Special teams are an important aspect of winning football games in the National Football League. At ProFootballFocus we are uniquely positioned to evaluate the kicking game, as we extend our grading of every player of every play of every game to this aspect of play in addition to offense and defense.
Last season we created a rating algorithm to rank special teams units based upon these unique grades, and during the offseason we updated the method, using machine learning to weigh each of our grade fields by how much each contributed to winning football games. Below is the final installment of these rankings for the 2017, and their coinciding rank from our last update, as each team entered Week 14.
Previous ranking: 2
A nicely-balanced group, with Ryan Quigley going an entire regular season without a touchback from the punter spot, Kai Forbath improving steadily on place kicks after a shaky start, Marcus Sherels earning the league’s best grade as a punter returner,and a core group of C.J. Ham (14 tackles), Ben Gedeon (12 tackles), Kentrell Brothers (10 tackles), Jayron Kearse (nine tackles) and Anthony Harris (six tackles) rounding out the league’s best unit.
Previous ranking: 5
Justin Tucker continues to be one of, if not the, best kickers in the league, drilling 5-of-7 attempts beyond 50 yards and forcing an average starting field position short of the 24-yard line. Michael Campanaro had a plus season as a return specialist, returning one punt for a touchdown against the Bears and averaging 10.8 yards per return overall.
Previous ranking: 3
Perennially one of the league’s best units, special teams bit the Rams when they needed them the most in the playoffs. Pharoh Cooper, the league’s highest-graded return man, committed multiple turnovers in the loss to the Falcons, overshadowing what was an otherwise brilliant season. Cory Littleton was all over the field in every phase of special teams, earning the highest special teams grade among non-kickers/return men.
Previous ranking: 9
Kicker Matt Bryant made 8-of-9 field goals beyond 50 yards, buoying a Falcons team that, far too often, stalled out in opposing territory in 2017.
Previous ranking: 1
Punter Chris Jones allowed just 75 yards to opposing punt return units, while rookie wide receiver Ryan Switzer was the ninth-best return man in the league by our grades.
Previous ranking: 4
Kicker Cody Parkey and the Dolphins kickoff team allowed the league’s lowest average starting field position among qualifying kickoff units (21.3), with Special Teams Player of the Year Michael Thomas (10 solo tackles, zero missed tackles) shining in all four phases of special teams.
Previous ranking: 6
The Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles were missing a number of players by season’s end, with injury replacements stepping in left and right to help them secure the title. Kicker Jake Elliott was one of these stars, earning our eighth-highest grade among place kickers, drilling 5-of-6 kicks beyond 50 yards in the process.
Previous ranking: 14
Rookie running back Alvin Kamara was amazing as a runner, receiver and return man, housing a kickoff in the regular season finale against the Buccaneers, while averaging 31.5 yards on such returns for the year. Veteran Ted Ginn was good as a receiver, but not his normal self as a returner, averaging just 11.2 yards on kickoff returns and 5.4 on punt returns.
Previous ranking: 7
Kicker Robbie Gould made an outrageous 17-of-18 field goals between 40 and 49 yards (with another 4-of-4 from beyond 50). It’s a wonder why the analytically-sound 49ers coaching staff had Bradley Pinion kicking off so deep, but he answered the bell there, with 64 of his 79 kickoffs resulting in touchbacks.
Previous ranking: 12
New punter Rigoberto Sanchez picked up right where the retired Pat McAfee left off, with a 43.1 net average ranking third in the league, dropping 30 of his 84 punts inside of the 20.
Previous ranking: 16
The Steelers often left a little meat on the bone offensively this season. Luckily for them, Chris Boswell is about as good as it gets kicking field goals, making 35-of-38 attempts, including all four from 50 yards or more.
Previous ranking: 11
Kicker Matt Prater (7-of-11 from 50 yards and beyond) was the highest-graded kicker in the league from the perspective of field goals and extra points, while Jamal Agnew ended up our fourth-highest graded punt returner, averaging 15.4 yards per return (with two touchdowns).
Previous ranking: 10
While special teams are normally in the plus column for Bill Belichick and the Pats, they were let down a bit against the Eagles in the Super Bowl, with Stephen Gostkowski missing an extra point and a field goal (the latter coming after a bad snap). Ryan Allen was our second-lowest graded punter this season, averaging just 43.4 gross and 40.5 net on 58 regular season punts.
Previous ranking: 8
Free agent acquisition Stephen Hauschka was tied as our second-highest graded place kicker in the regular season, and his average starting field position of 24.0 allowed on kickoffs was helped by the stellar play of coverage men like Shamarko Thomas (nine special teams tackles).
