Thursday, August 12, 2010

Redskins position preview: Special teams

Confidence Level: 7

At long last, we are finally wrapping up the overviews of every position group that started when I took a pre-training camp stab at projecting a 53-man roster back in mid-July.  All that's left are the special teams, which require a rather lengthy post since we have to talk about kick returners and all that, but for purposes of the roster projection were pretty straightforward as there just weren't any choices to be made (at least at the time):

Specialists (3)
Long Snapper: Nick Sundberg
Kicker: Graham Gano
Punter: Josh Bidwell

Long snapper

One of the first things Mike Shanahan did when he took over was ditch Redskin of the Decade Ethan Albright, who had been the Redskins long snapper pretty much forever. How Shanahan was not immediately fired for this act, and then hit with a class-action lawsuit from Redskins fans, is a mystery to me. Over the course of nine Redskins seasons Albright has never, to my knowledge, been guilty of a bad snap. Think about it – when is the last time you can remember the Redskins being the victim of a botched snap? For me it was when the late Dan Turk was unable to set up the potential game-winning field goal in the 2000 (’99 season) playoff game against Tampa Bay. If you can come up with another one, please remind me. It’s quite a luxury to never have to worry about getting the snap down.

And yet Shanahan decided to bring in a young gun in Nick Sundberg. This was an odd move. I get that Albright is 39 years old, but Shanahan’s other roster moves clearly indicate that he does not believe in youth for the sake of youth. I have nothing against Nick Sundberg, except that numerous training camp reports indicate that he is really not particularly at long snapping. Every single day the reporters covering camp describe multiple snaps rolled to the holder. Due to my super-advanced football expertise, I foresee this being a problem. The hope of many fans had been that if Sundberg fails in the preseason game this Friday Ethan Albright could be on a plane to DC very quickly. However, it appears that the Redskins are looking at other, non-redheaded options as backup plans. Either way, I would not recommend becoming too attached to Nick Sundberg.


Because I am a little strange, the acquisition of Hunter Smith last offseason excited me only slightly less than that of Albert Haynesworth. I know it’s weird, but I like punting. Unfortunately he hurt his groin in the Tampa game, and it bugged him throughout the year.  He still had a number of nice punts, but due to the injury was not as consistent as any of us had hoped, and his usually prodigious hang time was rather hit or miss (trust me - I actually timed alot of them - and by the way I am as appalled by that fact as you are).  I was disappointed early in the offseason when I discovered he was not being brought back this year.  There's nothing wrong with Josh Bidwell - he has a good leg, is notably consistent, and can pin the opposition near their own goal line.  In fact having him on board greatly increases my confidence in the Redskins kicking game.  Nonetheless I think of Hunter as the one (Punter) who got away.


I have a good feeling about Graham Gano. His leg strength is truly impressive, which is key because I am a big fan of kickoff distance. The ability to force touchbacks, and therefore require the opposing offense to gain one more first down each drive before becoming a scoring threat, is a badly overlooked part of special teams play. As for accuracy, he’s been kicking out of his mind in camp. With kickers you always have sample size issues, so this is encouraging but by no means conclusive.  I imagines some would make the argument that success in camp is irrelevant because it lacks the pressure of a game situation.  But for a kicker who has not yet established himself and knows he can be replaced on a days notice, I think those practice kicks are about as high-pressure as you can get (Stefan Fatsis illustrated this nicely in A Few Seconds of Panic).

I’m feeling good about him, and I think we may have finally found a long term solution at the position. Of course now that he’s getting hyped and I’ve bought into it, it is quite likely he will be cut by week 3. 


We’ll start with the best news of all: someone other than Antwaan Randle-El will be returning punts for the Redskins this year. DeAngelo Hall might take some punts, but as a starter I doubt he would be used there too frequently. Philip Buchanon represents the safe but boring option, but my guess would be rookie Terrence Austin gets the job. The Redskins clearly had returning in mind when they drafted Austin in the seventh round, and the fact that he has shown himself to be surprisingly polished as a wide receiver means it will be difficult to keep him off the roster.

Brandon Banks is an option as well. Now I’m sure he’s extremely fast, but he is listed at 5’7” and 150 pounds. And if you see him in person I’m sure you will share my skepticism in even those numbers. He looks like an undersized high school kid (undersized even for high school, I mean) snuck onto to the field and started practicing with the Redskins. So he may be hard to catch, but when caught you have to doubt his ability to withstand the resulting punishment. And given that it is hard to picture him actually playing receiver, he would have to earn a roster spot as a punt returner exclusively. More power to him if he can pull it off, but until we see him in game action he has to be considered the longest of long shots.

There are a number of options for kickoffs as well. Devin Thomas took some last year, but generally ran in an exciting fashion to gain average results. It seems like he had a lot of “almost” good returns. But I expect him to get a look there, especially if he ends up a good ways down the wide receiver depth chart.

However at this time I think the most likely option is Ryan Torain. He’s a decisive runner whose skills would seem to make him ideal for kickoff returns, and until Clinton Portis or Larry Johnson get hurt he will have a fair amount of time on his hands as the likely #3 running back. Keiland Williams is an option as well – he certainly has the speed for it and returned kicks in college – but of course it’s far from certain he will end up on the roster.

Previous position previews:

Defensive line
Defensive backs
Offensive line
Running backs
Wide receiver
Tight ends

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