Special teams can change games. That's something that many acknowledge but few realize just how true it is.
Take last year for the Colts as an example. Twice, the game changing play in a game came in the return game (T.Y. Hilton's punt return touchdown versus the Bills and Deji Karim's kick return touchdown versus the Texans). Against the Titans, it was punter Pat McAfee who delivered the game-changing play by pinning the Titans at their own one yard line, leading to a Colts defensive touchdown. And then, of course, kicker Adam Vinatieri nailed a game-winning 53-yard field goal against the Vikings.
That's four games right there that the Colts won that changed on a special teams play. And then you look at the games the Colts lost that turned on a special teams play (like the game against the Patriots, where a punt return touchdown led to the Patriots routing the Colts), and you begin to realize just how true the statement is that special teams can change games.
So, to conclude our summer-long positional preview series, let's take a look at the Colts' specialists and what we can expect from their special teams unit in 2013.
Four players on the Colts roster right now are currently designated as special teams players: kicker Adam Vinatieri, punter Pat McAfee, long snapper Matt Overton, and punter/kicker Brandon McManus.
Adam Vinatieri recently had his picture placed on the side of Lucas Oil Stadium as his brilliant, hall of fame career winds down to an end. Vinatieri has no plans to retire at this point, but this is his last year as a Colt and it is doubtful that they will re-sign him. But Vinatieri is absolutely the kicker this year, and deservedly so. The oldest kicker in the league has been lights out over his 18 year career, making 413 of 500 field goals (82.6%, 11th best all time), being named to 2 pro bowls (2002 and 2004), winning 4 super bowls (3 with the Patriots, 1 with the Colts), holds postseason records for most field goals made (48), most field goals attempted (58), most postseason points scored (196), most consecutive postseason games scoring (25), and is tied for the most field goals made in a single playoff game (5). And, oh yeah, he has delivered 24 game-winning field goals in the final minute or overtime, including 2 game-winning kicks in the Super Bowl. 2012 was a bit of a rough year for him, as he hit only 78.8% of his kicks (26 of 33), but with the game on the line he was able to hit from 53 yards out and win the game for the Colts. When the game is on the line, Vinatieri is hands down the best kicker in NFL history, and that looks to continue for at least one more year while the veteran also should be right around 80% once again, a very respectable number.
Pat McAfee is the Colts franchise player and one of the best players on the team. Here's what I wrote of him just a week or so ago when it was reported that he will play under the franchise tag this season:
Lastly, with some Colts players recently getting into a bit of trouble, McAfee represents hope for players to turn their lives around. McAfee is perhaps as famous for his little swimming incident a few years ago as he is for his play on the field, but he's not defined by that anymore. No way. He's turned it around and made the most of his second chance. Just read the above paragraphs again if you need to see how. That's the type of guy you want in your locker room - someone who has made mistakes (as we all have) but has learned from them and gotten it together.
Like Vinatieri, McAfee will be a free agent at the end of the year, but unlike Vinatieri, I fully expect him to be re-signed.
Matt Overton enters his second season as long snapper of the Colts after replacing the well-liked veteran long snapper Justin Snow last offseason. And let me just say that the team didn't miss a beat. I never heard Overton's name during a game, which is a very good thing. He did a great job as the team's long snapper last year and would figure to just get better as he enters his second year in the league. According to his bio on colts.com, he finished third on the team last year with 9 special teams tackles as well. Like both Vinatieri and McAfee, Overton also has embraced the community and is a great influence in Indy. Just recently, he took a group of ten girls from Riley Children's Hospital to a Justin Bieber concert. That's awesome. Overton is great in Indy and, just like Vinatieri and McAfee, Overton's spot on the 53-man roster is absolutely secure.
