For the majority of rookies, the ability to play special teams is the ticket to landing a roster spot when the final cuts are made before the start of the regular season.
But the introduction, prep work and core techniques of the kicking game are taught at this point in the offseason—during coaching sessions, OTAs and minicamps.
Today, let’s focus on the importance of special teams for rookies and discuss why the ability to produce on the four core units allows players to find a role in the NFL while buying time to develop as a pro.
Finding a Role in the NFL
“If you’re not a starter on offense or defense, then you better be a starter on special teams…or we don’t have a spot for you.” — Steelers special teams coach Danny Smith
I remember Danny saying those words during our first special teams meeting of the offseason when he coached under Joe Gibbs back in Washington.
And it put the rookies on notice immediately.
There are 53 spots on the season-opening roster—and only 46 guys dress on game day. That means the second-team players (the backups) better have a role in the kicking game if they want to wear a jersey on Sundays during the regular season.
I know it’s not glamorous work; in fact, it’s violent and nasty at times.
Rookies will be asked to get up to top speed on kickoffs, avoid the front-line blockers, find the ball, take the proper angle and drop their headgear on contact.
It is a car accident, really, at the 20-yard line.
At the gunner position, these guys might get tossed into the bench after being put in a vice by a double-team outside of the numbers. Or they could catch a helmet to the ear hole when the returner cuts up the field to find a running lane.
However, it’s a job, a paycheck and a way to get your foot in the door at the NFL level.
And it applies to just about every rookie that doesn’t wear a red jersey in practice at the quarterback position.
The goal for many rookies is to find a role on the squad and give the coaching staff a reason to keep you around by answering the bell every week as a key special teams contributor.
Technique, Film Work Starts in the Offseason
On Tuesday, I was up at Halas Hall in Chicago watching the Bears run through their first OTA practice of the offseason.
Marc Trestman’s team focused on competitive 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills along with multiple special teams periods that featured a circuit-style rotation.
With coaches breaking up into different stations, players ran through the circuit to work on stacking and shedding versus blockers, tackling form/angles, front-line drops and gunner releases.
These are basic drills in the offseason, but it’s a starting point for some rookies that haven’t played special teams since they were freshmen in college.
And while I will always say that special teams requires a unique brand of effort (at any level of the game), technique is still a key factor in developing the skills necessary to become an impact performer in the kicking game.
Rookies need those periods during OTAs and minicamps to drill the technique, angles, hand placement on blocks and tackling form (especially for the offensive skill players) into their heads.
Plus, now is the time for the rookies to get in the film room and turn on the tape in order to study some of the veterans and other top special teams players in the league.
This allows the rookies to focus on technique at the point of attack, the counter moves to avoid blockers on coverage units and the footwork required to slide and protect on the punt team.
Also, it provides an opportunity to look at the big returns from last season, find the breakdowns and take notes on why players lost lane discipline, leverage or displayed poor angles to the returner.
Here’s an example from Percy Harvin’s touchdown return from the Seattle Seahawks’ Super Bowl win over the Denver Broncos:
Check out the Broncos coverage team. They lose lane discipline, cluster together and can’t create a positive angle to Harvin.
This allows Harvin to find a clear running lane with backside blockers using man-technique (drop at a 45-degree angle, flip the hips, protect to the inside) and a “trap” (or “peel”) to clean up the “safety” on the way to six points.
My advice here: Grab a veteran, a guy who has been contributing on special teams for four or five years, and get in the film room with him. Bring your notebook and pencil and allow the veteran to teach you how to use the proper techniques to produce.
This is the time on the NFL calendar for rookies to learn the kicking game and do the prep work necessary to be in a position to compete when training camp starts.
Buy Some Time to Develop as a Pro
Making the jump to the NFL isn’t easy, and every rookie develops at a different pace. From the speed of the game to the depth of the playbook, it's a tough transition.
However, if you can produce on special teams, it buys you time (and a roster spot) to develop your overall game.
My first two years in the NFL, I started on all four core special teams units. That was my job as a young, backup safety: cover kicks and show up on the tape while filling in for veterans on defense if there was an injury.
But during those two seasons playing special teams, I learned how to study tape and began to understand the keys and tendencies of opponents based on offensive personnel groupings, wide receiver splits and formations.
I look back on it as two years that I developed as a defensive player while earning (and keeping) my roster spot in a special teams role.
Plus, if you display the ability to consistently make plays in the kicking game, the special teams coach will go to bat for you during those personnel meetings when the team has to make final cuts.
As I said above, contributing on special teams isn’t glamorous, and they often cut to a commercial on TV without even saying your name after a big play in the kicking game.
And some of those high-speed collisions hurt.
However, rookies that show up on special teams can land a roster spot and some extra time to develop into a future starter in the NFL.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.