Previous ranking: 20
The Bucs inability to kick field goals and extra points early in the season cost them one game and almost cost them another. Midseason acquisition Patrick Murray stabilized things a bit, though, missing just five kicks in the last 12 games, with three of those kicks coming from longer than 50 yards.
Previous ranking: 13
Rookie Harrison Butker didn’t even play until Week 4, but still set a Kansas City record for the most made field goals in a season (38). In what was questionable analytically, he was asked to kick touchbacks on a great deal of his kickoffs (61-of-78), meaning his average starting field position allowed (24.7) was not among the league’s best.
Previous ranking: 17
Punter Brett Kern fell off a little down the stretch, but still finished as our second-highest graded punter, averaging 49.7 gross and 44.6 net yards per punt. Rookie cornerback Adoree’ Jackson was great as a returner, earning the fourth-highest grade in that category (tied for first among rookies with Tarik Cohen).
Previous ranking: 15
Core special teamer Clayton Fejedelem missed only one tackle as a coverage man all season, while having the second-most solo special teams tackles in the league with 14. When veteran corner Adam Jones returned punts, he was uber productive, averaging 21.8 yards on six returns (with a long of 40).
Previous ranking: 19
Return man Kaelin Clay was acquired off waivers from the Bills on October 24 and while he started slowly as a returner early on, his 60-yard return for a touchdown in New York against the Jets helped open that game in the Panthers’ favor in Week 12.
Previous ranking: 23
After replacing the ineffective Jason Myers six games into the season, Josh Lambo was a revelation. He missed only three kicks all year, and no field goals after Week 11. His effort against New England in the AFC Championship game was spoiled only by the bad field position Jacksonville’s offense had to deal with what was seemingly the entire second half.
Previous ranking: 18
The season ended fittingly for kicker Blair Walsh and the Seahawks, with the free agent acquisition missing a 48-yard field goal that would have given Seattle their 10th win. It will be interesting to see if Walsh (our lowest-graded placekicker this season) gets a chance to kick in the NFL again.
Previous ranking: 22
Coverage man Rontez Miles has produced at least one special teams tackle in all but three games since Week 4, finishing first in the league with 15 solo special teams tackles (while missing only one tackle) after compiling three against the Patriots in Foxboro in Week 17.
Previous ranking: 25
The Browns didn’t do much well this season, and special teams as a whole are no exception. That said, rookie kicker Zane Gonzalez made an analytically-sound approach to the new kickoff rule, averaging a distance of just 61.8 on 43 kickoffs and yielding an averaging starting field position shy of the 25-yard line.
Previous ranking: 21
In addition to Tarik Cohen’s great rookie year (the league’s fourth-highest graded return man), the Bears were able to score touchdowns on special teams via trick plays against Minnesota in Weeks 5 and 17. Newcomer Benny Cunningham chipped in nicely with eight solo special teams tackles and 147 yards on seven kickoff returns.
Previous ranking: 24
Punter Marquette King fell off a bit down the stretch, but continues to be a top-five punter in the league, averaging 47.4 gross yards and 42.7 net yards per punt by season’s end.
Previous ranking: 29
The Packers special teams were poor for most of the season, but return man Trevor Davis (third among returners in our grading) was not a reason why, averaging 12.0 yards per punt return while generating three returns over 20 yards, including a 65-yard return in their comeback win in Cleveland.
Previous ranking: 26
New kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn struggled in his first season, grading out as our second-worst full-time place kicker, missing 5-of-25 attempts, including three from inside 40 yards, along with three extra points.
Previous ranking: 31
Pro Bowl rookie Budda Baker was fourth in the NFL in special teams tackles (13), but was also 12th in missed tackles (four). Kicker Phil Dawson fell off a bit, missing eight field goals and three extra points, while punter Andy Lee allowed the third-most yards on returns with 506.
Previous ranking: 30
Isaiah McKenzie ended the season as the fifth-lowest overall grade among return men this season, despite mostly returning punts, with his six fumbles causing his late-season benching in favor of Jordan Taylor.
Previous ranking: 27
Finishing the season 9-7 and a tiebreaker away from the playoffs will likely sit poorly with assistant head coach/special teams coordinator George Stewart, who had to see the kicker he jettisoned (Josh Lambo) in the preseason kick fantastically down the stretch for the AFC runner up Jacksonville Jaguars.
Previous ranking: 32
Nick Rose, in his eight games, was one of the better kickers in turns of starting field position allowed (22.4), following the path set by Dustin Hopkins (23.6). That said, the two combined for three missed extra points, while the return game failed to average 20 yards per kickoff return or seven yards per punt return.
Previous ranking: 28
With just a 37.5 net punting average, the Giants’ Brad Wing ended the season as the league’s lowest-graded punter, surrendering an average of 10.4 yards per return on the 43 returns of his 95 punts.