All-decade special teams: Overlooked stars

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
ESPN.com continues our all-decade team rollout by taking a look at special teams, the oft-overlooked third wheel of NFL competition.

Culling candidates was a challenge considering the players' nuanced job descriptions and the relative lack of public attention paid to their performances.

To create this list, ESPN.com spoke with coaches who have special-teams backgrounds -- including Baltimore's John Harbaugh and Tennessee's Jeff Fisher -- as well as players with special-teams backgrounds.

Without further discussion, here is the team:

Punter, Mike Scifres: There are punters who kick the ball farther than Scifres. Some of them kick it higher. But none of them manage to put opponents in bad positions more often than Scifres, who has been the NFL's top directional punter since he became the Chargers' primary punter in 2004.

Over that period, Scifres has produced:

  • The league's highest net average (39.1).

  • The highest percentage of punts downed inside the 20 (42.2)

  • The lowest percentage of punts returned (37.5).

Those aren't the numbers that Pro Bowl voters typically consider, and as a result Scifres has never made it to Hawaii. (Oakland's Shane Lechler, with a 46.8-yard gross average in his career, has made four appearances.) But knowledgeable people inside the game point to Scifres' playoff performance against Indianapolis last season to illustrate his value. Scifres pinned the Colts' talented offense inside the 20 six times -- including three times inside the 10 -- in the Chargers' upset victory.

Opposing punters marvel at his accuracy, especially his ability to make a ball bounce backward to ensure it doesn't roll into the end zone. Not only is an opponent pinned, but its punt returner has been denied a chance to make a big play.

"It might look nice when you drill a ball 60 yards," Minnesota punter Chris Kluwe said. "But you really help your team the most when you can put [opposing offenses] in bad spots. That's what he's done better than anyone for a long time."

Long-snapper, David Binn: How good is Binn? Put it this way: San Diego hasn't felt compelled to replace him for the past decade ... and a half.

That's right. Binn has handled the Chargers' long-snapping duties since 1994. He's missed only one game in his career, in 1998, and as a result has made every snap in every Chargers game since then. That alone makes Binn the NFL's top long-snapper of the decade.

Binn has also earned the rarest of honors for a long-snapper: He made the Pro Bowl after the 2006 season, having earned a spot as a "need" player. Binn signed a four-year contract extension last year, meaning he likely will be long-snapping well into the next decade.

It's hard to quantify the performance of a long-snapper, but consider it this way: Binn's performance has led to four different Pro Bowl berths for his kickers. Chargers punter Darren Bennett made it in 1996 and 2001. Meanwhile, kicker John Carney was a Pro Bowler in 1995 and Nate Kaeding made it in 2006 season.

Kicker, Adam Vinatieri: Come on now. If you had to choose one kicker in the modern era to line up for a pressure kick, could you pick anyone other than Vinatieri? His kicks have won two Super Bowls, XXXVI and XXXVIII, and he also drilled the winner in legendarily bad conditions during the 2001 divisional playoffs against Oakland.

Vinatieri has more postseason field goals (42) than any other kicker in NFL history. That is partially a function of his team's success, but also an illustration of his reliability under pressure. During a career that has spanned 13 years in New England and Indianapolis, Vinatieri has kicked 22 game-winning field goals in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime.

A two-time Pro Bowl selection, Vinatieri has a career accuracy percentage of 82.1, which ranks No. 15 on the NFL's all-time list.

There were other candidates for this honor. Ryan Longwell, for example, has almost the same number of field goals this decade (218, only four less than Vinatieri) and has converted them at a slightly better rate while playing for Green Bay and Minnesota. It's not Longwell's fault that Vinatieri's teams advanced more often to the playoffs, but Vinatieri's delivery in those situations makes him the choice here.

Coverage, Quintin Mikell: If this role were solely about special-teams tackles, Brendon Ayanbadejo would be the hands-down winner. No one has matched Ayanbadejo's tackle numbers (154 and counting) since he entered the league in 2003.

But in discussing the role with various special-teams experts, we kept hearing another name as well: Quintin Mikell, who is now one of Philadelphia's starting safeties. For the first four years of his career, Mikell was not only a tackling machine but also a reliable blocker and someone who could be counted on to fulfill every aspect of special-teams play.

Mikell accumulated 108 tackles during those first four seasons and has 126 in his career. But take it from John Harbaugh, who coached Ayanbadejo last year in Baltimore after helping develop Mikell in Philadelphia.

"Quintin Mikell might be the best guy I've coached," Harbaugh said. "He's not a gunner-type guy [who is going to run up tackle numbers], but he was the best all-purpose guy. Quintin Mikell is just a really good player."

Returner, Devin Hester: Hester's impact has been relatively brief but nonetheless historic. He set an NFL record for touchdown returns during a season in both 2006 and 2007, and his total of 11 over that span ranks him fourth all-time in the NFL.

You could make an argument for the consistency of Dante Hall, who returned 12 kicks for scores while playing for Kansas City and St. Louis from 2000 to 2007. When the Bears made Hester a full-time receiver last year, his production as a returner evaporated.

But most of the observers we spoke with suggested Hester made a superior impact on games during the two years he was a full-time returner. From squib kicks to intentionally punting out of bounds, opponents went to great lengths to keep the ball out of his hands.

At the end of the 2007 season, Hester was averaging a touchdown for every 13.8 returns. He was also the second player in NFL history to surpass 500 yards in both kickoff and punt returns in consecutive seasons.

The Bears have removed Hester from kickoff returns but he is expected to remain their primary punt returner in 2009. In either event, from 2006 to 2007, Hester altered games like no other returner in league history.