chargers could play spoiler to Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in the AFC West.
Sproles is just as dangerous on special teams as he is on offense.
P) Thomas Morstead
K) Garrett Hartley
KR) Darren Sproles
2011 ST Rank) 3rd
In a passing league, no position is more important than quarterback, and if an explosive offensive team also boasts a strong special teams unit, the results can be monumental. And it certainly appears the Saints are one of those teams.
Garrett Hartley is expected to be the team's starting kicker after missing the entire 2011 season with a hip injury. Veteran kicker John Kasay proved to be a solid replacement by going a perfect 21/21 on field goals between 20 and 39 yards. Thomas Morstead was a respectable punter, but his biggest asset to the Saints is on kickoffs—Morstead booted 16 more touchbacks than any other kicker in the league. Darren Sproles was as effective on special teams as he was on offense last year, averaging 10.1 yards per punt return and 27.2 yards per kick return.
Having an elite kicking game is one thing, but having a game-breaker in the return game is another. The presence of Sproles gives New Orleans one of the best special teams units in the NFL.
Leon Washington is one of the most dangerous returners in the NFL.
P) Jon Ryan
K) Steven Hauschka
KR) Leon Washington
2011 ST Rank) 8th
After addressing its most glaring need, which happens to be football's most important position, the Seahawks hope to soar to new heights with a new quarterback under center.
Seattle's special teams is headlined by Leon Washington, who undoubtedly ranks among the top return men in the NFL having scored seven return touchdowns in six seasons. After scoring three touchdowns on kick returns in 2010 and averaging 25.6 yards per kick return and 11.3 per punt return, Washington mirrored his 11.3-yard punt return average and dipped by less than a yard in kick return average last season. Steven Hauschka was right around the league average among kickers, while punter Jon Ryan was 8th in the NFL in yards per punt at 46.6.
The Seahawks have quietly assembled a very solid defense, and if their offense can play at the same level as their defense and special teams, Seattle could be a threat in the NFC West.
Randall Cobb is a dynamic return man for the Packers.
P) Tim Masthay
K) Mason Crosby
KR) Randall Cobb
2011 ST Rank) 11th
Coming off a victory in Super Bowl XLV, the Packers won 13 consecutive games and coasted to a 15-1 regular season record in 2011. They were one-and-done in the postseason, but their improved special teams unit was not to blame for their early exit.
After Green Bay ranked just 27th in special teams in their Super Bowl season, the Packers rose all the way to No. 11. Their improvement was due in part to Mason Crosby's improvement, converting 24/28 field goals last season, while punter Tim Masthay has steadily ranked in the top-half of NFL punters over the past two seasons. The biggest difference between Green Bay's special teams last season was the addition of Randall Cobb to the return game. Cobb burst on to the scene with an electric kick return in his first career game against New Orleans, and he housed a punt return against the Minnesota Vikings.
The Packers have perhaps the league's most explosive offense, and their defense has been known to find the end-zone themselves. Now with Cobb in the mix, the Packers are a threat to score no matter what group is on the field.
Gostkowski has been one of the most consistent kickers in football for six years.
P) Zoltan Mesko
K) Stephen Gostkowski
KR) Julian Edelman
2011 ST Rank) 7th
Special teams directly influences, and field position is always important. But with Tom Brady at quarterback, a longer field simply means more stat-stacking drives.
Still, the Patriots' special teams unit was very effective last season. Stephen Gostkowski has been very consistent since coming into the league, and he was an obvious difference-maker on kickoffs last season. Gostkowski kicked off more than all but two players last season, and the average starting position of the Patriots' opponents was 19.8. Zoltan Mesko ranked 10th in the NFL with an average of 46.4 yards per punt and ranked third in net yardage with 41.4. New England doesn't necessarily have a "game-breaker" in the return game, but Julian Edelman was the 13th most effective returner last season according to Pro Football Focus.
Whether they need better field position or not, the Patriots' special teams should be every bit as good as they were last season with all their key figures returning.
Dan Carpenter enjoyed an impressive 2011 campaign.
P) Brandon Fields
K) Dan Carpenter
KR) Lamar Miller
2011 ST Rank) 5th
According to Pro Football Focus, Miami was a top-five special teams unit last year, which really says something about the Dolphins' offense and defense considering they were just 6-10.
After trading No. 1 receiver Brandon Marshall to Chicago and replacing him with declining veteran Chad Johnson, Davone Bess will likely see an expanded role as a wide receiver and a lesser role as a return man. As a result, Miami may turn to rookie Lamar Miller or second-year speedster Clyde Gates to be the team's primary returner. In the kicking game, Dan Carpenter was second to only Connor Barth on kicks between 40-49 yards, converting on 11/12 of such attempts. Brandon Fields quietly ranked among the league's best punters, as his 48.8-yard average per punt ranked 3rd in the NFL.
