Power Ranking All 32 NFL Special Teams Units Post-Draft

Alessandro Miglio@@AlexMiglioFeatured ColumnistMay 17, 2014

Power Ranking All 32 NFL Special Teams Units Post-Draft

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    USA TODAY Sports

    How important is the special teams unit to an NFL team's success?

    Some say special teams are simply one-third of the game, equally as important as the offense and defense. Others say special teams are overrated.

    Whatever the case may be, there are teams that do it better than others. Here are the special teams units of the NFL, ranked with regard to their kicking, punting and return games.

32. Washington Redskins

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    Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

    The Washington Redskins' special teams unit needs some work. Why else would general manager Bruce Allen draft kicker Zach Hocker out of Arkansas? Hocker made 86.7 percent of his field goals last season at Arkansas, better than Kai Forbath for Washington.

    The best returners in Washington last season were Santana Moss, who was 30th in punt return yardage, and Niles Paul, who ranked 27th in kick returns. They should reprise those roles this year, though it remains to be seen how a new coaching regime might improve things in that department.

    Washington theoretically improved at punter by signing Robert Malone to replace Sav Rocca, who was among the worst in the league with a 42-yard punting average. Malone had the distinction of having the league's longest punt last year—an 84-yard boomer.

31. Oakland Raiders

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    The Raiders have a big-name kicker with an increasingly unreliable leg in Sebastian Janikowski.

    Seabass connected on just 70 percent of his field goal attempts last season, though 18 of them were from 40 yards or beyond. Janikowski might be on his last leg in the NFL.

    Second-year punter Marquette King was a nice find for the Raiders as he led the league with a punting average of 48.9 yards per punt. Only 23 wound up inside the 20 and five inside the 10, though, something to be improved upon in his third season. 

30. Houston Texans

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    Patric Schneider/Associated Press

    Quietly, Keshawn Martin was fourth in the league with 947 kick return yards and sixth with 345 punt return yards. Not too shabby for the second-year receiver.

    Randy Bullock had a brutal season for the Houston Texans, hitting on just 73 percent of his field-goal attempts. Yet he remains on the roster.

    Rookie Chris Boswell, with his 73.7 career field-goal percentage, doesn't seem like stiff competition, meaning the Texans might be stuck with one of the worst kickers in the league.

    Of course, Bullock could bounce back like Mason Crosby did for the Green Bay Packers, or the team could sign someone off the street if Bullock is bad again. Shane Lechler was ousted in Oakland, but Houston found he still had plenty of leg in him, as he averaged 47.6 yards per punt. Unfortunately, his net average was just 40 yards per punt, meaning the Texans weren't able to contain returners very well.

29. Buffalo Bills

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    Bill Wippert/Associated Press

    The Buffalo Bills drafted Dustin Hopkins to kick last season and then promptly signed Dan Carpenter. The latter wound up kicking all season. Of course, an injury was to blame—a groin injury sidelined Hopkins and ultimately put him on injured reserve. Carpenter hit on 91.7 percent of his field-goal attempts.

    Buffalo's punters weren't as successful, averaging a middling 45.5 yards per punt, though the 42.9 net average Brian Moorman and Shaun Powell combined to put up was good for sixth in the league.

    The return game was abysmal. Despite all that speed, receiver and former track star Marquise Goodwin averaged just 21.9 yards per kickoff return. Leodis McKelvin didn't fare much better as a punt returner, averaging just 5.6 yards per return.

    The Bills need some work to become a quality special teams unit all around.

28. Arizona Cardinals

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    L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

    Two years after making some heart-stopping punt returns as a rookie, cornerback Patrick Peterson has fallen back to Earth in that department. He averaged a measly six yards per punt return with a long of 22 yards in 2013, a far cry from his four-touchdown campaign in 2011.

    That's OK. He has only grown to become one of the best cornerbacks in the league. 

    Should Peterson continue punt return duties given his importance on defense? The Arizona Cardinals must have asked themselves that question this offseason, which would be why Ted Ginn Jr. was brought in to handle kick return duties.

