Quantifying play on Special Teams is hard, even though a number of sites have statistics to help. The problem, ultimately, is that Special Teams is usually noticed by the mistake (e.g. the blown coverage that allows a touchdown, or the missed field goal), not success. Additionally, most statistical tracking lumps a number of functions together, and collectively the majority of these plays have less influence on the game than people tend to think.
For this write-up, I am only going to focus look at the specialists (i.e. long snappers, placekickers, punters, and returners). I should also look at gunners, however that role is even harder to quantify that usual, and so it will get swept up into the overall evaluation of each unit. Let’s start with the obvious, though. Nobody in the NFC North dominated Special Teams in 2018. Football Outsiders credits the Detroit Lions with the best Special Teams DVOA in the North in 2018, but it’s still a negative score (-0.9%) and ranked 19th in the league. Woof.
This is not simply a matter of the Lions holding the place because of how they did last year. It’s a matter of them having two of key positions locked up. Detroit led the way in field goal percentage by making 87.5% of attempts, a number bolstered heavily by going 20/20 inside of 40 yards (even if that was good for only 13th in the league). However, let’s not kid ourselves--Bears fans would love to have a kicker as reliable as Matt Prater on the team. If I were to ding them at all, it would be at the really low touchback percentage (under 47%, or 29th in the league).
Sam Martin placed more than 43% of his punts inside the 20 (9th in the league). There are some concerns about Martin’s leg strength, but to that effect the Lions have once more lined up Ryan Santoso as a back-up to provide competition. I don’t know how much of a difference that’s likely to make, but it gives them options and shows that they are being proactive.
Their return game is nothing staggering, but stability is key in Special Teams. Barring a true game-changing player like a Devin Hester, it’s more important that this unit just doesn’t screw up. Right now, the Lions have a reliable kicker and punter, and they have options without a major weakness. That’s good enough for first place.
This could easily seem like a bit of fan-colored glasses, and I checked through my own math and my own biases as thoroughly as possible. Let’s begin with the punter situation--Pat O’Donnell is good. He might be underappreciated. He landed over 45% of his punts inside the 20 (6th in the league), and his 41.9 yards net per punt were a tenth of a yard away from tied for 12th in the league.
Meanwhile, Tarik Cohen was a 1st-Team All Pro as a punt returner. Likewise, while last year the Bears did struggle in the kick return game, compared to their rivals, that area will presumably fare at least a little bit better with the addition of Cordarelle Patterson, who has four times been either first- or second-team All-Pro as a kick returner (including last year).
The reasons Chicago had only the 26th-best Special Teams DVOA in the NFL last year can be summarized by “doink” and “doink.” Regardless of whether it’s Pineiro or Fry, if the placekicker for Chicago is simply adequate, this unit should improve dramatically. In other words, the Bears had exactly one weakness last year, and while it was painful to see play out, that weakness only needs to become a position of mediocrity (not even strength) for this unit to be dangerous.
Minnesota’s 68.8% field goal percentage was the worst in the league in 2018, somehow worse than even Chicago’s 76.7%. Unlike Chicago’s move to dump Cody Parkey, however, the Vikings have elected to hang on to Dan Bailey, who has not broken the 75% mark for the last two seasons (on two different teams). While under 38% of Minnesota’s punts went inside the 20 last season, Matt Wile remains the sole punter listed on their roster.
Minnesota does have a decent mix of returners on the roster, but none of them are going to tilt the field reliably, and the return game has been marginalized enough in the current NFL that it will take more than a “decent mix” of returners to move them up in the ranks.
4). Green Bay
Think of how much damage Special Teams gaffs did to the Bears last season. Measured objectively, Green Bay was worse. Their ST DVOA was -4.1%, 28th in the NFL. Green Bay also managed to suffer across the board, earning a negative evaluation in every category that was under their control.
It’s probably worth starting with their “strength,” field goals. Green Bay made only 81.1% of its field goals, 23rd in the league. That was still 2nd in the NFC North, and more or less in-line with what they should have managed given the range of those field goals. Under 49% of kicks going for touchbacks (28th in the NFL) doesn’t suggest a strength there, either, for Mason Crosby. That might be where Sam Ficken comes into play, but Ficken has attempted exactly three field goals (all at under 40 yards) and five extra points in his entire career, with only six of those going through the uprights. All of those kicks were in 2017.
Under 28% of Green Bay’s punts went inside the 20. The 44.7 yards J.K. Scott averaged on punts was 21st in the league, and the net yards earned on punts were only a marginal improvement, relatively speaking (19th).
Six different players returned a punt for the Packers in 2018, and seven returned a kick. I am not going to break down the possibilities individually, because at this rate it’s possible that David Bakhtari will return a punt or something. None of the return men stood out, and while it would be reasonable to assume that one would emerge soon, there was no indication of a game-breaking player in the group last year, and there is no reason to think that has changed recently.