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2014 Tennessee Titans preseason positional analysis: ST

Programming note: I’m back from my mini-vacation and still catching up on things. Second preseason game review tomorrow, then back to the regular grind.

We interrupt the ongoing series defensive part of our trip around the Tennessee Titans position by position as we approach the 2014 regular season with a look at the special teams units.

I mention this every time I do this positional analysis (this offseason, last preseason), but special teams consists of five separate and distinct elements, albeit with overlapping skills. These are: (1) place kicking on field goals and extra points; (2) kickoffs, including kickoff coverage; (3) punts, including punt coverage; (4) kickoff returns; and (5) punt returns. The kicker or punter is normally the kickoff guy, the same players tend to play on multiple units, the kick returner and the punt returner are often the same guy, and the same guy (special teams coach Nate Kaczor, who survived the head coaching change) is in charge of this mess. That does not make it not a mess, though, just a lumping of “not offense or defense.”

The mantra for 2014 is change, as four of the five special teams jobs could be held by a player who didn’t hold the job for the Titans in 2013. The kicking competition has drawn most of the attention after the release of longtime stalwart Rob Bironas. I noted in the offseason positional analysis that Bironas, while an excellent kicker for most of his Titans tenure, had been below average on both kickoffs and field goals in both 2012 and 2013, and didn’t want the Titans to bring him back. Maikon Bonani and Travis Coons are currently vying to replace him. Bonani, who was with the Titans last training camp, has a strong leg but seems to lack consistency. I was skeptical of Coons’ leg strength when I wrote up the 2014 UDFAs, as he didn’t hit any long field goals in college and had a lower touchback rate on kickoffs than Washington’s other kicker, and tentatively made Bonani the heavy favorite for the job. The Titans seem to be placing a lot of trust in assistant special teams coach Steve Hoffman and believe he’s one of the few coaches who can help kickers improve (many special teams coordinators don’t seem to know much about the finer mechanics of kicking and punting).

Through two preseason games, it seems like a relatively even competition. Distance-wise, both kickers have put pretty equal distances on their kickoffs. Coons hit the only field goal attempt(s), making from 45 and then 50 after a penalty negated the first make. The most notable play has been the extra point Bonani missed in the first preseason game, the blame for which is difficult to assign with any precision aside from that you’d like to see Bonani make kicks even if conditions aren’t perfect. It’s worth noting Bironas was only 4-7 on field goals in his first preseason and went on to have a number of excellent seasons. The Titans will also be charting things like their get-off times, hang time and distances on kickoffs, where they place kickoffs relative to where they’re supposed to place them, and probably some other things. My extraordinarily tentative read of the situation is that Coons may be the slight favorite, as the Titans seem to really like him, but that it’s a three-horse race with “Field” a strong contender.

Directional kicker Brett Kern will again be the punter and the holder, and is currently facing no competition for his job. He does both jobs reasonably well enough. Heading into the final year of his deal, I speculated the Titans could talk to him about a contract extension this offseason, but I have not seen any reports of that occurring.

Kicker is not the only job facing competition, as both returner jobs are up for grabs. I believe Dexter McCluster should be the hands-down favorite for the punt return job. He was superb at them last year for the Chiefs, and his personal skill set fits the return job well, with his combination of vision, elusiveness, and speed, while his small stature is less of a factor than it is on run plays. Leon Washington returns after stabilizing both return positions late last season. I’ve long viewed Washington as a better kick returner than punt returner. The same is true of Marc Mariani, who has gotten most of the work on punt returns in the first two preseason games, while Khalid Wooten got them the second half of the second preseason game. I would expect McCluster and Washington to each get one of the two remaining preseason games to show what they can do.

If McCluster ends up as the punt returner, as I believe he should be, then what about kick returns? McCluster’s skills do not seem as well suited to kick returns, or at least he hasn’t done particularly well when he’s had that job. Washington and Mariani are both better at that, though it’s worth emphasizing that was when kickoffs were still at the 30 instead of the 35 and touchbacks were much less common. Both players are on the roster bubble, which makes this a more interesting discussion. Does Washington have a role outside the return jobs? He did not at all last season, even on special teams plays. He got some work on offense in the second preseason game after sitting out the first preseason game entirely. Mariani has gotten a little bit of work on offense in both games in addition to the return work. Wooten also got a kickoff return against the Saints, while running back Antonio Andrews got two. I think Wooten is at least pretty likely to make the team, while Andrews is on my “No” list. We’ll see what McCluster and Washington do the next two weeks, if they get the work as I think they will. I keep going back to Mariani and Washington as the favorites, but this seems like a pretty open competition.

Beau Brinkley is the long-snapper, and the only long-snapper in camp. Special teams gunners will be found from the normal assortment of backups. Marqueston Huff and Avery Williamson seem like they could be good special teams players. It’ll be interesting to see if there’s a roster spot available for Patrick Bailey; I plan to do a new 53-man roster projection later this week, and Bailey will probably be on there.

Conclusion-Type Things

Brett Kern is the punter. The kicker competition is ongoing, with Travis Coons, “Field,” Maikon Bonani my current pecking order. Whoever wins the job won’t be as much of a downgrade from 2013 Rob Bironas as you probably think it will be. Dexter McCluster better be the punt returner, and should be good at it. Kickoff returner is open and we probably won’t know the answer to that until after the cutdown to 53 at the earliest; there are some potentially attractive candidates there. I’d gladly take an overall average special teams unit after last year’s (mis-)adventures.