I've always had a great deal of interest in special teams. Experienced coaches in this area are worth their weight in gold, and a new head coach will often fill the special-teams position first. Plenty of teams have enjoyed short-term success on special teams, but to be successful over time it is important to follow certain rules:
1. Kickoff duties need to be handled by either the place-kicker or the punter
Since no kicker can boot a touchback every time, cover teams must be able to avoid blocks and make tackles. Having the additional roster spot for a player who can cover kicks is more important than filling the spot with a guy just to handle kickoffs.
2. One return man
I want a player whose livelihood is based on one job: returning kicks. I'm not interested in a player who is worried about a dropped pass or interception. Being a returner has to be the most important thing to him and he must take pride in his work. A good returner knows when to call for a fair catch or down a ball, and under no circumstances does he change the field position by fumbling.
3. Kicker dependability
Every team wants a kicker capable of making a 60-yard field goal, but it is important for the kicker to be reliable within a closer range. A coach's decision to try a long field goal is based on an understanding that the chance of success may be less than 50-50.
4. Punters (net average, punts downed inside the 20 and touchbacks)
Punts are usually the plays that result in the largest change of field position in any game, thus the net punting statistic is extremely important. Punts downed inside the 20-yard line force opponents to drive more than 80 yards for a touchdown, while a punt from midfield that goes into the end zone only improves a team's field position by 30 yards. Every NFL punter should always be able to improve field position by more than 30 yards on any given punt.
Based on these criteria, the top three special-teams units in the NFL are the following:
1. Chicago Bears: We all know about Devin Hester and his success last season, but keep in mind this team has a young Pro Bowl kicker in Robbie Gould and a very solid punter in Brad Maynard, who are performing in a wind tunnel.
2. Buffalo Bills: Anyone kicking or punting in Buffalo should automatically get additional Pro Bowl votes. The place is probably the most difficult kicking/receiving environment in the league. Yet punter Brian Moorman had 33 punts inside the 20, and kicker Rian Lindell missed only two field goals all season. In addition, Roscoe Parrish should make for an electrifying returner.
3. Baltimore Ravens: Kicker Matt Stover made 93.3 percent of his field goals last season, and punter Sam Koch pinned opponents inside the 20 with 35 percent of his punts, while only kicking it into the end zone 3.5 percent of the time. In addition, Ravens returner B.J. Sams has been a top-10 performer in both punt and kickoff returns in recent years.
Former Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese contributes frequently to ESPN.com.