6 highest-graded special teams units this season

Eric Eager ranks the top six NFL special team units this season, based on their cumulative PFF grade.

| 1 year ago
(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

6 highest-graded special teams units this season

Special teams are an important, if not overlooked, part of football. Many games each week are changed by a big play during this phase of the game. Despite this, the players that contribute to good special teams units are often unheralded players. In this article, we highlight the best special teams units during the 2015 regular season, discussing some of the ancillary players that contribute to these units.

1. Baltimore Ravens (+79.1 cumulative season grade)

Justin Tucker was the top-graded kicker in the league, with the highest kick-off grade and third-highest field goal/extra point grade. While he had a relatively down year in terms of accuracy on field goals (82.4 percent, 25th in the league), six of his seven misses were beyond 50 yards. Only 13.5 percent of his kickoffs were returned, which was second-fewest in the league.

Punter Sam Koch was the third-ranked punter in the NFL, with a net average of 43.1 yards per punt (second among punters), which can mostly be attributed to he and his punting unit allowing just the 26th-most punt return yards (176) in the league, with an average of just 5.03 yards per return.

The Ravens blocked a kick or a punt in five straight games (Weeks 6–8, 10–11), with Asa Jackson blocking both an extra point and a punt during that stretch. Brynden Trawick led the team in special teams tackles, with 10 (all solo), all without missing a tackle.

2. New England Patriots (+60.3)

Stephen Gostkowski was the third-highest graded kicker in the league, with the best grade on field goals/extra points (by a considerable margin). Gostkowski missed only two kicks all season, both from over 40 yards. His grade on kickoffs was third-best among kickers, allowing an average starting position of 19.5 yards, best among full-time kickers.

Danny Amendola finished the regular season tied for the fifth-best grade among kick returners, doing most of his damage returning punts. His 12.0 average was fourth-most among players with more than 15 punt returns. Julian Edelemen and Keshawn Martin were also solid on returns, with Martin adding a 75-yard kickoff return against the Titans.

While Matt Slater was selected to another Pro Bowl as a specialist, he actually had a down year relative to his standards, with eight missed special teams tackles and three penalties (he had four and zero last year, respectively). Other cover men Nate Ebner and Brandon King combined for 18 solo special teams tackles, two assists, one forced fumble, while having only one missed tackle.

3. Indianapolis Colts (+59.7)

Pat McAfee excelled both as a punter and a kickoff specialist, ranking first and fourth in the league, respectively. His 47.7 gross average on punts ranked second in the league to the Rams’ Johnny Hekker by 0.1 yards per punt, and the 10.4 percent of his kickoffs that were returned was the smallest among all kickoff men. The ageless Adam Vinatieri was the fifth-highest graded kicker, missing only two field goals all season. He was 12-of-13 beyond 40 yards.

Quan Bray had the third-highest grade among kick returners, despite playing only nine games. His punt return resume includes returns of 11, 15, 16, 17, 19, 19, 20, and 33 yards.

4. Tennessee Titans (+58.1)

Brett Kern earned the second-highest grade among punters, averaging 47.4 gross yards per punt. He forced the second-most fair catches (23), surrendered the second-fewest touchbacks (two), and had the fourth-most punts downed inside the 20-yard line (35).

Return man Dexter McCluster was solid before an injury ended his season, and cover men David Bass, Daimion Stafford, and Phillip Supernaw combined for 19 solo special teams tackles, two assists, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery, while combining for just one missed tackle. Titans special teamers forced four total turnovers during the course of the 2015 season.

5. Carolina Panthers (+49.4)

Graham Gano earned the second-highest grade among kickers, converting 29-of-34 field goal attempts to go with a league-high 69 touchbacks (on a league-high 102 kickoffs). Ted Ginn returned to Carolina to post the league’s seventh-highest punt return grade, despite having just the 18th-most punt returns. He helped flip the field with returns of 15, 16, 17, 18, 23, 36, and 37 yards this season.

Coverage men David Mayo, Tre Boston, Mario Addison, and Ben Jacobs did not miss a special teams tackle all season. Backup QB Joe Webb continued to be a jack of all trades, with nine total tackles, a fumble recovery, and a 22.3-yard average on eight kickoff returns.

6. Kansas City Chiefs (+47.7)

Dustin Colquitt was the sixth-highest graded punter in the league, with the third-most times pinning his opponent inside the 20 (38). Return man D’Anthony Thomas was solid before injuries shortened his season to nine games, with punt returns of 14, 15, 16, 16, 19, 25, and 37 yards. Knile Davis averaged 25.1 yards per kickoff return, with a long of 54 yards.

Despite trading Kelcie McCray to Seattle and not retaining Josh Martin or Kurt Coleman, the Chiefs core group of special teamers performed admirably in 2015. Jamell Fleming produced six total tackles, was outstanding holding up gunners on punts, and chipped in a fumble recovery against the Chargers. D.J. Alexander blocked a punt for a safety against the Raiders in the season finale, and added 12 total tackles. Frank Zombo and Daniel Sorensen (+4.0) did not miss a tackle on special teams all season, with Sorensen chipping in a blocked field goal against Cleveland.

| Analyst

Eric Eager joined Pro Football Focus in 2015. He is currently working on a number of analytics projects, primarily focused on the NFL.

  • Seth

    No love for the Vikings?

    • Eric

      This issue was Locke – the second-worst graded punter in the league. Walsh was decent, but only finished 14th in grades among K. Patterson was awesome on KOR, and Sherels was overall a good ST player, both returning punts and as a gunner. McKinnon and Waynes had good years too. Thanks. Give this a read for more on Locke https://www.profootballfocus.com/blog/2016/01/11/pro-offseason-to-do-list-for-the-minnesota-vikings/

    • SkolBro

      Better not be… beyond embarrassing, we had Seattle beat and Patterson got clowned by freaking Crosby.

  • crosseyedlemon

    Nothing changes the momentum of a game the way a big play on special teams does so I’m glad to finally see an article giving credit to these guys. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Patriots and Panthers excellent units provide the edge they need to move on to the championship game.

    • Eric

      Thank you

    • Scott Kohler

      Not true at all. The patriots special team unit is nothing special. They muffed multiple punts this year. Turnovers can change the direction of a game.

      • JT

        Yeah but it includes their kicker….Gostkowski has been money for years.

  • Vitor

    Harbaugh’s background as ST coach making it count

  • James Winslow

    For new England did you forget to factor in the fumbles?

  • McGeorge

    Who is the Patriots Special Teams coach, and how long has he held that position?
    If I remember correctly, Julien Edelman was also an excellent kick/punt returner.
    It seems like a well coached unit.
    Or is there more to it, that they also get special teams aces, rather than the Jets approach of sticking all your crap and failed draft picks on special teams?

    • Scott Kohler

      This is untrue. Did you miss the muffed punt after muffed punt?

      • McGeorge

        I’m not saying the Patriots special teams never makes mistakes, just that Edelmann and then Amendola seem like very good punt returners, and that indicates that the unit is well coached.

        The Jets special teams hasn’t had a good punt/kickoff returner in quite a while. I do wonder if they have de-emphasized special teams and have inferior personnel. Their punter (Quigley) makes a lot of short punts at bad times as well.

        • snoth cambin

          It was scott o brian up until 2014 then joe judge took over