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Monday, July 21, 2014

Position Prognosis: Special Teams

A year ago, the kickers were struggling, the team had lost out
(reportedly) on some bigger names for the coaching vacancy, and the only
sure thing was Ted Ginn returning punts.

This year, that one sure thing is gone, but so much increased over time.

To start with coaching, Richard Rodgers has the respect and trust of all
involved, and the somewhat puzzling but welcome addition of Bruce
Dehaven has paid dividends.

K Graham Gano brought his game up a good deal with an 88.9% FG
percentage, led the league with a 77.8% touchback percentage, and
otherwise had a career year. He was 24-27, including making 6 FG from
50 yards out. He's always had a lot of leg, but he learned control.

That same narrative went for 2nd year P Brad Nortman. Another kid with
a big leg, Nortman was bit of a mess in '12, but learned how to throw a
little control into it last year. His gross average was 47.8, a team
record and 4th in the league; his 41.6 net was also a team record, and
5th in the NFL. Profootballfocus.com called him the best punter when
punting inside his own 40 (when you're punting to an open field), and he
was NFC Special Teams player of the month last year.

It was a career year for both players. Snapper JJ Jansen was perfect
for the year, as well.

With Ginn gone, Kenjon Barner has the inside shot at returning kicks and
punts, though he has to hold onto the ball. Tiquan Underwood has some
KR skill, as does Kealoha Pilares.



Of course, it takes more than just specialists to make a special teams
unit. Gone is Jordan Senn, a stalwart for years in the kicking game,
but there's plenty to go around.

Jason Williams, who blocked a punt, looks to take on the lead role. DE
Mario Addison and TE/FB Richie Brockel provide some of the heavy lifting
as big bodies that can tackle or block; as does starting LB Chase
Blackburn and his backup, AJ Klein. Colin Jones is the team's top
gunner on punt team, often flanked by Melvin White (though rarely but
hilariously by Greg Hardy). Young safeties Robert Lester and Tre Boston
figure to play expanded roles, and I wouldn't bet against Tyler Gaffney
contributing.

Eyes will be on TEs Brandon Williams, Ed Dickson, and Mike McNeill to
see if any can provide any help on special teams as well, especially if
any of them want Brockel's job (Ben Hartsock played 20% of snaps as
well).

If Josh Norman wants an extended look at CB, he might want to be willing
to play more than 13% of snaps; since Domenik Hixon played almost 20% of
snaps, one of the WRs will have to look at contributing a bit. Since
neither Jason Avant nor Jerricho Cotchery put more than 2% of available
ST snaps on the field, I'm guessing that will have to come from
Underwood (who played 5% of ST snaps last year) or maybe whichever of
the 5th best guys has something to add. I have a hard time buying that
Kelvin Benjamin will be running down kicks, though.

It's a unit that has to remain at least as strong as last year, for
Carolina to grow. You can't play ball control with a chump Special
Teams unit.
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