How do NFL teams allocate resources? Dave Archibald has looked at the real price of contract extensions and draft picks on quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, offensive linemen, cornerbacks and the trends on offense in general. In this installment, he looks at how teams evaluate special teams investment.
Special teams is often an afterthought for NFL analysts, who tend to focus on the chess match between the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. To some degree, this is true of NFL teams as well. Most teams eschew special teams until the very end of the draft, and kickers, punters, long snappers, gunners, and other contributors to the “third phase” of the game are paid much less than their counterparts on offense and defense. No dedicated special teamer makes more than $5 million per season.
Although special teams on the whole is less valued, certain teams value it more than others. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers used a second- round pick in the 2016 draft on talented Florida State kicker Roberto Aguayo. The New England Patriots pay Matthew Slater $2M per year, more than double the NFL minimum salary. Slater has made five consecutive Pro Bowls on the strength of his coverage abilities on punts and kickoffs; nominally a wide receiver, he has only one catch in eight NFL seasons. The Denver Broncos pay punter Britton Colquitt nearly $4M per season, making him the game’s highest-paid punter. He rewarded the team with an MVP-caliber performance in the Super Bowl, flipping field position throughout the contest and providing hidden yards in a game where the Broncos struggled to move the ball.
There is a mild correlation (r = 0.21) between spending on special teamers and performance on special teams, as measured by Football Outsiders’ Special Teams DVOA:
New England and the Baltimore Ravens stand out as special teams spenders that enjoyed success, with playoff teams the Cincinnati Bengals, Seattle Seahawks, and Minnesota Vikings also showing up in that quadrant. Of particular note are the New York Giants, who finished second in special teams DVOA despite spending the least. That was largely keyed by a terrific season from kicker Josh Brown, who finished 30-of-32 in field goals. Chuck Zodda’s favorite punter Brad Wing and kick returner Dwayne Harris also had terrific seasons. New York’s season appears a bit fluky – Brown had his best season at the age of 36, and the Giants had not finished in the top 10 in special teams DVOA since 2012.
The most expensive individual player on most special teams units, unsurprisingly, is the kicker. As of training camp, 13 kickers, led by Stephen Gostkowski of the Patriots ($4.3M per season), boast contracts averaging more than $3M per year. New contracts by star kicker Justin Tucker of the Ravens and Mason Crosby of the Green Bay Packers land them in the $4M per season club with Gostkowski. Perhaps unwisely, teams are also willing to invest fairly high picks in kickers. Sebastian Janikowski was a first-round pick in 2000 by the Raiders, and Aguayo and the New York Jets’ Mike Nugent in 2005 were second-round selections. Ultimately teams don’t treat kickers like true stars, but they do invest in them like they are significant role players.
Kicker performance can vary season-to-season, and well-regarded (and well-paid) kickers like Janikowski and Minnesota’s Blair Walsh had down seasons in 2015 despite their large contracts. The Patriots have gotten their money’s worth out of Gostkowski, but in general spending conservatively on kickers might be smarter.
The Thrill of the Punt
Punters are similarly well-compensated, with 12 averaging north of $2.5M on their current contracts:
Methodology for “open field gross average” and “pin-deep touchback percentage” found here.
Like kickers, punters can be inconsistent. Brett Kern of the Tennessee Titans and Andy Lee of the Cleveland Browns had outstanding seasons, but Thomas Morstead (New Orleans Saints), Sam Koch (Ravens), and Kevin Huber (Bengals) had disappointing campaigns despite significant paychecks.
The Long Snap
Historically teams would used a linebacker or center to long snap, but over time long snappers have become completely specialized. Every team now boasts one player who long snaps and does nothing else. Long snappers don’t get even the meager glory kickers and punters do, and their paychecks are significantly lighter as well. Even the highest-paid long snapper, John Denney of the Miami Dolphins, makes barely more than league minimum, and only the Oakland Raiders’ Jon Condo has guarantees of more than $1M:
Condo’s contract is 53% guaranteed, while no other long snapper has a contract that is even 20% guaranteed. According to overthecap.com, this is primarily a function of when Condo restructured – the contract effectively added only $500K in guarantees.
The Lone Gunner
There are a lot of other special teams contributors who don’t handle the football. Gunners and other coverage players make up the bulk of the “big four” units in the kicking game: punt team, punt return team, kickoff team, and kickoff return team. Longtime standouts like Steve Tasker of the Buffalo Bills and Larry Izzo of the Patriots and Miami Dolphins made multiple Pro Bowls for their work on special teams. Another Patriot, Slater, is perhaps the game’s best special teamer, and New England compensates him as such:
This chart is based on players who played at least 25% of special teams snaps while playing fewer than 10% of snaps on offense or defense. It is a bit of a mixed bag, with dedicated specialists like Slater, Stuckey, and Easley alongside high draft picks Gilbert, Van Noy, and Wilson, who were not drafted primarily for special teams but have yet to carve out roles on defense. This indicates a schism in philosophy: Some teams seek to fill out their special teams units with dedicated special teamers, while some primarily fill out their units with developmental prospects or backups.