    Ginn has a healthy career average of 11.2 yards per punt return, and he has six combined touchdowns in the return game. He should be solid in both respects for the Cardinals next season.

27. New Orleans Saints

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    Jonathan Bachman/Associated Press

    The good news is that Garrett Hartley isn't around to miss easy field goals for the New Orleans Saints anymore. The bad news is that Shayne Graham is penciled in as the starting kicker for the Saints.

    Graham did hit 100 percent of his field goals last season, but he only took two attempts. The 36-year-old is on his seventh team in the past four years for a reason.

    One big hit the Saints took this offseason was losing Darren Sproles, trusted returner. It will be interesting to see who handles those duties in 2014. 

    At least Thomas Morstead is still around. The Saints punter was eighth in the league last season with a punting average of 46.9 yards per punt.

26. Tennessee Titans

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    The Tennessee Titans averaged a healthy 24.4 yards per kickoff return last season, good for 10th in the league. Unfortunately, they averaged a dismal six yards per punt return, one of the worst marks in the NFL.

    The good news is that punt returns were better with Leon Washington back deep—he averaged 13 yards per punt return, though he only had six chances last season—and he is back to shore up Tennessee's return game.

    At kicker, the Titans will be in uncharted territory relative to the past decade, during which Rob Bironas and his steady leg held kicking duties. Second-year kicker Maikon Bonani and rookie Travis Coons look like they will fight for the job.

    Meanwhile, punter Brett Kern will keep his job despite being average at best. Go figure.

25. Miami Dolphins

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    The Miami Dolphins employ arguably the best punter in the league.

    Brandon Fields has been near the leaderboard in punting average for several years now, leading the league with a whopping 50.2 yards per punt in 2012. He narrowly missed out on doing the same last year, placing second to Oakland's Marquette King with 48.8 yards per punt.

    Last season, Miami replaced Dan Carpenter with rookie Caleb Sturgis, who had his ups and downs. He wound up near the bottom of the league with a 76.5 percent field-goal accuracy. That particularly stung given that Carpenter tied for 10th by hitting 91.7 percent.

    Marcus Thigpen has made a post-CFL career for himself as a return man for the Dolphins. Miami was 11th in punt return average with 9.7 yards per return, but it was in the middle of the pack on kickoff returns, averaging just 22.9 yards per return.

    If Sturgis improves in his second season, the Dolphins will have a solid all-around special teams unit.

24. New York Giants

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    Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    The New York Giants' best returner may not play football anymore. David Wilson's scary neck issue might keep him out of football indefinitely. Even if it doesn't, it's hard to imagine the team exposing him to the dangers of returning kicks if he comes back.

    Now that the Giants have tantalizing return man Trindon Holliday in the fold, however, they needn't worry about such things. If Holliday somehow misses the cut, rookie Odell Beckham Jr. could take on return duties, having averaged 25.1 and 9.3 yards per kickoff and punt return, respectively, in college.

    Aside from likely being the most physically fit punter in the league, Steve Weatherford is pretty good at his job. His toned abs helped him average 47.2 yards per punt, good for seventh in the league.

    Like his predecessor, Lawrence Tynes, Josh Brown was a solid kicker with a relatively weak leg. The Giants attempted only two field goals of 50 yards or longer, and Brown hit one of them.

23. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Reinhold Matay/Associated Press

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave kicker Connor Barth and punter Michael Koenen huge contracts for their positions a couple of seasons ago. 

    It was a big head-scratcher, particularly for Koenen, who wasn't terribly good when the Bucs gave him six years and $19.5 million. Predictably, Koenen was in the bottom third of the league last season with a 44.2-yard punting average.

    The return on investment on Barth hasn't been much better. He fell off his career field-goal percentage in the first year of his deal, then tore his Achilles at a charity basketball event, causing him to miss the 2013 season. Barth is healthy again, though, and he should be a solid kicker going forward.

