Best Special Teams Prospects of the 2014 NFL Draft
Teams often overlook the third phase of the game leading up to the NFL draft, but a number of players are drafted every year for their ability to stand out on special teams.
A total of 12 kickers and 10 punters have been selected in the last five NFL drafts. Other players have been selected specifically because of their ability to return kicks or punts, contribute on kickoff- and punt-coverage teams or long snap the ball.
Returners and role players typically emerge from the pool of players who are already considered draftable for their skills at another position, but some clearly defined special teams standouts display enough excellence in that capacity to warrant a draft selection.
Any team that is looking to come away from this year’s draft with a new punter, kicker and/or return specialist should have some of the following players on its radar.
Tom Hornsey, P, Memphis
Looking to become the next in a growing line of Australian natives to find success as NFL punters, Memphis’ Tom Hornsey is arguably the top prospect at his position in this year’s draft class.
The 2013 Ray Guy Award winner, he emerged as the best punter in college football in his senior season. He averaged 45.16 yards per punt this past season, the seventh most in the FBS, despite not always having effective punt protection.
He has a powerful leg and can punt the ball deep to flip the field when he is punting from his own territory. He also punts well under pressure, even if that means quickly moving toward the sideline and/or using a rugby-style punt.
With 101 career punts inside the 20-yard line, Hornsey has also displayed impressive control on his punts to place opponents near the goal line.
For a team that is looking to upgrade at punter, he would be a strong investment on the draft’s third day.
Pat O’Donnell, P, Miami
After four years at Cincinnati, Pat O’Donnell transferred to Miami (Fla.) for his redshirt senior season and proved he had one of the strongest legs among college football punters.
O’Donnell, who ranked second in the FBS this past season with an average of 47.13 yards per punt, can flip the field with his long-distance punts, even when he's backed up deep in his own territory.
He also does a great job of angling his punts to control the direction that the ball travels. He isn’t great at putting backspin on the ball, which resulted in nine touchbacks in 2013, but he still managed to pin his opponents inside the 20-yard line on 19 of his 53 punts in his year with the Hurricanes.
A 6’4”, 220-pound athlete who ran a 4.64-second 40-yard dash and recorded 23 repetitions on the bench press at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine, O’Donnell passes the eyeball test. Also a kickoff specialist for both Cincinnati and Miami, he recorded 37 touchbacks in that capacity in 2013, although he might not be good enough on kickoffs to continue doing it for an NFL team.
Altogether, his physical tools and production make a strong case for him being the top punter prospect in this year’s draft class.
Nate Freese, K, Boston College
Only one kicker in the Football Bowl Subdivision was perfect last year, and that was Boston College’s Nate Freese.
He made all 20 of his field-goal attempts, including two from more than 50 yards out, in his senior year. He even made every kick he attempted at Boston College’s pro day.
He has a small body, but that doesn’t mean he can’t generate power on his kicks. In 2013, Freese ranked sixth in the FBS with an average of 64.16 yards per kickoff, fifth with 51 touchbacks and fourth with a 69.86 touchback percentage.
He has proved his reliability kicking the ball from both short and long distances and deserves a shot at an NFL kicking job.
Chandler Catanzaro, K, Clemson
Few college football kickers, if any, have come up bigger for their teams in recent years than Clemson’s Chandler Catanzaro.
Having made all but one of his field-goal attempts in each of the past two seasons, he has been reliable. He has also had multiple memorably clutch kicks, the most notable being his 37-yard field goal straight down the middle of the uprights to win the Chick-fil-A Bowl as midnight lurked on New Year’s Eve 2012.
He has been just as dependable on long kicks as he is on short attempts, but his leg strength could come into question. Never a full-time kickoff specialist at Clemson, he has just one touchback in 25 career kickoffs. The longest field goal of his career is just 51 yards.
Nonetheless, Catanzaro would be one of the best options in this year’s draft for any team that is looking for an upgrade at field-goal kicker.
Chris Boswell, K, Rice
Arguably the best long-distance kicker in this year’s draft, Rice’s Chris Boswell might be the first one to come off the board.
With 13 made field goals from 50 yards or more over the course of his four-year collegiate career, Boswell has a proven ability to kick the ball from deep. He also excels on kickoffs, as he had the FBS’ second-best touchback percentage (72.15) for the 2013 season.
But while Boswell’s leg power shouldn’t come into question, his field-goal accuracy might. He made just 66.7 percent of his field-goal attempts as a senior and just 73.8 percent for his career.