Know Your Roles
That philosophical divide is created by something of a math problem for coaches and front office personnel. Coaches have a 46-man game day roster from which to fill out their offense, defense, and six special teams units: punt; punt return; kickoff; kickoff return; field goal; and field goal block. Most teams will also have variations on some of these, such as a punt return team focused on blocking the punt or a hands team for onside kicks / onside kicks defense. That mathematical reality means many players on the 46-man roster must play multiple roles, whether playing on several special teams units, serving as a backup and playing special teams, or even playing a full complement of snaps on offense or defense while still contributing on fourth down.
The average NFL team had approximately 16 players who played at least 25% of their team’s special teams snaps in 2015. We can divide those players according to how much they played on offense or defense. For purposes of this analysis, more than 40% of offensive or defensive snaps is a starter or major contributor; 10-40% is a backup or part-time player; less than 10% is a pure special teamer. The typical team used about 3.5 starters, 6.0 part-time players, and 6.5 pure special teamers to make up their special teams units. Some teams tend to use more starters or more dedicated special teamers than others:
Backs and Backers
Not just anyone can play on special teams; the athletes that fill specific roles are more suited to certain tasks than others. Special teams requires players to run long distances, mostly ruling out the slower players that play offensive line or quarterback. Special teamers must also make blocks, defeat blocks, and make tackles. As a consequence, defensive backs and linebackers tend to dominate special teams units:
This complicates the problems of how to fill out the 46-man game day roster. Teams generally carry a backup quarterback (or two), two extra offensive linemen, and an extra defensive tackle or two, but these players rarely contribute much on special teams. Moreover, as previously mentioned, the punter, kicker, and long snapper have only one role each. With so many specialized players, the rest of the roster must have versatility. That usually means a lot of defensive backs, linebackers, and tight ends are active on game day.
Only 28 fullbacks were in the NFL last year, and 20 of them played a significant special teams role. Since no fullback played even 40% of his team’s offensive snaps, they must contribute in the kicking game to justify a roster spot.
Starters / Major Contributors on Special Teams
The NFL’s iron man in 2015 was Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, who played 1,211 defensive snaps and added another 148 on special teams. Many defensive backs play virtually every snap on defense and then contribute on kick or punt coverage. The Arizona Cardinals are an example of a team that isn’t afraid to use starters on special teams. Stud cornerback Patrick Peterson is also an ace return man, and Pro Bowl defensive lineman Calais Campbell played nearly a third of special teams snaps, showing great consistency with his field goal celebrations. The Colts sit at the other end of the spectrum, with no starters doing double duty on special teams. Third-string tight end Jack Doyle was the biggest offensive or defensive contributor to also play significantly in the game’s third phase.
Part-Time Players / Backups on Special Teams
Coverage units are full of backup defensive backs and linebackers, and teams generally expect that the backups at those positions will contribute on special teams. Some teams will decide which of their backups to activate on game day based on special teams needs. A player with special teams value can parlay that into increased playing time and an extended career. One example is former Patriots and Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said of Green-Ellis back in 2011:
I think he does a real good job for us in the return game and coverage game when we’ve asked him to do it. That’s actually led to him getting more opportunities offensively. His improvement in the kicking game got him on the roster, it got him to the game, and it got him the opportunity to run the ball, which got him more playing time on offense.
I know that probably doesn’t make any sense, but that’s the way it works. If you’re not the starting running back – or the starting whatever – if you can’t play in the kicking game, it’s hard to get those players active on the game day.
Longtime Dallas Cowboy Bill Bates is another example of turning special teams contributions into a larger role and longer career. Bates was undrafted out of Tennessee but won a roster spot thanks to his special teams excellence. He started 47 games at safety and was able to play 15 seasons in the NFL. More recently, Justin Bethel of the Cardinals has made this transition. Bethel has made the Pro Bowl for special teams three times in his first four seasons, earning a three-year, $15M contract and a chance to start four games in the 2015 season. He is now pencilled in as a starting corner for Arizona.
Special Teamers Only
Every team employs three specialists who only contribute on special teams: the kicker, punter, and long snapper. Most teams have a handful of additional players who play extensively on fourth down while rarely or never seeing the field on downs one-through-three. The Patriots have eight dedicated special teamers, including their specialists and Slater. Nate Ebner and Brandon King, like Slater, are rare non-specialists who were essentially special-teams-only even in college.
The Los Angeles Rams displayed the strongest predilection towards players who specialize in the third phase. None of their special teamers played more than 36% of offensive or defensive snaps, and a whopping nine of the 15 players who played at least 25% of special teams snaps played 2% of offensive / defensive snaps or fewer. Between them, defensive backs Cody Davis and C.B. Bryant, linebackers Daren Bates, Cameron Lynch, and Bryce Hager, and running back Chase Reynolds combined for only 44 snaps on offense or defense – 27 by Hager.
As cut-downs approach, every NFL team must make difficult decisions about the end of the roster. Should they keep a developmental prospect for the future, or a superior special teams player who might not provide the same upside? Should they spend money on a specialist or save their cap room for players who contribute on downs one-to-three? Different teams seem to answer these questions differently. While most fans tend to give special teams short shrift, it is worth noting that many of the game’s most successful franchises, such as New England and Baltimore, do not. Perhaps special teams, long a mystery to even many analysts, is an area with inefficiencies that smart teams can exploit.