    That would be welcome news for the Buccaneers, whose initial replacement for Barth, Tynes, had a nightmare bout with the MRSA virus that plagued the organization last year.

    On returns, Tampa Bay was next to last with an abysmal 18.8 yards per kickoff return, though the Buccaneers were seventh in punt returns with a 11.2-yard return average.

    Receiver Preston Parker handled those duties last season, but he is no longer with the team. Eric Page figures to take over that role for now, but there is nothing to get terribly excited about in Tampa Bay when it comes to special teams.

22. Indianapolis Colts

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    Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

    Indianapolis Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri deserves to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. The problem is that he is closer to joining the Hall of Fame than he is to putting up the credentials that will get him in. That is not to say Vinatieri isn't solid—he made 87.5 percent of his field goals last season, after all—but he isn't the Super Bowl-clinching hero of old.

    Alright, maybe we are holding his past against him. Vinatieri is still one of the more solid kickers in the game at the end of the day.

    Colts punter Pat McAfee is more than just solid, he's been one of the best punters in the league over the past several seasons. His 46-yard average was a bit below expectations last year, but he should bounce back if history is any indication.

21. Philadelphia Eagles

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    Tim Donnelly/Associated Press

    When the Philadelphia Eagles cut DeSean Jackson, they didn't just lose their top receiver—they lost their most dynamic punt returner too. 

    Well, that would have been the case a couple of years ago. Jackson had just 71 punt return yards last season, despite his prowess. The Eagles were among the worst teams in the league with an eight-yard punt return average last season.

    However, Sproles comes over from the Saints, bringing along his return skills. Philadelphia should see an uptick in that department as a result.

    Alex Henery and Donnie Jones were in the middle of the pack in punting average and field-goal accuracy last season, and they're back for more in 2014. 

20. Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Were it not for Antonio Brown, the Pittsburgh Steelers might be ranked much lower here.

    The star receiver is also a great punt returner. He nearly single-handedly delivered a last-second win against the Dolphins last season on a punt return in which he infamously and narrowly stepped out of bounds.

    Brown had the third-most punt return yards at a healthy clip of 12.8 yards per return, scoring one touchdown along the way. It will be interesting to see if the Steelers continue to use him in that capacity given that he has also become their top receiver.

    Kicker Shaun Suisham has defied the Pittsburgh wind to become one of the more reliable kickers in the league. He was fourth last season with a 93.2 percent accuracy in field goals.

    The drag on the special teams unit comes from the punter spot, where the Steelers were dead last in 2013. Pittsburgh brought in former LSU star Brad Wing—who couldn't make a team last year—and Adam Podlesh, who personally finished last in punting average last season.

    If Wing delivers on college potential, the unit will be a strong triumvirate. If not, well, Pittsburgh has been down that road before.

19. Denver Broncos

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    Sadly for the Denver Broncos, Trindon Holliday took his 1,046 combined return yards to New York this offseason, leaving a big hole in the return game. Wes Welker and Omar Bolden are unlikely to give Denver the dangerous excitement Holliday brought to the table, though other players could step into return roles before the season.

    One thing the Broncos do still have going for them is their stadium, where the thin air has helped the team be one of the league leaders in kickoff touchbacks. Behind the leg of kicker Matt Prater, Denver was second in the league with a 73.2 percent touchback rate on kickoffs.

    The thin air didn't help Britton Colquitt too much in the punting department, however, as he averaged 44.5 yards per punt, ranking him in the middle of the pack.

18. Carolina Panthers

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    The Carolina Panthers have the distinction of having the highest touchback percentage in the league on kickoffs. As silly as that may sound, fewer kickoff returns means fewer chances the opponent will have a big return, not to mention the reduction in injury risk.

    Graham Gano bounced back with a solid season, making field goals at an 88.9 percent clip. Brad Nortman was among the best punters in the league, averaging 47.8 yards per punt and 41.6 net yards per punt. 

