With the NFL regular season coming to a close, we wanted to once again take a deep dive into Special Teams play and provide an objective analysis on those units that are helping their teams win games and those whose lack of production is hindering their team’s ability to reach their goals. While the performance of a team’s offensive and defensive units can be traced to a few specific categories, such as points scored/allowed or yardage gained/allowed, the evaluation of a Special Teams unit must be looked at across the spectrum of six phases.
In order to conduct this evaluation, two leading platforms were used to compile the data. First, we looked at the Football Outsiders‘ DVOA rankings, which compares each unit’s production in each phase against the league average. Second, we used a similar system that is well known in the Special Teams community, the Gosselin Rankings. Rick Gosselin, an extremely knowledgeable and creditable sports writer, has compiled a cumulative ranking of over 25 categories that influence special teams play for years.
With that in mind, the Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF) reveals the following:
Top 5 Special Teams Units:
- Baltimore Ravens (1st)
- Kansas City Chiefs
- New York Jets
- Dallas Cowboys
- Los Angeles Rams
Of the top 5 Special Teams Units, 3 (Kansas City, Dallas, Los Angeles Rams) will be in the playoffs, with the Ravens remaining a potential playoff team as of this writing.
Only 2 teams (Baltimore & Kansas City) remained in the Top 5 from our Mid-Season rankings as the improved play of the NY Jets, Dallas Cowboys and LA Rams resulted in their arrival in the Top 5.
The Baltimore Ravens hold the top spot in part because of their ability to return punts and make their kicks with one of the league’s best kickers, Justin Tucker. Baltimore is:
- #1 – Yards per Punt Return
- #1 – Field Goal Percentage
- #2 – Opponent Field Goal Percentage
- #3 – Opponents Yards per Kick Return
The Chiefs boast a similar Special Teams ranking, as they get it done as well in punt coverage and on punt returns.
- #1 – Opponent Yards per Punt Return
- #2 – Net Yards per Punt
- #3 – Yards per Punt Return
With the second half emergence of Pro Bowl snub Braxton Berrios, the NY Jets punt and kickoff return has catapulted them into the top 5.
The Cowboys have made their presence felt with the second half success of Pro Bowl punter Bryan Anger in conjunction with their league leading punt block game and points scored on Special Teams.
The Rams success can be traced back to the efficiency of Matt Gay and boost in the Punt Return game from Brandon Powell.
A final nugget on the Top 5 units is that the Coordinators of these units boast over 10 years on average of Coordinating experience, with 1 team having a former Special Teams Coordinator (Ravens) as their head coach.
Bottom 5 Special Teams Units:
- Tampa Bay
- Green Bay (32nd)
In contrast to those teams who reside at the top, these units have struggled in various areas, from penalties, to covering kicks, to returning the ball to win the game of “Hidden Yardage.”
The 2021 version of the Packers special teams’ unit is struggling in many areas, specifically their starting field position, kickers accuracy and discipline:
- #32 – Starting Field Position after a kick
- #31 – Opponent Punt Return average
- #31 – FG Percentage
The Jaguars can look at a few areas of concern as well: Opponent Starting Field Position, their FG% (28th), as well as Opponent Yards per Kick Return (31st).
The Broncos issues rest on Kickoff Return as they have the lowest average yards per kick return while allowing by far (on average over 10 yards more) the most yards per opponent kick return.
In contrast to the Special Teams experience seen in the Top 5 units, the Bottom 5 units see first year coordinators at 3 of the 5 spots. In addition, 3 of those units (Denver, Jacksonville & Atlanta) found themselves in a similar spot during our Mid Season evaluation.
While these rankings are not an exact science, they do provide the audience with a snapshot of how impactful, positively or negatively, a special teams unit can be to the team’s overall success. These rankings can be volatile as a big return, blocked kick or game changing play can move the needle rather quickly.
Finally, keep in mind that as of this writing, 3 of the Top 5 units (Baltimore, Kansas City, LA Rams) and 2 of the Bottom 5 (Green Bay & Tampa Bay) will be playing playoff football. As the NFL’s Second Season begins, it will be interesting to see how impactful, for the better or worse, the Special Teams play of these 5 teams will be in their hunt for the Lombardi.