Well the 2012 draft is in the books, and I think overall people are satisfied with the job Buddy Nix and Chan Gailey did assembling a roster of rookies for the upcoming year. But there are definitely still some questions with the roster, between odd selections in the draft and unfilled positions following a big offseason.
This is my attempt to figure out the philosophy behind CHIX's construction of the team, from a player standpoint as well as X's and O's. As is my usual MO, I'm going to approach this article from an outsider's perspective - assuming I don't know anything about the players involved, analyzing data, videos, and statistics to identify a methodology that makes sense. As I develop the article, the things I learn shape the answers to the questions I ask.
Disclaimer: I am merely a couch scout who hasn't played football before. I like to focus most of my posts on the business side because it's easier for me to quantify contracts and statistics than to diagram a play. That being said, I know enough about the play on the field that I'd like to start writing more about that.
First I'm going to take a look at the special teams part of our roster. Why start with special teams? Well, for one thing, it's a lot smaller part of the team than offense or defense, and it allows me to examine rookies in greater detail than the broader sections. For another, the selection of K John Potter has raised plenty of questions among the fanbase, and I'm hoping to figure out why Buffalo went the direction they did in drafting Potter.
Long Snapper: Garrison Sanborn
Not much to say here about Sanborn. He's an excellent accurate snapper, a decent tackler, and that is really all Buffalo needs from him. He'll be a lock for the roster for as long as he can reliably deliver the football. He signed a 3 year contract extension this offseason and won't be dealing with major competition from rookies in training camp.
Kicker: Rian Lindell
Lindell has been quietly one of the most dependable Bills for the last decade. Since 2004, he has averaged 84% success on field goals - a remarkable amount for a single season, let alone 9 of them (Adam Vinatieri's career average? 82.9%). He is also stupendous within the 40 yard mark. In the last 5 years, he has missed 3 total field goals from within 40 yards. Us fans have been spoiled by how accurate Rian can be when he gets in close. Unfortunately, outside the 40, his lack of leg strength hurts him, with 20 missed field goals in that same 5 year time span. Rian's excellent close accuracy is also reflected in his nearly perfect extra point success, with a single heartbreaking blocked point in 2010 the only blemish on essentially a 100% conversion rate.
In kickoffs, Rian has been a steady but unremarkable contributor, not having the leg strength to consistently get a touchback. To help conserve his leg strength and play to his effectiveness, Buffalo changed their kickoff coverage strategy in 2011. You'll notice that Buffalo had one of the lowest touchback percentages in the league, but also had an excellent opponent starting mark of the 20.7 yard line. This plays to Lindell's strengths - kick it high into the air, close to the edge of the end zone, and allow the coverage team to set up for a tackle. While this worked pretty well, it exposes the coverage team to tackling on almost every single kickoff, which is always a risk for injury or broken play.
At 35, Lindell is no spring chicken, although as a kicker he could probably play another 4 or 5 seasons if he had it in him. He's coming off a shoulder injury that likely will have no effect on his kicking abilities. As of right now he has the kicker position and the kickoff specialist position locked down.
Punter: Brian Moorman
This is another player who feels like he's been a career Bill (even though he started out as a Seahawk many years ago). He's such an institution at Buffalo that it's tough to think about his retirement. And after having a career year last year, you could argue that Brian has enough left in him to finish his contract this year and maybe tack on another year or two.
It'd appear that, with a 48.2 average punt distance, Moorman had a career year last year. However, looking at other stats tells you he was definitely on the downswing of his career. His net average was right in the middle of his career amount at 38.1 yards. Only 8 of his 72 punts were fair caught, the lowest amount in the last 5 years. Only 4 of his punts made it out of bounds - another 5 year low, and another sign that he's slowing down as he ages.
So the Brian Moorman who is coming into training camp is definitely in a precarious position. He had a tough challenger last year in Reid Forrest but was able to fend him off pretty well. This year however, he has only one year of his contract left, and his leg is not as strong as it used to, nor as accurate. I'm calling it now - the punter position will probably be an open battle heading into training camp.
Kicker/Kickoff Specialist: John Potter
What do we know about Potter? Well, we know that he was off the radar of the national media. But that's pretty typical when you're:
A. A kicker
B. A player from the MAC
C. A seventh round draft pick
Here's all the data I've compiled about Potter. First of all, it's clear that the reason Buddy Nix drafted this guy is because of his leg strength:
"This guy is a kickoff guy. He kicked through the uprights kicking off and if you can make, or kick the ball in the end zone and make them start on the 20 it gives you a much better chance defensively. Then it will be up to Chan to figure out a spot to get him in the 46, so he is active, but if he can consistently kick it in the end zone than he is worth that seventh pick."
A scouting video of John Potter on YouTube (removed since the draft unfortunately) shows him hitting multiple kickoffs not just to the endzone, but through the uprights of the goal posts. Keep in mind that this was also done from the 30 yard line, not the 35 like NFL kickoffs will be done. Consider these stats: In 4 years of college football, Potter got 77 touchbacks on 281 kickoffs. That means one in every four kickoffs was a touchback. Last season, 36 of his 85 kickoffs were touchbacks - an astonishing 42%. If you consider that he could be kicking from 5 yards forward in the NFL, it's very possible that this kid could be getting a touchback on more than 50 percent of his kickoffs!