So where does that leave rookie kicker out of Temple Brandon McManus? He's just a camp body. Nothing more. The team can't have Vinatieri and McAfee wearing out their legs in training camp and preseason, so McManus was brought in to take a bit of the load off of those two. He will be cut sometime during camp, and there's really nothing he can do about it. The best case scenario for him is that he plays well enough that, 1) another team signs him, or 2) the Colts like him enough to bring him in next year when they likely will have a real opening at kicker. As a senior for Temple in 2012, McManus won the College Football Performance Awards Specialist Trophy as the nation's best overall kicker and was named All-Big East first team as a punter and second team as a kicker. He holds Temple's career records for points scored (338), field goals made (60), field goals attempted (83), and punting average (45.4 yards). All of that said, however, he's not making the team. No way.
Vinatieri as the kicker, McAfee as the punter, and Overton as the long snapper. That's the core of the special teams unit - the same as last year and one that figures to be a real good unit. So where's the question mark on special teams? It's the returners.
The clear-cut best kick returner on the team last year was Deji Karim. Though he only returned 9 kickoffs, he averaged 36.4 yards and took a kick back 101 yards for a score. Even if you take out that 101 yard score, he still averaged 28.4 yards per return. But... he's now a Texan, as Ryan Grigson didn't re-sign him this offseason. It was a move that I wish they would have made, but they obviously think that they have a capable replacement. That guy is rookie running back Kerwynn Williams.
Here's what I wrote on Williams in my position preview for the running backs:
Kerwynn Williams was drafted in the 7th round of this year's draft by the Colts after having an absolutely tremendous senior season at Utah State in which he rushed for 1,512 yards and 15 touchdowns while also catching 45 passes for 697 yards and 5 scores. He ran a 4.48 40 at the Combine and figures to make a big push for the Colts kick returner spot.
He likely won't be contributing much out of the backfield, but the Colts have big plans for him as their returner. Ryan Grigson said that "our special teams coaches had him rated as one of the best returners in this draft." Chuck Pagano added that, "we saw, last game of the season, what a kickoff return can do for you. Turned the whole thing around and blew that thing open. This kid can do that all day."
Yeah, sounds like he will absolutely get his shot at kick returner. And, considering the other options that the Colts have, he'll probably win the job easily.
Four guys currently on the team returned kicks for the Colts last year, and none of them were that impressive. Cassius Vaughn returned 10 kicks for 209 yards (20.9 average). T.Y. Hilton returned 7 for 118 yards (16.9), Joe Lefeged 4 for 68 yards (17.0) and LaVon Brazill returned 3 kicks for 50 yards (16.7 average). Meanwhile, in his career at Utah State, Williams returned 135 kicks for a 25.2 average. The Colts hope he can keep up that production at the NFL level, and even if he doesn't, he'll likely be the returner because, well, there's not many other options. [For an in depth look at the Colts' kick returners, check out Andrew Mishler's look at that very topic from earlier this offseason here.]
Williams will get a chance at the punt returning spot as well, although I expect that one to go to T.Y. Hilton. Hilton returned 26 punts last year, gaining 300 yards (11.5 average) and scoring on a 75-yard return against the Bills. Take away the touchdown and he averaged 9 yards per return. Williams, in his career at Utah State, returned 11 punts for 135 yards (12.3 average).
The punt returner battle will likely be much more of a battle than the kick returner one, as both Hilton and Williams look to be in contention for the spot. If they both look pretty much equal at the end of camp and throughout preseoson and neither one holds a clear edge, however, look for Williams to open the season as punt returner as well, because T.Y. Hilton will be playing a much larger role in the offense than Williams will be.
Overall, this unit looks very solid. McAfee is obviously tremendous, Overton is a good long snapper, and Vinatieri is an old veteran who still has it, especially in clutch situations. The team drafted Kerwynn Williams to return kicks, and I'm anxious to see how he does. And, of course, T.Y. Hilton is there to return punts and kicks as well if need be. There's a lot of "wait and see" with these returners, but on paper, it looks better than anything the Colts have had in recent years (which isn't saying much).
Hopefully, with new coach Tom McMahon coming in, this will be an even bigger game-changing unit than it was a year ago.