This is the third in a four-part series previewing Bills training camp. Today’s installment is on special teams.
Continuity and special teams are almost mutually exclusive terms.
Players get hurt, backups move into starting positions, and the special teams units constantly must adjust during an NFL season.
That’s why it’s so important to have a core of six or more high-quality special-teams regulars who are good at the job.
That’s what the Buffalo Bills are seeking to identify during training camp to bolster special teams units that were poor last season.
“Last year we went in the season and we had a lot of guys that had never done it, either because they were young and hadn’t done it in college or hadn’t done it period,” said Bills special teams coach Danny Crossman. “Any time you’re on a new staff and a new organization from top to bottom … we were trying to constantly turn over that bottom of the roster so those guys would identify themselves.”
The Bills added two veteran special-teams producers in free agency in cornerback Corey Graham from Baltimore and fullback Anthony Dixon from San Francisco. Linebacker Keith Rivers, signed from the Giants, is a starter for the Bills but figures to see some special-teams duty.
Those are upgrades upon which the Bills are banking.
The top special-teamers coverage men back from last year are Marcus Easley, Nigel Bradham, Chris Hogan and Ty Powell. Presuming all those guys make the team, that could form a core of good coverage and return units.
“I think we’re much further along than we were a year ago,” Crossman said.
The Bills ranked 25th in punt return average allowed and 23rd in average drive starts after kickoffs last season. They were 29th in both punt return and kickoff return average.
“You need to identify those guys you think are going to be those guys and get them a significant amount of the work, especially so they’re playing with one another,” Crossman said. “You look back to last year, with constantly changing that bottom of the roster, you’re constantly playing with a different guy next to one another.
“I don’t care what you talk about, whether it’s secondary or offensive line. You’re covering a kick and all of a sudden the guy to the right and the guy to the left of me have never been next to me before, how’s this guy going to play it? Is he going to overplay inside? So you can talk all you want on the board and do it in practice, but when it’s live in the game, those reps doing it with the same guy there pay fruition.”
Easley stayed mostly healthy for the first time in his career last season and led the NFL in special teams tackles with 23.
“He started getting confidence because he was finally healthy,” Crossman said. “He was always a big, strong, physical player, but when you’re not out on the field, you don’t get that confidence of being able to do it play in and play out.”
Powell spent last summer with Seattle and was signed by Buffalo in October. He played the last five games and made seven special-teams tackles. He has a strong chance to make the roster as a backup linebacker.
“He had played four plays of special teams in the preseason in Seattle, and that’s the only special teams he ever played,” Crossman said. “All of sudden you realize he plays five games and was very productive. Now we feel good about him going forward.”
The list of young players aiming to enhance their value by producing on special teams is headed by safeties Duke Williams, Jonathan Meeks and Kenny Ladler, linebackers Powell, Preston Brown and Randell Johnson, cornerbacks Ron Brooks and Russ Cockrell, fullback Evan Rodriguez and tight end Chris Gragg.
The Bills’ kicking game is far more proven than the coverage and return units.
Place-kicker Dan Carpenter was rewarded for his outstanding 2013 season with a four-year contract. He faces competition from Dustin Hopkins, a sixth-round draft pick in 2013. Hopkins’ realistic chance to make the team will be as a kickoff specialist.
Whether the Bills have the luxury of keeping a kickoff specialist will depend a lot on injuries at other positions and how many positional players the Bills need to keep.
The Bills kicked touchbacks on 42 percent of their kickoffs last season. The league average was 50.6 percent. The top eight in the league were at 60 percent or better.
“To keep a kickoff specialist, you need to be almost 70 or higher,” Crossman said.
Veteran Brian Moorman is the favorite to win the punting job over Jacob Dombrowski, a Harvard product who will be in his first training camp. Crossman said both punted well in the spring.
“The numbers were very similar both in get-off and hang time and distance, the whole three-way that we look for,” Crossman said. “They were maybe a half a yard apart in distance, maybe two one-hundredths in get off. Really close, really close. But again, there’s another example of where it’s a lot different doing it out here when that rush team is really not able to get close to you.”
Wednesday: Part 4, Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.