By Steve Silverman
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Here’s a little secret that most NFL coaches don’t want you to know: While they pay lip service about the “importance of special teams” when talking to reporters or going in front of the TV cameras, most head coaches in the NFL don’t give special teams a second thought – until something goes wrong.
That’s what special teams coaches are for. If you ever wondered why a guy like John Harbaugh became a head coach in the NFL even though he had never been an offensive or defensive coordinator, it’s because of his special teams background.
The special teams coach is like a mini head coach. He must decide on how to deploy his personnel, have a keen eye for detail, know how to motivate and be able to come up with quick fixes.
He operates on his own – until things start to go wrong.
In this piece, we look at the top special teams players in the league. We are including placekickers, punters cover men and return men. The only qualifier is that they must be impact players.
1. PK Stephen Gostkowski, New England Patriots
Gostkowski had a nearly impossible task when he took over the Patriots’ placekicking duties from Adam Vinatieri prior to the 2006 season. Vinatieri was recognized as perhaps the margin of victory in three New England Super Bowl victories. Gostkowski has made 276 of 316 field goal attempts since taking over, and he is far and away the best kicker in the game and the most impactful special teams player.
2. PK Justin Tucker, Baltimore Ravens
Tucker is nearly as good as Gostkowski, but a look at the numbers shows that he missed seven field goal attempts last year. Six of those misses came from 50 yards and beyond, so don’t read too much into that. Only 13.5 percent of his kickoffs were returned last year.
3. P Pat McAfee, Indianapolis Colts
McAfee is more than a punter since he also handles kickoffs for the Colts, and he excels in both areas. McAfee had a gross punting average of 47.7 yards last year, and that was the second best in the league. Only 10.4 percent of his kickoffs were returned, and that gave Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano incredible peace of mind.
4. PK Graham Gano, Carolina Panthers
The booming leg of Gano was a huge weapon for head coach Ron Rivera last year, as Gano pounded the ball through the end zone on 69 kickoffs. He also made 29 of 34 field goal attempts and should be at least as good this year.
5. P Brett Kern, Tennessee Titans
Kern was remarkably consistent, as he averaged 47.4 yards per punt last season. He forced 23 fair catches, which was the second most in the league, and he had just two touchbacks. His touch was remarkable, as 35 of his punts were downed inside the 20-yard line.
6. ST Nate Ebner, New England Patriots
Ebner was not around through the first half of training camp because he was in the Olympics playing for the U.S. Rugby team. However, head coach Bill Belichick and special teams coach Joe Judge welcomed him back with open arms, so to speak, because he excels at covering kickoffs and punts. Matthew Slater may have gone to the Pro Bowl for the Pats and is still an excellent player, but Ebner and teammate Brandon King are both more effective at this point.
7. PK Steven Hauschka, Seattle Seahawks
It’s all about reliability in the NFL, and the Seahawks know that Hauschka fills the bill as well as nearly any kicker in the league. He made 29 of 32 field goal attempts kicking in windy and rainy Seattle, and he is never phased by big moments.
8. P Johnny Hekker, Los Angeles Rams
Hekker has sensational leg strength, as he led the league with a 47.9-yard gross average. And he also showed the ability to kick to his coverage team’s strength, as he had a 43.7 net average. He also nailed 41 punts inside the 20 — most in the league.
9. KR/PR Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks
Lockett averaged 9.5 yards per punt return and had a touchdown, while averaging 25.8 yards on kickoff returns, including a 105-yard TD return. He has the ability to change any game with his speed and talent for forcing missed tackles.
10. KR/PR Dwayne Harris, N.Y. Giants
The Giants have not been able to get out of their own way in recent years and have not made the playoffs since the 2012 season. That’s the primary reason Tom Coughlin was sent packing and Ben McAdoo was brought in as head coach. If McAdoo has success, you can be sure Harris will be instrumental in at least two victories this year. Harris excels at both kickoff and punt returns, as he ranked third in the NFC in both categories with a touchdown in each last season.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy