It has been an eventful off-season in Orchard Park. While everyone continues to discuss the changes that have been made offensively and defensively, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at some of the ongoings for Buffalo's strongest unit: their special teams. Led by Special Teams (and Assistant Head) Coach Bobby April, our unit has finished in the top 3 in the league the last three seasons, including two stints as #1 in 2004-5. Just like the offense and defense, there has been a bit of turnover this off-season for our special teams; let's take a look at those changes this morning.
Note: In light of the holiday weekend, this will be my only post over the next two days. I plan on spending my holiday relaxing and being with family; I hope the weekend is as enjoyable for all of you as it will be for me. I'll be back early Tuesday morning; enjoy your holiday, everyone.
Kicking and Punting: There isn't much to report here, which is a great thing. Our three-headed monster of K Rian Lindell, P Brian Moorman and LS Mike Schneck has developed into a consistent group, and another year on the job together should only make them more consistent. Moorman went to the Pro Bowl the last two seasons, Schneck went with him in 2005 and Lindell received a 5-year extension prior to the end of last season. This group is going to be together for a while; our kicking game should be stellar once again.
Kickoff and Punt Coverage: All our favorite coverage specialists are back: WR Sam Aiken, LB Coy Wire, LB Mario Haggan, LB Josh Stamer, LB John DiGiorgio, CB Jabari Greer, and S Jim Leonhard were prominent names last season and figure to be big parts of our coverage units once more. The biggest defection of the off-season came on our punt coverage units, where Andre' Davis was a fantastic gunner teamed with Greer. There are a few candidates to replace him; none may be more qualified than free agent addition Josh Scobey, who played a similar role in Seattle. Ashton Youboty, Kiwaukee Thomas and Wire should figure into the mix as well. Rookie John Wendling should also be a new contributor to these units and has the potential to be a great playmaker for us.
A lot of our success has been due to the accuracy and strong legs of Lindell and Moorman. Moorman's sky-high punts allow his coverage units plenty of time to get downfield, and he is one of the best in recent memory at placing the ball deep in opponents' territory. Lindell doesn't have the strongest kickoff, but he has been great at neutralizing solid kick returners by angling his kicks, squibbing the ball and other such manners of avoidance. The team does give up a big runback every now and then, but with a lot of continuity there should be improvement on kickoffs.
The Return Units: This is where things get real interesting. With Terrence McGee assuming our #1 CB role defensively, it is likely that the coaching staff will want to limit his kick returns to special situations and certain spots within games. McGee will likely still handle all the "big" kick returns, but if the team can lighten his load he'll be fresher throughout the season. Scobey has returned kicks in the past (and well at that, finishing 12th in the league in 2003 with a 23.1-yard average). He is the favorite to return other kicks, with Roscoe Parrish or Shaud Williams a possibility as well.
Parrish will re-assume his punt returning role, with Jim Leonhard getting a few looks mixed in as the season goes along. That duo made some nice returns last season and should continue to make big plays for us as we go forward.
It will also be interesting to see how blocking assignments unfold. Last year, the main players who formed the "wedge" on kick returns were Daimon Shelton, Anthony Thomas and Tim Anderson. Shelton is gone, Anderson may be gone and Thomas will have a much greater role in the offense. I expect guys like Brad Cieslak, Duke Preston and potentially a Sam Rayburn (if brought in) to get looks at these positions; there could be a bit of transition there.
Outlook: In all, our special teams units have great continuity with just a few minor tweaks and turnovers from last season. GM Marv Levy places heavy emphasis, as we all know, on bringing in guys who excel in this department; he's succeeded at this once again. Just about every player on the current 84-man roster has the ability to play special teams in this league, and the result will be come opening day, we'll be very deep in these units. I expect no less than another Top-5 ranking this year, with more consistent performances all around.