In the last 4 years of Rian Lindell's career (with one of those years being from the 35 yard line), he got 36 touchbacks on 255 kickoffs - 14%. Even keeping Buffalo's strategy of kickoff coverage in mind, it is clear that Lindell was never a deep kicker. His career touchback percent is only 7.7%. That equals a lot of work for the coverage teams.
For one last reference on the kickoff front, let's consider one of the strongest legs in the game today, Sebastian Janikowski. In the last 4 years, he has had 100 touchbacks on 298 kickoffs, or about one in three. Kicking off from the 35 last year, he had 40% of his kickoffs turn into touchbacks.
So it is clear that John Potter has a powerful leg, and if there is one thing he is definitely good at, it is kicking touchbacks. This also seems to be a new plan for both strategy and safety by CHIX - if they can control the outcome of the kicking game so that half of all kickoffs are touchbacks, then the chance of a deep kickoff return is cut by 50%. The chance of an injury from rough contact on coverage is also cut significantly. Lastly, planning for a 20 yardline start helps the defensive playcalling. Doing research on correlation between average drive start and success on the field, I found a low but noticeable correlation between the two. The worst field positions had the worst points scored per drive, and the best ones tended to be above the median in field position.
What else do we know about John Potter? Well, he seems to be similar to Rian Lindell as far as field goal kicking goes. In the last two years, he made 18 of his 20 field goal attempts from within the 40 yard mark. Beyond 40, he was 8 for 14, including 0 for 1 beyond 50. He was also 100% successful on extra points in the last two years - 107 for 107.
Here's a scouting video that allows you to see his mechanics during kickoffs and field goal attempts, if you're into that sort of thing. The one thing I noticed is that his strength really is obvious, especially during field goals. If he can get his leg under control, this guy could be hitting 55+ yard field goals some day.
I know there were plenty of people dissing this pick when it came in, but doing research, I was really impressed with this kid. Kickoffs may not seem like a crucial part of the game, but Potter is definitely a special talent on the level of SeaBass. If he gets a place on the active roster this year (and I have a feeling he will), he can kickoff all year, and take over for Lindell next season once he's gotten some practice kicking field goals. He's also a great backup option of Rian gets injured again.
Projection: Makes the opening roster as a kickoff specialist. Becomes the full time kicker after a year or two.
Punter: Shawn Powell
Shawn Powell is another intriguing rookie who I think has a very good chance to stick on the roster if he can outperform Brian Moorman in training camp. Coming out of Florida State, he has a high pedigree and a history of excellent play in three years of starting, and looks to have potential to be a future starter for many years. Powell is considered to be a rugby-style directional punter, but has a strong leg capable of pinning opponents deep in their territory. He also held the ball on field goal attempts, which is always a plus.
Last year, Shawn Powell punted 57 times. He averaged 47.0 yards per punt, had 7 touchbacks, 4 fair catches, 23 punts inside the 20, and 24 punts longer than 50 yards. His longest punt for the year (and his career long) was 69 yards. With a net punting average of 42.0 yards, he had returners gain 285 yards against him. Let's compare that to last year from Brian Moorman, which on paper looked to be one of his best years. Moorman punted 72 times. He averaged 48.2 yards per punt, had 10 touchbacks and 8 fair catches, and 20 punts inside the 20. Returners gained 494 yards against him.
The first things that pop out to me are the punts inside the 20 and the return yards. Both are strong indicators of a successful punter, as punting deep is important as is kicking it high enough that a returner can't start a lane. Powell punted inside the 20 40% of the time, compared to Brian Moorman's 28%. On average, punt returners gained 6.86 yards per return against Brian Moorman. Against Powell, they gained 5.0 yards per return. Doesn't seem to be a huge difference, but it adds up. It's worth recognizing that the 494 yards gained was the second highest of Moorman's career - and if you consider the average rather than the gross total, this was Moorman's worst year at containing returners.
Powell was an All-America punter selection this year, and had several outstanding games. Probably the most notable one was against Florida, where he forced the offense to begin drives from the 4, 7, and 5 yard lines during a busy day. Unfortunately, there is really not much to go by on video of Powell. Here's a clip from an open FSU practice which shows two punts. Definitely capable of kicking the ball high and long. With all the bodies and the moving camera it was tough for me to identify precisely how deep he kicked it.
Brian Moorman is an institution of Bills football. I love him and all he does for the team and the community. But I think his time has come this year, and a talented prospect in Powell can beat him out for the position on the roster. CHIX are probably on that same line as well - by assembling two talents like Potter and Powell, I think they want to set up the special teams for the next 15 years.
Projection: Makes the opening roster as the punter. If he doesn't, is kept on the practice squad and signed to a full contract when Brian Moorman's contract runs out in 2013.
So that's where I'm at on the special teams for this year. I think we are at a very interesting time in special teams strategy. Between moving the kicking point up to the 35 yard line and ruminations about player safety, there are a lot of changes happening in special teams. Coaches might want to invest in players who can remove risk from the special teams plays. Instead of worrying about whether a two-man wedge is legal or not next year, why not focus on getting touchbacks so your players spend less time slamming into each other? I think that Buffalo is lucky to have 2 amazing specialists who are both at the tail ends of their careers, and to have 2 more prospects who both look to have the talent to start for years with some grooming. I'm excited to see Potter and Powell make the team and stick around for years to come!