The Dolphins neglected more pressing needs with the 8th pick in this year's draft and instead selected quarterback Ryan Tannehill. With an abundance of questions surrounding the Dolphins on both sides of the ball, their special teams unit will be relied upon yet again in 2012.
Billy Cundiff was much better in 2010 than he was last season.
P) Sam Koch
K) Billy Cundiff
KR) David Reed
2011 ST Rank) 10th
The Ravens roll behind a Ray on defense, and a Ray on offense, and as a result of their dominance, Baltimore's special teams tends to be overshadowed.
Billy Cundiff was the fourth-best overall kicker in the NFL last year according to Pro Football Focus, and he trailed only Thomas Morstead and Matt Prater on kickoffs. Cundiff was the bright spot of the Ravens' special teams unit last year, but Sam Koch ranked in the top-half of the league's punters in nearly every statistic. Kick returner David Reed missed time to injury, but he averaged 29.7 yards per kick return—third in the NFL among players who played in at least seven games. Reed may be asked to return some punts this year with Lardarius Webb emerging as a top-tier cornerback.
Baltimore ranked 10th in special teams last year, but if they can return to their 2010 form, in which they ranked 3rd, the Ravens could be the most complete team in the NFL in terms of offense, defense and special teams.
Janikowski & Lechler have been a dynamic duo since 2000.
P) Shane Lechler
K) Sebastian Janikowski
KR) Jacoby Ford
2011 ST Rank) 6th
As great as the Chicago Bears have been in the return game over the past several years, the Oakland Raiders have been similarly dominant in the kicking game.
The 2000 NFL Draft was, is, and always will be unforgettable for Raiders fans. Al Davis infamously used the 17th overall pick on kicker Sebastian Janikowski, then grabbed punter Shane Lechler with the 142nd overall pick in hopes of having a top-notch, reliable kicking game. And although drafting a kicker in the first round is a head-scratching philosophy, Janikowski and Lechler's ten combined All-Pro selections speak volumes to their abilities. With a healthy Jacoby Ford returning to the field in a competitive AFC West, Oakland's special teams unit could flourish in 2012.
The two-headed monster known as "Lechlekowski" is sure to win its fair share of field position battles. How many actual wins that leads to remains to be seen.
Matt Prater was terrific for Denver in 2011.
P) Britton Colquitt
K) Matt Prater
KR) Matt Willis
2011 ST Rank) 1st
With all due respect to Tim and the Tebowciples, the Broncos' special teams had as much to do with their late season surge as their heavily publicized former quarterback.
Matt Prater was consistently at his best in the clutch, while his distance on kickoffs was unrivaled—only 27.5% of his kickoffs were returned. Prater's partner in the kicking game, Britton Colquitt, was the best punter in the NFL last season according to Pro Football Focus, leading the league in punts inside the 20. With Eddie Royal in San Diego, Matt Willis or rookie Omar Bolden will likely be the team's primary kick returner. But even without a game-breaking returner, Denver was able to win special teams battles with an elite kicking game.
Peyton Manning is expected to give the Broncos a new and improved identity on offense, but don't overlook the impact that a consistent special teams unit could have on Denver's lofty expectations in 2012.
Devin Hester is likely the best return man in NFL history.
P) Adam Podlesh
K) Robbie Gould
KR) Devin Hester
2011 ST Rank) 4th
With perhaps the best return man of all-time on their side, the Bears have boasted one of the league's best special teams for the past decade.
Devin Hester has 17 career touchdowns on punt and kick returns—the most in NFL history. His presence alone has caused opponents to sacrifice field position by punting the ball out of bounds instead of allowing Hester to touch the ball. With an expanded role as a wide receiver, Hester will get fewer opportunities as a return man after the Bears signed former Pro Bowl returner Eric Weems as a free agent, but keeping Hester off the field on special teams would be like taking a guitar away from Jimi Hendrix. Combined with a solid kicking game in Gould and Podlesh, there's no reason to think Chicago's special teams unit will be anything less than stellar in 2012.
With a dominant defense and explosive special teams, the Bears once made it all the way to the Super Bowl with Rex Grossman at quarterback. Now with a complete offense, the arrow of potential is pointing up in Chicago.
David Akers was stellar for the 49ers in 2011.
P) Andy Lee
K) David Akers
KR) Ted Ginn
2011 ST Rank) 2nd
Between a kicker, punter and return man, the league's most dangerous three-headed monster likely lives in San Francisco.
Pro Football Focus ranked David Akers as the league's best kicker in 2011, as the former Philadelphia Eagle led the NFL with 44 made field goals—11 more than the next player on the list. Among all of Akers' accomplishments last season, his 7/9 conversion rate on field goals of 50 yards or longer may be his most impressive feat. 49ers punter Andy Lee led the NFL with a booming 50.9 average per punt, while Ted Ginn was in the top five in both kick return and punt return average last season among players who played in at least ten games.
With a mediocre quarterback and a heavy reliance on the running game, field position carries a heightened level of importance. With the current state of the 49ers' special teams, it certainly seems like a reliable recipe for success.