(Field Yates, a former Chiefs scouting assistant under general manager Scott Pioli, continues a month-long series offering insight into how teams scout for players at each position.)
After sorting through the offensive and defensive side of the ball, we turn our attention to special teams, with a look at both core special teamers today and the specialists (punters/kickers/long snappers) Monday.
POSITION: Core Special Teams Player
OVERVIEW: Special teams, by the number of plays, makes up about 20 percent of any NFL game. One could argue, however, that the third phase of football is equally important as offense or defense, as a poor performance in the kicking game can doom an otherwise solid effort on a given Sunday.
When we speak about special teams, we refer to the punt, punt return, kickoff, and kickoff return teams as the four core units. These units require not just a successful kicker, punter or returner to operate, but also a fast, tough, reliable group of coverage players or blockers as well.
In identifying core special teams players, a handful of traits immediately comes to mind: speed, toughness, tackling ability, instincts, and elusiveness.
A core special teams player must be fast enough to get down the field when covering a kick, and up the field when charged with a task of blocking. He must be tough enough to fly down the field, knowing full well he will engage at full speed with another player, and must still be able to make a tackle when doing so. He must have the instincts to follow the flow of a kick while executing his assignment, and elusive enough (as a coverage player) to avoid would-be blockers when necessary.
Positions that tend to lend themselves to core special teams players include linebackers, safeties, cornerbacks (the tough ones), as well as running backs, fullbacks, tight ends, and wide receivers (again, the tough ones). The Patriots have boasted such premier core special teamers as Larry Izzo in the past, whose blend of the aforementioned traits made him an invaluable commodity to the team, despite his modest defensive contributions.
Players who do not serve in a starting role in the positions listed above often make their most substantial contributions on special teams. In fact, special teams contributions are a primary consideration of a head coach when deciding which of his 53 players to deactivate for games. Reserve-level players with minimal special teams contributions have a hard time making it onto the game day roster.
PATRIOTS TAKE: Measuring core special teams play by simply weaving in statistics about yards allowed/yards gained on punt and kickoff returns can be a bit misleading, because multiple factors go into such a play. That being said, the Patriots were solid in the kicking game in 2011, and should be improved heading into 2012 because of their increased speed across the roster.
The Patriots don’t project to rely heavily on their veteran wide receivers for special teams contributions, but should have a balanced mix of the other positions highlighted above as their front-line core special teamers.
In Matthew Slater, the Patriots have a fearless, speedy, reliable special teamer who is one of the best in all of football; he was a captain in 2011. Beyond Slater, other important core special teamers include Dane Fletcher, Devin McCourty, Julian Edelman and potentially Spencer Larsen, who has previously excelled in that phase.
As it stands, the team has the makings of another year of solid special teams play.