Plumbing the NFC North Depths: Special Teams

CLEVELAND - SEPTEMBER 2: Robbie Gould #9 of the Chicago Bears warms up before before the start of the preseason game against the Cleveland Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium on September 2 2010 in Cleveland Ohio. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

This'll be the final piece of the series - we've covered every other unit except the kicker, punter and returner(s), so now it's time to do that. And because it's unlikely that teams will have backup kickers and punters (you know, disregarding the whole "kickoff specialist" thing...), in order to give this a little more substance than just ranking the individuals, we'll do the entirety of the unit.

Want to just get to it? Let's hit the jump.

Bears:
2012:
Robbie Gould / Adam Podlesh / Devin Hester / Eric Weems, Johnny Knox (depending)

Not too many surprises here. Gould hasn't missed an extra point in six years, he hasn't dipped below 83% in field goal percentage since his rookie year, and over the last two seasons he's 9-for-10 from 50+ after missing both attempts in 2007. Podlesh had a longest punt of (Edited) 70 yards with a 45.7 average and had 22 punts downed inside the 20. Hester led the league again in average punt return yards and picked up a pair of touchdowns, while Weems only came in at 25th in kick return average with 23.5.

Lions:
2012:
Jason Hanson, Derek Dimke / Ryan Donahue, Ben Graham / Stefan Logan

Hanson has been in the league for a good long time - at 41 years old, easily the oldest of the bunch here, hence why the Lions picked up UDFA kicker Derek Dimke to kick the tires on throughout the preseason. Dimke wasn't a bad kicker at all at Illinois and if Hanson falls off, he could make the roster (or at least make a midseason appearance). Regarding the punting situation, Donahue is the younger option and had a 60-yard punt as his longest last season. Graham had a 58-yard long punt, but also has about a yard-and-a-half up on his per-punt average. Donahue had three more punts downed inside the 20, however (13 to 10). Logan was in the top 15 in yards-per-kick return last season (25.2), but as a punt returner, his 8 yards per return ranked 24th of the 28 qualified returners (8th in returns and 16th in yards).

Packers:
2012:
Mason Crosby / Tim Masthay / Randall Cobb

Crosby is an interesting case - he isn't really a great kicker, but last year stepped his game up by kicking field goals with 85.7% accuracy, improving on 2010's 78.6% mark and well above his career 79.4% mark. What helped his case is going 14-14 between 30 and 39 yards (but the whole "missing an extra point" thing doesn't help). He was 5-8 on anything past 40 yards, which makes him 35-for-53 over his career from that distance. Masthay improved his average distance by almost two yards and booted a 71-yarder, with 23 of his punts downed inside the 20. Cobb ranked fifth in the NFL last year at 27.7 yards per kick return, and seventh in punt return average at 11.3, with a long touchdown in each.

Vikings:
2012:
Ryan Longwell / Chris Kluwe / Marcus Sherels, Lorenzo Booker, Percy Harvin

Since being booted from Green Bay (get it?), Longwell as a Viking has been pretty good, hitting on 86% of his attempts and over 90% in two of his last three seasons (78.6 last year), though he does seem to miss an extra point every season now. On anything above 40 yards he was 10-for-15 over the last two years. Kluwe had a long punt last season of 60 yards, but had an average of 45.6 (net of 37.9) and had 22 punts downed inside the 20. In the return game, Harvin led the NFL with 32.5 yards per kick return, Sherels came in fourth with 27.8 and Booker checked in at 24th with 23.7 yards (with 16, 16 and 19 returns, respectively). In punt returns, however, Sherels landed 23rd at 8.4.

As far as ranking the overall units, it's kind of dicey depending on which part you favor. For strictly kickers, I'd have to rank the Bears first with Gould, the Vikings second with Longwell, the Lions third with Hanson and the Packers last with Crosby. With respect to punters, the Packers jump to the top with Masthay, the Vikings second with Kluwe, the Bears third and the Lions last. And with respect to returners, the Bears have the best punt returner hands down, but Cobb, Logan and Harvin all ranked out better than Weems last year, though Weems in 2009 and 2010 had better averages than Logan (25.3 and 27.5). And it's very unlikely anybody would turn down Hester if offered him free and clear to be the punt returner. I'll call the Bears first in returners, the Vikings second, Packers third and Lions fourth. Maybe it's a function of the Bears having both a dedicated punt returner and kick returner. Either way, Hester in the punt return game is an edge that's pretty rough to make up.

So looking at the units as a collection of parts, the Lions fall to fourth in my book, the Packers third, the Vikings second and the Bears at the top. But as a division, I'd say the North has a very good selection of special teams units.

How do you size up the special teams' units? All in all, what are your thoughts on the series?

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