Ben Kotwica, who has been a special teams coordinator in the NFL with three different teams (Falcons, Washington, Jets), will be filing his Special Teams Report each week of the 2021 season here with the 33rd Team.
After 4 p.m. on Aug. 31, the NFL’s initial 53-man rosters were confirmed. This year’s final roster cuts featured above-average turnover at the kicker position, with a few new faces in the return game and multiple journeyman kickers making the roster over long-time veterans.
Having worked in the NFL for 15 years, this year’s roster turnover caught my eye and bears watching in the early weeks of the 2021 NFL season. These changes occurred on both playoff contenders and teams that many view as also-rans.
Key special-teams takeaways leading into the season
Saints: New Orleans Saints kicker Wil Lutz underwent surgery for core muscle injury, which will sideline him for eight or more weeks. As the new-look Saints should contend for the playoffs, it will be interesting to see what impact not having their 2019 Pro Bowler in Lutz will have on those ambitions. The Saints have a question mark at the kicker position for the first time since 2016, as Lutz has converted on 86.6% of his field goals in his career — ranking him eighth in the NFL during his tenure. Aldrick Rosas was released in a procedural manner this past week, but will likely be signed once Lutz is placed on IR. Will he be able to play well enough until Lutz can return?
Chargers: Last Tuesday, the Chargers released Michael Badgley, who saw his field goal percentage drop from 81.3% in 2019 to just 72.7% last season. Badgley finished second in the NFL in 2020 in total missed kicks with 12, behind only Dan Bailey, so a change looked to be on the horizon in L.A. The Chargers’ new kicker, Tristan Vizcaino, is a player who has gone through the circuit as an NFL free-agent kicker, including multiple free-agent combines. Vizcaino only appeared in one NFL game last season for the 49ers. The inconsistency on special teams hurt the Chargers last season (32nd in the renowned Gosselin Special Teams Rankings) and their hope is Vizcaino can bring some rhythm and stability to their kicking game.
Patriots: The Patriots cut veteran kicker Nick Folk and decided to go with the strong-legged rookie Quinn Nordin. Folk was due $1.6 million and by releasing him the Patriots saved $400,000. Here’s just another example of a young team picking the young upside player over the old veteran. The job appears to be Nordin’s to lose, but if he struggles, it is realistic to project that Bill Belichick will have no problem bringing Folk back to the team.
Lions: They cut both of their kickers after the deadline and recently claimed kicker Austin Seibert to their 53-man roster. The Lions’ excellent veteran special teams coordinator Dave Fipp will be trusted to fill this void and will undoubtedly have someone on his radar. However, with the Lions in a rebuild mode this season, they have some lag time to find their kicker of the future.
Panthers: Carolina continues the youth movement by releasing the strong-legged Joey Slye in favor of Ryan Santoso. Santoso has never kicked a field goal in an NFL game before, as he’s bounced around from the NFL to the CFL and back since 2018. However, his production while with the New York Giants during training camp was well known in NFL special team circles and it was just a matter of time before this player’s opportunity would present itself. Similar to the Lions, the Panthers are looking to find their kicker of the future, and if Santoso struggles, it will be interesting to see how patient the organization is with Santoso’s development. If Slye is not snagged by another team, he could always be available for them to bring back.
Bengals: This situation differs from the rest as the Bengals used a significant resource to invest in their kicker, a fifth-round pick in the 2021 draft. Evan McPherson was perfect in the preseason and could help the scoring production for the Bengals’ struggling offense from 2020. With McPherson being a mid-round selection, the organization will tend to be more patient if early-season issues arise. However, McPherson is in great hands with one of the league’s most experienced special teams coordinators in Darren Simmons, who enters his unprecedented 18th season in Cincinnati.
Storylines to keep an eye on:
The Browns cut returner Jojo Natson (he was recently signed to the practice squad), who is a dynamic returner despite his injury issues. When he was with the Rams in 2018-19, he was a quick, electric and productive player.
The Rams stick with Johnny Hekker over Corey Bojorquez, who they traded to the Packers. Hekker still has some juice left and should continue to be a productive punter despite his age. His ability to throw the football continues to keep punt-rush teams at bay and provide a weapon in the special teams game for coach Joe DeCamillis.
The Falcons potentially have one of the best return duos in the game with the electrifying veteran Cordarrelle Patterson and the exciting rookie out of Boise State, Avery Williams. After drafting Williams in the fifth round, the Falcons hope that he brings something close to the production he flashed at the college level. He will be their dynamic punt returner for the 2021 season. At Boise State, the dynamic returner racked up 9 total touchdowns and 5 career blocked kicks from 2017-2020. Combine this productivity with that of Patterson in the kick return game, and Atlanta’s return game will pose some serious problems for their opponents.
Wacky ST situation:
This man just intercepted a punt. Never seen this happen before. pic.twitter.com/d8BLVEvARr
— Ari Meirov (@MySportsUpdate) August 30, 2021
In this situation, the gunner of the punt team simply had a mental lapse. This is clearly kick interference as the player must allow the returner the opportunity to catch the ball. Similar plays like this pop up from time to time in the preseason and coaches will use examples like this as “Teach Tape” to avoid these penalties from occurring during the regular season.