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2012 Tennessee Titans offseason positional analysis: Special Teams

Photo by Andrew Strickert for Total Titans

We continue our position by position analysis of the Titans, turning now to special teams.

The Titans’ special teams were excellent in 2011, and that was reflected in Football Outsiders‘ metrics, which ranked Tennessee third in DVOA, first in weighted DVOA and third in non-adjusted VOA.

Most of the high rankings should be credited to kicker Rob Bironas, who enjoyed a career-best season.

Tom has written two good pieces on Bironas in the last six months.  The first, in August, was on expectations of him for the 2011 season.  Following the season, Tom selected him as the Titans’ special teams MVP.  I recommend both articles for your reading pleasure.  The latter well covers Bironas’ accomplishments last season, so there’s little need for them to be rehashed here, though I will post his stats.

  Rob Bironas stats
  FGA FGM Pct Long XPA XPM Pct KO Avg TB Ret Avg
2011  32  29 90.6 53 34 34 100.0  78 64.0  44  30 22.7
Career 219 189 86.3 60 241 239   99.2 536 65.2 127 390 23.8

The 2012 season is the final one on Bironas’ current contract.  If he has another good season this year, I would expect the Titans to try to re-sign him prior to March of next year.

Bironas is “only” 34 years old, which is old for most players but not really old for a kicker.  George Blanda kicked until he was 48 years old, Morten Andersen kicked until he was 47 and Gary Anderson kicked for the Titans at age 45.  I’m not suggesting Bironas’ career will be that lengthy, but he could have another five years or so left in the league, health, accuracy and leg strength permitting.

Punter Brett Kern also had a good season, with 39.4 net yards per punt.  Kern was actually better in 2009, when he netted 41.4 yards per punt with the Titans, but had only 37 punts.  The Titans’ (Kern’s) punting DVOA was seventh best in the league last season.

   Brett Kern stats
  Punts Long Avg Net Blk OOB Dn In20 TB FC Ret Avg TD
2011  86 64 43.6 39.4 0 10 10 31  7 23  36 6.1 0
Career 273 68 44.4 38.8 0 27 38 95 25 57 126 8.0 2

You don’t normally notice a punter too much in a game, unless he has a bad one, but I thought Kern had an outstanding game against Buffalo, continually pinning them deep in their own territory.  The Titans enjoyed field position advantage throughout the game, which they won 23-17.

Kern is a good athlete – he also serves as the holder and in Week 3 last year he converted a first down by rushing for 21 yards.  The run was the longest of the season for the Titans until Chris Johnson ran for 25 yards the following week.

Kern has three years remaining on his contract, through the 2014 season.

Return specialist Marc Mariani had a decent season last year, though it wasn’t as good as his rookie year, when he was selected to the Pro Bowl.  Mariani has two years remaining on his contract.

The Titans had the league’s fifth-best kick return average, at 26.0 yards, thanks in part to a Tommie Campbell 84-yard touchdown on a reverse, a play which covered 100 yards total. Football Outsiders ranked the Titans sixth best on kick returns last year.

Tennessee had the 14th-best punt return average at 10.4 ypr, with a 79-yard TD by Mariani as the longest return.  FO ranked the Titans’ punt return team tenth.

Ken Amato, who has been the Titans’ snapper since 2003, will be an unrestricted free agent.  For the last several years, I’ve thought his accuracy, particularly on snaps for extra points and field goal attempts, has been a little too erratic.  Fortunately, holders Craig Hentrich and Brett Kern have done a good job handling most of the errant snaps.

It might be time for a change.  Amato used to bring additional value as a linebacker, but he hasn’t been on the field playing defense for several years now.  I don’t know who would upgrade the position, but five other snappers – Matt Katula (Vikings), Mike Leach (Cardinals and a former Titan), Chris Massey (Bears), Don Muhlbach (Lions) and Joe Zelenka (Falcons) – are also scheduled to become free agents.  None of those names are particularly appealing but perhaps we’ll see one of them in two-tone blue this year.

The best snapper available to be drafted or signed as an undrafted free agent is Josh Harris of Auburn, who was the only snapper that was invited to the Combine.
Continuing on to look at more of the special teams personnel, two of the Titans’ best special teamers, Tim Shaw and Patrick Bailey, are also scheduled to be free agents, though Jim Wyatt reports the Titans are trying to re-sign both of them.

Following are the tackles made on special teams last year (numbers from NFL Gamebooks):
Shaw – 11
Bailey – 9
Campbell – 8
Hawkins – 8
A.Smith – 7
Ayers – 5
Babineaux – 4
Cook, Mariani, McCarthy – 3 each
Amato, Bironas, Hall, Malast, McRath, Stevens, Verner, Witherspoon – 2 each
Both of Gerald McRath’s special teams tackles occurred in Week One and he didn’t have another for the remainder of the season, which was something of a surprise.  I had expected him to be very active on the coverage units.  Since he seldom played on defense, he really didn’t contribute much at all to the Titans’ season last year.
Other stats from gamebooks:
Shaw – 1 BL
Harper – 1 FR
Bailey – 1 BL
Campbell – 1 FF
Mariani – 1 FR

The three specialists, Bironas, Kern and Mariani, obviously had the biggest impact on the special teams’ success.  The three non-specialists who contributed most were clearly Shaw, Bailey and Campbell, though Campbell’s penchant for drawing penalty flags hurt the Titans on occasion.  I’d like to see Shaw and Bailey re-signed, I’d like to see the snapper position upgraded this offseason, and I’d love to see Campbell contribute even more in 2012.

What do think about the Titans’ special teams?  As always, your input and comments are encouraged and appreciated.