Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Special Teams Determine Roster Spots

Dallas Cowboys special teams coach Rich Bisaccia directs practice during the morning walkthrough at Dallas Cowboys training camp in Oxnard, California on July 23, 2013. (Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News)
/Staff Photographer
Dallas Cowboys special teams coach Rich Bisaccia directs practice during the morning walkthrough at Dallas Cowboys training camp in Oxnard, California on July 23, 2013. (Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News)
We are now in the middle of NFL training camps and, as we speak, teams are meeting about which players they can keep around when they are forced to make roster decisions. Unfortunately, most fans don't know where to look, because when they are trying to figure out who are the fourth and fifth wide receivers, or the sixth-best linebacker, or the fourth-best safety, they are looking in the wrong place.

It is reasonable to think that you keep wide receivers for their ability to catch the ball. And it is equally reasonable to believe that if we are going to keep one more edge rusher, it is because we think he can ultimately develop into a guy who may collect a few sacks. It is reasonable, but it is also seldom true.
The truth is that this league doesn't have time to develop players very often. They can hide a few practice-squad projects for a short amount of time, but even those can get picked off by the competition without much notice. So, the NFL quickly becomes a place where we think about the week at hand -- because if we lose too many games this season, none of us will be around to worry about our projects.
So, you have to offer the league something right now. In almost every case, to get a chance to show what you can be, you had better be able to help us now. How? Special teams.
I write about this every August and consider it the most important thing to determine roster spots for the Cowboys, or any team. If you want to know who is going to make the team, once we get by the top 25-30 players on the roster who are making all the money, you simply have to consider the following chart. This is a chart I have been keeping for six seasons now, and it offers valuable information about how often the Cowboys (or any team, really) use their special teams:
As you can see, there are eight times your special teams are needed. Field goals, extra points, punts and kickoffs are four. The other four are when your opponents do those things. Of those eight groupings, you will use them roughly 28 times a game. So, in a sport where your offense and defense each average between 60-65 snaps per game, we should not forget that around 20 percent of all snaps in an NFL game come on special teams.  
This is not interesting to many fans, because odds are that their favorite players are so good they are not asked to do anything on special teams. It is also uninteresting to fans because it almost never affects their fantasy football team and seldom affects the outcome of their real football team's games.
But if you spend a week at Cowboys training camp, you will find out that "real" football obsesses over special teams. Every few days, they dedicate entire practice or walk-through sessions to special teams. They spend countless hours in meetings in preparation for the importance of dealing with between two or three dozen moments in a game when nearly none of the millionaires are on the field, but games often swing. Imagine that in other sports! Imagine scenarios when games are won and lost while none of the top 20 earners are on the field. It happens all the time in this sport. Almost all special teams players (save for a star kicker, or perhaps a star return man) are at, or slightly above, the league minimum. Almost all  special teams players have little service time in the NFL and are on their first contracts. Almost all of them are pretty anonymous to most fan bases.
But there they are, covering kicks and returning punts. The last 15-20 names on the roster, and the special teams coach is left to make darn sure that they may not win the game -- but for his very own job security, they had better not lose the game, either.
So let's imagine Rich Bisaccia's job on a week-to-week basis. He has to make sure these coverage and return teams are full of competent and talented players who can do their jobs. We all know that, but who are his choices? Well, once you start going down the list of 46 active bodies, you will find that it is not a very big list:
So that was your roster card from Thanksgiving Day of last year. As you can see, I put a red line through all the players who are either off-limits, not dressed, or not candidates to do any sort of coverage or return work. Some of them, of course, can at least be part of the field-goal units (most of the O-line does that), but when it comes to sprinting down the field and trying to collide at high speeds, the teams are smart enough to protect their most valuable assets from this work.
Other body types just don't work. You don't want 300-pounders trying to cover punts (or 180-pounders, usually). Not great fits. So in the end, you have roughly 20 players to handle those four most important units on your special teams that will each be asked to take the field between 4-6 times per game. Punt cover, punt return, kick cover and kick return.
And that is the point to this entire August blog entry -- as you are trying to figure out the roster cuts, it is made much easier if you pay close attention during the next 2-3 preseason games to see who is covering kicks and punts (especially in the first half). This will be Bisaccia's testing of the players -- especially all the young ones -- and if you see anyone who was drafted between rounds 4-7, or undrafted altogether, then you can expect that their best way to make the team is by being excellent at special teams.
Especially the following positions: Running backs, fullbacks, tight ends, wide receivers, linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties. If you are a big enough stud starter at some of those spots, they won't risk you on special teams. Everyone else stays. And as long as I have covered these lists, safeties, even if they are starters, are still on special teams. Why? Because they are your best tacklers in the open field and you will need them to do that on a few kicks and punts each year.
When you go down the roster, you should look at each "non-starter" with the question, "Can this guy help me on special teams?" If not, he had better be a pretty special player -- or a backup quarterback. With 46-man rosters on gameday, we can't have too many passengers.
Grab a legal pad and jot down the numbers on the screen on punts and kickoffs. Each unit will be different, but they will generally have the same guys to choose from (since Bisaccia only gets about 20 names to work with).
Last season, these were the players who played the most on special teams (and their snap counts): Jeff Heath (345), Damien Wilson (340), Kyle Wilber (322), Andrew Gachkar (308), Byron Jones (227), Keith Smith (188), Gavin Escobar (160), Anthony Brown (159), J.J. Wilcox (127), Leon McFadden (124), Lucky Whitehead (114), Anthony Hitchens (111), Jack Crawford (102) and Kavon Frazier (101). Of those 14 players, five are gone. So, you could argue that there are five major special teams jobs up for grabs after the departures of Gachkar, Escobar, Wilcox, Whitehead and Crawford.
Just something to think about as they put their roster together. Rich has a very difficult job because he gets the table scraps and then must get his guys to perform. Also, in mid-game, when someone gets hurt (or several do), he has to adjust on the fly with the leftovers.
But more than anything, this demonstrates why there is no such thing as a bench-warmer in the NFL. Everyone who is active on gameday is going to have to contribute to the cause somehow. One of the many reasons, in my opinion, that this game is so great.

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