    Unfortunately, Ted Ginn Jr. skipped town, leaving a hole at returner for the Panthers. Kenjon Barner might step into that role, but we probably won't know until the preseason.

17. Cleveland Browns

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    Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

    If Travis Benjamin can make it back from a torn ACL in time to start the season—and the Cleveland Browns choose to have him reprise his role on special teams—the Browns will have a great punt return game.

    Benjamin averaged 11.7 yards per punt return before the injury, including a touchdown. It will be interesting to see what happens there.

    Punter Spencer Lanning and kicker Billy Cundiff were in the middle of the pack in punting average and field-goal percentage last season.

16. Cincinnati Bengals

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    The Cincinnati Bengals have a solid but uninspiring special teams unit. Receiver Brandon Tate was among the league leaders in kick return yardage last season with 914. He also had 336 punt return yards, averaging 26.1 and 9.3 yards per kick and punt return, respectively. 

    Mike Nugent was almost right at his career average in hitting 81.8 percent of his field goals last season, while punter Kevin Huber was in the middle of the pack with a 45.2-yard punting average.

15. San Diego Chargers

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    After years of Nate Kaeding nailing kicks for the San Diego Chargers, the team has gotten a nice surprise in Nick Novak over the past couple of seasons. Before then, Novak had hit on just 72.9 percent of his field-goal attempts in the NFL. He will be back, and the Chargers hope he brings his sparkly 91.9 percent accuracy back with him.

    Punter Mike Scifres, however, is another story.

    Scifres was among the worst in the league with a 43.2-yard punting average last season, a sharp decline from the season before but closer to his career average. Rookie Chase Tenpenny was brought in to push Scifres, presumably.

    San Diego had the most kickoff return yardage last season, but that's more because it allowed so many scores on defense than the quality of the returns, though averaging 24.8 yards per return is pretty good.

14. Atlanta Falcons

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    The Atlanta Falcons offer a no-frills special teams unit.

    Punter Matt Bosher is solid, having averaged 46.6 yards per punt last season. Kicker Matt Bryant nailed 88.9 percent of his field goals. They ranked ninth and 14th, respectively, in those categories.

    Bosher did help Atlanta have the fifth-highest touchback percentage on kickoffs, a nice bonus for the punter out of Miami.

    Jacquizz Rodgers helped the Falcons get to eighth in kickoff return average at 24.8 yards per kick return, but Atlanta was near the bottom of the league with a 7.6-yard punt return average last season. Throw that all out the window, though—return ace Devin Hester is in town.

    Hester led the league in kickoff return yardage last season, proving he's still got it despite not being quite the return man he once was. 

13. Detroit Lions

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    The Detroit Lions might have issues at kicker, but they got markedly better in the return game during the offseason.

    Receiver Golden Tate brings his return skills over from the Seahawks, dramatically improving the punt return unit. He was second in the league last season with 585 return yards, averaging a healthy 11.5 yards per punt return. 

    That is, of course, if Jeremy Ross isn't handling all the return duties. He was solid 

    The kicker situation is unsettled, with Giorgio Tavecchio and rookie Nate Freese duking it out for the job. Punter Sam Martin is solid, though, sixth in the league last season with a 47.2-yard punting average.

12. Chicago Bears

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Chicago Bears kicker Robbie Gould is a fixture in Chicago. He has scored at least 100 points, a Bears record, in seven seasons with the team. More importantly, he has always been accurate, nailing 86 percent of his field goals throughout his career.

    Unfortunately for Chicago, the return game might have taken a big hit with the departure of Devin Hester. He has fallen off since his early years in the league, but he still led the league in kickoff return yards last season. 

    Chicago will have to turn to the likes of Eric Weems and Michael Ford to handle kicks. As good as they might prove to be, though, few players could replace Hester in that department.

    The Bears will likely have rookie Pat O'Donnell handling punting duties. Anything he does should be an improvement over Adam Podlesh, who was worst in the league in punting average last season.

