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We started with offense. Now, we switch to... special teams.
We've made our opinions on former-Colts special teams coach Russ Purnell no secret: He was horrible. He now gets to destroy the special teams for a division rival, the Jaguars. Replacing him is former-South Carolina Gamecocks special teams coach Ray Rychleski. And the moment Rychleski walked in the door as the new Colts special teams coach, he wanted to make changes:
"I had to change Coach Spurrier’s philosophy a little bit in that we put starters on special teams," said Rychleski, who is taking his first NFL job. "We’re going to put our best players on special teams. If it’s my decision, I want everyone to be a part of it, I want all the coaches to be a part of it. Now I can get overruled, this is not my football team. But I’m going to present some things and they may get shot down."
Rychleski's energy will likely leave a stronger impression on Colts players, who seemed uninspired by former coach Russ Purnell.
Adam Vinatieri is recovering from hip surgery. Indications are that he will return in time for camp. But, this is the Colts, and with injuries you just never know. We will assume that he will be OK, and if he returns to his 2008 form, the Colts will be in very good shape.
2008 was an outstanding year for Da Pimp Master. He made several clutch FGs to win key games (Minnesota, San Diego) and he dramatically improved his kick-offs. He also showed up to camp in 2008 in the best shape of his life. He he be able to do so again recovering from this hip injury? Doubtful. Still, with a better special teams coach, Adam could continue to improve his kick-offs and continue to deliver in the clutch.
One to Watch: Anyone they bring in to sub for Vinatieri while he recovers from surgery, such as Billy Cundiff
On the Hot Seat: Um, well, anyone they bring in to sub for Vinatieri while he recovers from surgery, such as Billy Cundiff
Hunter Smith is gone. Along with Peyton Manning, he was one of the few left who played for Jim Mora prior to Tony Dungy. Replacing him is an affable, good-natured, loud-mouthed kid from the same school that produced Mike Vanderjagt. But, if you ask this kid if he is Mike Vanderjagt, Jr., he will make it clear that he is nothing like the "Idiot Kicker" from West Virginia we all know so well.
Pat McAfee is the kid's name, and he spent much of his college career punting and kicking field goals. Like Hunter the Punter, McAfee is strong and athletic. He can tackle, run players down, and even wrestle grown men in pig masks.
In college, the did more of a rugby-style of punting. So, there will be some adjustment to the way the pros do it in the NFL. However, he's got a strong leg and a passion for football. He calls Vinatieri his idol and he seems to genuinely love playing football. In many ways, he is a punter second and a football player first. How can you not love that?
The other punter on the roster is Tim Masthay, but he is little more than camp fodder. Unless Pat McAfee truly screws up in camp (which would make drafting him a total and complete waste), Masthay is merely punting to showcase his talents to another team.
One to Watch: Pat McAfee
On the Hot Seat: Tim Masthay
Last year's special teams ace, Darrell Reid, is gone. But returning to special teams are players like Freddy Keiaho and Tyjuan Hagler. Matt Giordano and Melvin Bullitt will also return with Roy Hall, filling in as gunners. Since the NFL finally outlawed the wedge formation, speed and tackling are now key to stopping opposing returners. The opponent can no longer form the silly and, many times, dangerous human wall that was the wedge formation, thereby forcing the coverage units to designate a "wedge buster." The wedge buster is the person who normally launches himself into the wedge formation in an attempt to scatter the players. Wedge busting was a dangerous job, and the task nearly paralyzed Bills TE Kevin Everett a few years ago. He was attempting to bust up a coverage wedge when he had a helmet-to-helmet collision with an opponent in the wedge formation. Everett has recovered and is not paralyzed, but his football career is over.
With the wedge gone, teams will likely try to get creative as they figure out how to keep coverage units from tackling their returners. From my point of view, this plays to the Colts' strengths.
The key for the Colts is finding a replacement for Darrell Reid, who got a mega-contract with the Denver Broncos for someone known as a great special teams tackler and third-string DT. Reid was the team's special teams ace, known for his big hits and consistent play. Matt Giordano has the makings of someone who can fill Reid's shoes. He hits like a rocket-fueled runaway truck, and he is likely the fastest player on the team.
Guys who need to prove they can play special teams in order to stay on the active roster are Samuel Giguere, Roy Hall, Adrian Grady, and Pat Kuntz. Grady and Kuntz are two who REALLY need to prove they can play ST coverage. Both are DTs, but both are under tackles known for their speed (just as Reid was for Indy). Since Indy likely will retain Fili Moala, Terrance Taylor, Antonio Johnson, and Ed Johnson as the DTs who will play the most snaps, guys like Eric Foster, Keyunta Dawson, Grady, and Kuntz need to prove they can play special teams in order to justify their spot on this roster.
One to Watch: Matt Giordano
On the Hot Seat: Pat Kuntz
Hunter Smith was not just the punter from 1998-2008, he was the holder on all FG attempts. In ten years, I cannot recall a single moment when Smith botched a hold. Not one time. Regardless of whether the snap was bad, Smith always handled the holds and got the ball in position for the kicker to make a good kick. Whoever the Colts find to fill that job better have the exact same level of efficiency.
The first person to likely get a crack at the job is Pat McAfee. Though, if the Colts are toying with the notion of keeping three active QBs on the team, rookie QB Curtis Painter might be someone they could use as the FG holder. Sorgi is also someone they might try there, or even perhaps Jacob Tamme. Tamme has experience as a long snapper, and plays a lot on special teams. Since he is not likely to unseat Gijon Robinson as the #2 TE, he could find a place on the team as the holder.
One to Watch: Pat McAfee
On the Hot Seat: Jacob Tamme
Punt and kick returning was a bigger weakness last season than the run defense was. According to Football Outsiders, the Colts were -9 and -10 in kick and punt return efficiency in 2008, respectively. If you are someone who can't figure out WTF the "DVOA" stats mean, just trust me when I say a -10 efficiency score is about as bad as it gets.
The loss of T.J. Rushing in camp last year devastated the return game. The team used a revolving door of players to replace him, from Courtney Roby to Justin Forsett to Pierre Garcon to Chad Simpson to Keiwan Ratliff. None of them found their comfort zone, and the result was usually dreadful starting field position for Peyton Manning and the offense.
We haven't heard much on Rushing's recovery, but since he was hurt almost a year ago now, it stands to reason he should be OK. If not, than likely his career is over. But, since we haven't heard any negative whispers regarding Rushing, we can assume he will be ready for camp and competing once more for the returning duties and, likely, the nickel back spot in the secondary.
In 2007, Rushing was a very promising returner who had blossomed into a pretty good cornerback. He returned a kick for a TD against Oakland in Week 16, and he did a good job shoring up a battered secondary. If Rushing returns to full strength in 2009, he will likely handle both punts and kicks. Austin Collie is also someone with punt and kick experience in college. Pierre Garcon was never comfortable returning kicks last year, but he has the speed and quickness to be a good returner if he focuses on it. With the team seeming to push him as the slot receiver, it is unlikely Garcon will return kicks and punts unless there is an injury.
As we stated in our offense breakdown, if Chad Simpson wants to retain his active spot on this roster, he absolutely must show he can be VERY effective returning punts and kicks. He was very mediocre last season doing this job, and with Donald Brown now in the backfield (a player who also has experience on kick returns), Simpson has little to no chance to make the team as a back-up RB unless there is an injury. He must prove his worth as a returner.
One to Watch: T.J. Rushing
On the Hot Seat: Chad Simpson