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NFC North Roster Comparisons: Special Teams

Once upon a time, the Chicago Bears had a special teams unit that almost defied logic. Now, they are struggling to be mediocre. How does the rest of the NFC North compare?

NFL: Chicago Bears at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Evaluating special teams is interesting frustrating hard. First, the rosters churn at a faster-than-otherwise rate because they are the place that teams turn players over. It is true that beyond the kickers, punters, and long snappers there are a handful dedicated special teamers (players who while carrying designations like ‘wide receiver’ or ‘safety’ are actually return men and gunners and so on). However, the truth of the matter is that most special teamers are either depth guys for the rest of the team or players hoping to play and practice their way into starter positions.

Thus, when I am evaluating “special teams” for the NFC North, I have to ask myself—am I looking only at the typical “specialists,” or am I looking at the units as a whole?

In this case, I’m going to split the difference and try to do both—I’ll emphasize the core guys and make wild guesses predictions about the rest. A lot of this is going to come down to coaching, honestly, and that’s where the Bears might be in trouble. The Chicago Bears have not had a top-half special teams unit (per DVOA) since 2013, when they were 11th; the year before they were 6th. Not so coincidentally, Dave Toub left the organization in January of 2013.

So, with a major qualifier of “we’ll have to see,” here are my rankings of the final position group in the NFC North: Special Teams.

#1) The Detroit Lions

Detroit had solid special teams last year, helped in large part by both above-average field goal accuracy and a truly solid touchback rate (6th in the NFL). Matt Prater is good at his job. It doesn’t seem to matter how far above sea level he is kicking—this man knows his craft. Interestingly, Sam Martin might actually be better, as he is currently averaging nearly 50 yards per punt. Martin is currently on the non-football injury list due to an ankle problem, but nothing I’ve read has suggested that he won’t be back in time for the regular season.

Add the quality of these two specialists with the general quality they’ve been getting out of the deeper parts of their roster and it’s easy to understand why the Lions have had a Top 10 Weighted DVOA special teams unit for two years in a row. They have lost returner Andre Roberts to the Atlanta Falcons, but Roberts was not part of the 2015 unit that did so well, anyway. At a certain point, good returns belong to the unit blocking and the design, and the Lions are unlikely to have lost ground there. Between the speed they have returning and the fresh talent they have cycling through, there will be enough for Detroit to work with.

Until something happens to dethrone them, I have them at the top of the NFC North.

#2) The Minnesota Vikings

Minnesota netted 39.8 yards per punt in 2016 (28th in the NFL). That was actually in improvement over the 39.3 yards per punt they netted in 2015 (29th). That might be why Jeff Locke is now the punter for the Indianapolis Colts, having been replaced by Ryan Quigley. Of course, Quigley is not fantastic, either, with only 44.6 yards per punt and his old team (the Jets) managing to be one of the few teams worse than the Vikings in net yards per punt. Likewise, the Vikings have made also recently made a change at kicker, with Kai Forbath. Forbath’s solid 86.6% field goal percentage and below-average rate of touchbacks also suggest that the unit is treading water.

Meanwhile, the Vikings’ primary kick returner in 2016 (Cordarrelle Patterson) is now with the Raiders. On the other hand, at least punt returner Marcus Sherels is back, and Sherels is solid at his craft. Still, this is a unit in flux. This flux might represent a bit of chaos on a slightly flawed team that seems to be just a couple of pieces away from contending.

However, Minnesota’s weighted DVOA on special teams was good for 13th in 2016, a substantial relative drop compared to 4th in 2015. However, the team as a whole is well-coached, and there is talent there to work with. More importantly, the turmoil is not the kind that sees a solid player replaced by a scrub. Instead, utility pieces are being switched out while quality components are being retained. Thus, I have the Vikings holding the second overall spot on the list—all the while admitting that they might just as easily be toward the bottom if some of their moves don’t work out.

#3) The Chicago Bears

Strangely, the Bears had middle-of-the-road Special Teams performances last year. They ranked 14th in weighted DVOA for 2016, while also suffering from 13 points worth of lost “expected value” in special team factors outsider of their control (for example, opposing kicker’ field goal accuracy)—last in the NFL. The reality is that the Bears are not bad on Special Teams. Rather, they are unexceptional, and that’s painful for a fanbase that could once count on this phase to assist the others in meaningful ways.

It starts with Connor Barth, the poor man’s Robbie Gould. Gould was accurate on field goals (yes, even with his struggles in 2015), but he faltered on touchbacks and pinning the other team deep. Regardless of what some fans prefer to believe, that can be the more valuable skill, and it is certainly the more consistent. However, Barth was not an upgrade. In fact, Barth is both less accurate and less of a producer in terms of touchbacks. Hope for Barth being replaced is faltering with Andy Phillips having been cut.

Likewise, it seems that Pat O’Donnell is back, but while he has a cool nickname (“Mega-Punt”), the yards-per-punt turned in are pretty mediocre (44 yards per punt, good enough to rank in the low-to-mid 20s every season he has played). O’Donnell is really more of a “Modest Punt.” Charles Leno was clearly the better spent of the late-round picks in 2014 for the Bears.

Will Cohen or Jackson or someone else add something in the return game? Maybe. However, until this unit proves otherwise, it is a shaky work in progress.

#4) The Green Bay Packers

In a lot of regards, the Packers have a strangely weak team built around one of the best players of a generation, and their Special Teams unit is another example of this. Mason Crosby hasn’t been in the top twenty of touchbacks since 2012, and his 80.4% field goal percentage is not an artifact of a single bad season—rather, 2013 (when 22 of his 33 made field goals were within the 39-yard mark) bolsters an otherwise dreary record.

That year, 2013, was the last time the Packers had a DVOA for Special Teams inside the top twenty. Trevor Davis and Ty Montgomery are back, and if they are used in the return game it is likely they will be about average. The return game is not a weapon in Green Bay (they earned no touchdowns last year), but they also limited damage to themselves. Finally, all I can say for a fact about rookie punter Justin Vogel is that he is a directional punter thought by scouts to be inconsistent while lacking a booming leg.

This means that while the Packers field a Special Teams unit, it is more a piece that doesn’t lose games instead of a distinct weapon. Given the construction of Green Bay’s team, this makes perfect sense.

Adding together defense and special teams, here is how I have the preseason rankings:

NFC North Defense and Special Teams

Team Corners Safeties Front 7 Special Teams
Team Corners Safeties Front 7 Special Teams
Vikings 1 4 1 2
Lions 2 3 4 1
Bears 3 2 3 3
Packers 4 1 2 4

As with the offense, a simple table doesn’t do justice to the complexities of football. For example, the net impact of the front seven of a team will likely be greater than the net impact of the safeties, and both are hard to separate from one another, anyway. That said, the Vikings and Lions do have the defensive lead in this division until the Bears or Packers prove otherwise.

That’s the series. Hope you enjoyed it.