Part of the reason his field-goal percentages were lower than most FBS kickers, however, was that he attempted 22 field goals from beyond 50 yards in his Rice career, including six in his senior season. He’s a risky investment for a field-goal kicker, but his range could entice a team to draft him.
Cairo Santos, K, Tulane
A disappointing senior season hurt Cairo Santos’ draft stock, but the Tulane kicker should still warrant consideration as a possible late-round selection.
The 2012 Lou Groza Award winner, Santos made all 21 field goals he attempted as a junior. He took a disappointing step back in 2013, however, making just 16 of 23 attempts.
Like Boswell, he went 2-of-6 on field goals that were 50 yards or longer in his senior season, which hurt his field-goal percentage. His leg strength is no problem: he made 56- and 57-yard field goals in his collegiate career and led the FBS with a 75.81 touchback percentage on kickoffs in 2013.
If an NFL team is going to draft Santos to be its next kicker, it’s going to have to look past his disappointing final year, which finished with him missing a potential game-tying 48-yard field goal at the end of regulation in the New Orleans Bowl. Nonetheless, his strong leg and 2012 accolades should be enough to intrigue teams in need at the position.
Dri Archer, KR, Kent State
Despite being used on just two kickoff returns and no punt returns in a reduced role this past season, Kent State’s Dri Archer has arguably the highest upside of any potential return specialist in this year’s draft class.
Returners are often chosen because of their speed. Having run a 4.26-second 40-yard dash at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine, Archer has no shortage of that. He also has very good lateral agility and can make defenders miss with sharp cuts in the open field.
Although he only had two returns in his senior year, one of them was for a touchdown. He had three kickoff-return touchdowns and led the nation with a 34.76 kickoff return average in 2012.
He is a special athlete, but as he is undersized for a running back (5’8”, 173 lbs) and raw as both a route-runner and pass-catcher, his best opportunity to make an immediate impact for the NFL team that drafts him might be on kickoff returns.
Chris Davis, KR/PR, Auburn
Chris Davis made one of the most memorable special teams plays of not only last season but in recent college football history when he returned a missed field goal 109 yards, from one end zone to the other, for a game-winning play to stun then-undefeated Alabama at the end of regulation in this year’s Iron Bowl.
He never actually handled full-time kickoff return duties during his Auburn career, but he showed potential in that capacity on that unforgettable play. An explosive athlete who has good speed and agility in the open field, he is a big-play threat anytime the ball is in his hands.
As a punt returner, Davis has demonstrated his ability to excel with more consistency. He ranked third in the FBS this past season with an 18.71-yard punt-return average and also had an 85-yard punt-return touchdown against Tennessee.
With good athleticism, ball skills and instincts, Davis has enough skill as a cornerback prospect to be selected in the middle rounds, but his additional value as a returner could be enough to push him into the draft’s top 100 selections.
Odell Beckham Jr., KR/PR, LSU
If LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr. is selected among the top picks in this year’s draft, it won’t only be because of his skills as a wide receiver. A true triple threat, he should be considered one of the most dynamic playmakers in the draft. In addition to being a terrific pass-catcher, he is also an excellent kickoff and punt returner.
A terrific athlete with top-end speed, he is a shifty runner who uses his vision to find open running lanes. Once he gets a head of steam with the ball in his hands, he can be tough to stop, and even at the next level, there won’t be many players who can catch him on a breakaway.
In his first year handling full-time kickoff-return duties in 2013, Beckham averaged 26.41 yards per return. He also has an impressive track record as a punt returner, including two touchdowns in that capacity in 2012.
Expected to be an immediate starting wide receiver on an NFL offense, Beckham won’t necessarily be used as a kickoff and punt returner at the next level, but it’s likely that any team that wants to draft him early plans to maximize his value. His additional special teams value makes his case for being a potential top-10 selection.
Jalen Saunders, PR, Oklahoma
Like the aforementioned Dri Archer, Jalen Saunders is a tiny player by NFL standards (5’9”, 165 lbs), but he is an explosive athlete who can be electric with the ball in his hands.
While he has skill as a slot receiver, his forte at the next level could be returning punts. A sudden cutter, he bursts upon catching the ball, accelerates to speed rapidly and has the open-field moves to make defenders miss.
Saunders was only a full-time punt returner for one season at Oklahoma, but he scored two touchdowns and averaged 15.4 yards per return. With three total punt-return touchdowns in his career, he has made it evident that he can be a big-play threat on special teams.
Size limitations are likely to push him down into the fifth or sixth round of the draft, but his ability to return punts could set him apart from some of the talented receiver prospects in this year’s draft.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.
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