11. Green Bay Packers

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Two seasons ago, it seemed we were watching the sad end to kicker Mason Crosby's career. He had the league's worst field-goal accuracy at 63.6 percent, missing some important kicks along the way.

    However, Crosby bounced back in a big way after a preseason competition, nailing 89.2 percent of his kicks last season and reestablishing himself as a quality kicker. Hopefully he doesn't revert to 2012 form.

    Led by cornerback Micah Hyde, the Green Bay Packers had the fourth-highest kickoff and punt return averages at 25.9 and 13.1 yards per return, respectively. If dynamic receiver Randall Cobb was a big part of the return game, the Packers might get a nice bump here.

10. New York Jets

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    The New York Jets had one of the best kickers in the league last season. Nick Folk was perfect through his first 23 field-goal attempts of 2013 before finally missing one, ultimately making 33 of 36.

    The Jets nabbed dynamic return man Jacoby Ford from the Raiders, a guy who can transform a mediocre kick return game into a great one if he can stay healthy. Of course, that's the rub—Ford hasn't been the picture of health in recent years.

    Kyle Wilson did a nice job returning punts last season, helping the Jets to a sixth-best punt return average of 11.3 yards.

9. Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Jonathan Bachman/Associated Press

    The Jacksonville Jaguars were the butt of many jokes when they took punter Bryan Anger in the third round of the 2012 draft. Well, he led the league in punts last season, so who's laughing now?

    As for average, well, Anger was in the middle of the pack with 45.7 yards per punt. He was in the top 10 in punts inside the 20 and the 10, though.

    Josh Scobee, meanwhile, remains one of the league's more accurate kickers, nailing 92 percent of his field goals last season. He also did a nice job of pinning opposing teams to the 20, as the Jaguars had the eighth-most touchbacks in the league.

    Receiver Ace Sanders quietly had the 10th-most kickoff return yards with 712 and the seventh-best average at 27.4 yards per return last season. Not too shabby. He wasn't nearly as good in punt returns, though, averaging just 5.6 yards per return.

    Not much is bound to change on special teams in Jacksonville this season, as the team possesses a solid, if unspectacular, unit.

8. San Francisco 49ers

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    If it weren't for punter Andy Lee, the San Francisco 49ers' ranking might be a lot lower.

    Lee has been one of the best punters in the league for years, as evidenced by his third-ranked 48.2-yard punting average last year.

    Cleveland import Phil Dawson was also pretty good in his first year with the 49ers, hitting on 88.9 percent of his field-goal attempts a year after David Akers fell off a cliff.

    LaMichael James was pretty good in the return game, averaging 26.8 yards per kick return and 10.9 yards per punt return. He should be back, though the running back position is getting full in San Francisco.

7. Seattle Seahawks

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    Steve Dykes/Getty Images

    Losing the second-most productive punt returner in the league stings.

    That's what happened to the Seattle Seahawks when Golden Tate moved on to greener pastures in Detroit. The Seahawks must find someone who can replace the value he took with him out the door. 

    Seattle has no such problem with Steve Hauschka, who was the most accurate kicker in the league last season.

    At punter, John Ryan may not have the gaudiest punting average, but that was by design. The Seahawks were magnificent in punt coverage last season, nearly breaking the record for punt return yardage allowed in a single season. 

    They had allowed just 25 yards heading into Week 17, narrowly missing out on the record of 49 yards allowed for an entire season when St. Louis had 57 yards.

6. New England Patriots

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    The New England Patriots have had a solid special teams unit for what seems like an eternity, from the days Adam Vinatieri was winning Super Bowls with his leg to Stephen Gostkowski's underrated reliability.

    Gostkowski had the third-highest touchback rate in the league last season, a nice bonus for a guy who made 92.7 percent of his field goals in 2013. He also happened to hit the most field goals in the league.

    Punter Ryan Allen beat out Zoltan Mesko and had a good inaugural season, averaging 45.9 yards per punt.

