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6 highest-graded special teams units this season

Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker (9) fists bumps guard Kelechi Osemele (72) after a field goal during the second half of an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals in Baltimore, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Special teams are an important, if not overlooked, part of football. Many games each week are changed by a big play during this phase of the game. Despite this, the players that contribute to good special teams units are often unheralded players. In this article, we highlight the best special teams units during the 2015 regular season, discussing some of the ancillary players that contribute to these units.

1. Baltimore Ravens (+79.1 cumulative season grade)

Justin Tucker was the top-graded kicker in the league, with the highest kick-off grade and third-highest field goal/extra point grade. While he had a relatively down year in terms of accuracy on field goals (82.4 percent, 25th in the league), six of his seven misses were beyond 50 yards. Only 13.5 percent of his kickoffs were returned, which was second-fewest in the league.

Punter Sam Koch was the third-ranked punter in the NFL, with a net average of 43.1 yards per punt (second among punters), which can mostly be attributed to he and his punting unit allowing just the 26th-most punt return yards (176) in the league, with an average of just 5.03 yards per return.

The Ravens blocked a kick or a punt in five straight games (Weeks 6–8, 10–11), with Asa Jackson blocking both an extra point and a punt during that stretch. Brynden Trawick led the team in special teams tackles, with 10 (all solo), all without missing a tackle.

2. New England Patriots (+60.3)

Stephen Gostkowski was the third-highest graded kicker in the league, with the best grade on field goals/extra points (by a considerable margin). Gostkowski missed only two kicks all season, both from over 40 yards. His grade on kickoffs was third-best among kickers, allowing an average starting position of 19.5 yards, best among full-time kickers.

Danny Amendola finished the regular season tied for the fifth-best grade among kick returners, doing most of his damage returning punts. His 12.0 average was fourth-most among players with more than 15 punt returns. Julian Edelemen and Keshawn Martin were also solid on returns, with Martin adding a 75-yard kickoff return against the Titans.

While Matt Slater was selected to another Pro Bowl as a specialist, he actually had a down year relative to his standards, with eight missed special teams tackles and three penalties (he had four and zero last year, respectively). Other cover men Nate Ebner and Brandon King combined for 18 solo special teams tackles, two assists, one forced fumble, while having only one missed tackle.

3. Indianapolis Colts (+59.7)

Pat McAfee excelled both as a punter and a kickoff specialist, ranking first and fourth in the league, respectively. His 47.7 gross average on punts ranked second in the league to the Rams’ Johnny Hekker by 0.1 yards per punt, and the 10.4 percent of his kickoffs that were returned was the smallest among all kickoff men. The ageless Adam Vinatieri was the fifth-highest graded kicker, missing only two field goals all season. He was 12-of-13 beyond 40 yards.

Quan Bray had the third-highest grade among kick returners, despite playing only nine games. His punt return resume includes returns of 11, 15, 16, 17, 19, 19, 20, and 33 yards.

4. Tennessee Titans (+58.1)

Brett Kern earned the second-highest grade among punters, averaging 47.4 gross yards per punt. He forced the second-most fair catches (23), surrendered the second-fewest touchbacks (two), and had the fourth-most punts downed inside the 20-yard line (35).

Return man Dexter McCluster was solid before an injury ended his season, and cover men David Bass, Daimion Stafford, and Phillip Supernaw combined for 19 solo special teams tackles, two assists, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery, while combining for just one missed tackle. Titans special teamers forced four total turnovers during the course of the 2015 season.

5. Carolina Panthers (+49.4)

Graham Gano earned the second-highest grade among kickers, converting 29-of-34 field goal attempts to go with a league-high 69 touchbacks (on a league-high 102 kickoffs). Ted Ginn returned to Carolina to post the league's seventh-highest punt return grade, despite having just the 18th-most punt returns. He helped flip the field with returns of 15, 16, 17, 18, 23, 36, and 37 yards this season.

Coverage men David Mayo, Tre Boston, Mario Addison, and Ben Jacobs did not miss a special teams tackle all season. Backup QB Joe Webb continued to be a jack of all trades, with nine total tackles, a fumble recovery, and a 22.3-yard average on eight kickoff returns.

6. Kansas City Chiefs (+47.7)

Dustin Colquitt was the sixth-highest graded punter in the league, with the third-most times pinning his opponent inside the 20 (38). Return man D’Anthony Thomas was solid before injuries shortened his season to nine games, with punt returns of 14, 15, 16, 16, 19, 25, and 37 yards. Knile Davis averaged 25.1 yards per kickoff return, with a long of 54 yards.

Despite trading Kelcie McCray to Seattle and not retaining Josh Martin or Kurt Coleman, the Chiefs core group of special teamers performed admirably in 2015. Jamell Fleming produced six total tackles, was outstanding holding up gunners on punts, and chipped in a fumble recovery against the Chargers. D.J. Alexander blocked a punt for a safety against the Raiders in the season finale, and added 12 total tackles. Frank Zombo and Daniel Sorensen (+4.0) did not miss a tackle on special teams all season, with Sorensen chipping in a blocked field goal against Cleveland.

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