    Where the Patriots could improve is in their return game, where they ranked 27th and 24th in kick and punt return average, respectively. Receivers Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater are solid special teamers, but neither brings excitement to returns.

5. Dallas Cowboys

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    Bill Haber/Associated Press

    Dwayne Harris has made himself into a special teams weapon over the years. The Dallas Cowboys receiver has never been lacking for speed, and he has put it on full display as a kick returner. Only sizzling Minnesota Vikings rookie Cordarrelle Patterson averaged more yards per kickoff return than Harris did last season among those with more than 25 attempts.

    Harris may have been even better as a punt returner, averaging a fantastic 12.8 yards per return and scoring a touchdown.

    Unfortunately, an injury ended his season early, but he should be back to terrorize opposing special teams units this year.

    As for the kicking game, the Cowboys could have everything they ever wanted at kicker with Dan Bailey hitting field goals at a 90.8 percent clip for his career. Punter Chris Jones could stand to improve on his 45-yard punting average, however.

4. Minnesota Vikings

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    Wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson was electrifying at times as a rookie, particularly in the return game.

    Patterson had some big kick returns, winding up with the second-most return yards in the league at 1,393. He also averaged the most yards per kickoff return among specialists with more than 25 attempts at 32.4. His two touchdowns were tops in the league, adding a cherry on top of a successful campaign from a special teams standpoint.

    The Vikings have two young kickers with big legs too. Blair Walsh had a magnificent rookie season—for a kicker—though he fell off a bit in his second year, hitting just 86.7 percent of his field goals and missing three of five field goals from 50-plus yards. Punter Jeff Locke's rookie season was solid as well.

3. Kansas City Chiefs

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    Special teams coach Dave Toub is among the best in the business.
    Special teams coach Dave Toub is among the best in the business.USA TODAY Sports

    Dave Toub is very good at his job.

    The Kansas City Chiefs special teams coach molded Devin Hester into a Hall of Fame return man—if there is such a thing—with the Bears and Dexter McCluster into a Pro Bowler last year with the Chiefs. His special teams units are regularly among the best in the league.

    Somehow, the departure of McCluster doesn't seem like a problem—Toub will just make another guy great. That guy might be rookie De'Anthony Thomas, who could be the reincarnation of Dante Hall in Kansas City.

    To boot, Dustin Colquitt and Ryan Succop are solid kickers.

    All in all, Kansas City has a great special teams unit.

2. Baltimore Ravens

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    Leon Halip/Getty Images

    You know Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker—at least you do if you pay any attention to fantasy football. 

    Tucker once scored all of Baltimore's 18 points in a game—including an incredible 61-yard make—making his fantasy owners incredibly happy in the process. He tied Stephen Gostkowski with 38 field goals made, at one point making 33 in a row before missing against the Patriots in Week 16.

    Punter Sam Koch had a solid average of 46 yards per punt, though his net average was among the lowest in the league at 38.9.

    The Ravens also kept dangerous return man Jacoby Jones—who averaged 28.8 yards per kickoff return and 12.8 yards per punt return last season—this offseason, making this one of the best all-around special teams units in the league.

1. St. Louis Rams

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    Wide receiver Tavon Austin didn't make a huge impact as a rookie, but he did flash his abilities in the return game. His 81-yard touchdown in the preseason (shown above) was just a preview, as he also had a 98-yard punt return for a score in one of the more scintillating plays of the 2013 season.

    Austin is an electric player who is just one part of a good special teams unit. Punter Johnny Hekker averaged a healthy 46.3 yards per punt, and he was second in the league with a 44.2-yard net average.

    Greg "Legatron" Zuerlein was fifth in the league with 92.9 percent field-goal accuracy. He also pinned opposing offenses to the 20-yard line fourth-most in the league last year, forcing a touchback on 64.2 percent of kickoffs.

    All in all, the Rams have young, quality players on special teams, making the unit one of the best in the league, collectively speaking.


    *Kickoff touchback statistics courtesy of TeamRankings.com.