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Tennessee Titans 2009 offseason positional analysis: Special teams

Jeff Fisher is one of those old-school coaches, a throwback to coaches like General Neyland, who believed you win football games with a good defense and the kicking game. In this segment of our offseason positional analyses, we’ll look at the kicking game, also known as teams play or as special teams, which is so important in Fisher’s philosophy and to the way the Titans play.
There’s a lot of uncertainty about the 2009 Titans special teams. We may see new faces at four of the most important and noticeable positions on special teams — kicker, punter, returner and snapper. We’ll start by looking at those.
Kicker — As discussed in an earlier article, Rob Bironas could become an unrestricted free agent at the end of February. After two decent seasons, he dramatically improved to 64 of 72 field goal attempts, 88.9%, in his last two years. Bironas has a strong leg, as evidenced by his 60-yard field goal on a muddy field to beat the Colts. That strong leg also helps on kickoffs. Touchbacks are better than kick returns, as we witnessed in the pre-Bironas days when Craig Hentrich handled the kickoff duties. I’d like to see Mike Reinfeldt re-sign Bironas to a four-year deal. He deserves it.

Punter — It seems likely that Craig Hentrich will retire after a 15-year NFL career, with four years in Green Bay and then 11 in Tennessee. Hentrich has been to two Pro Bowls and once was a first-team All-Pro, but his back has been bothering him for the last several years and he’ll be 38 years old this summer. I’m thinking it’s the end of the road for him, but if he decides to try it again, he can probably still do the job. He’s a valuable asset in many respects, including being a great holder on field goals and extra points.

Returner — Chris Carr is also a potential free agent. He hasn’t broken a return for a touchdown but he’s given the Titans good field position. Besides his return duties, he also plays on the coverage units, where he was credited with nine tackles. Carr is also a valuable reserve defensive back who can play corner, nickel or safety. Carr has said he’d like to return (pun intended) to the Titans and I hope it happens.

Snapper – Ken Amato still has one year remaining on his contract, so he’s one guy we know will be in training camp this summer. I’m not so sure, though, if he’ll make the team again. It seems to me he’s been a little erratic on occasion the last two years, giving Hentrich some tough snaps to get down on holds and a few longsnaps that have been wide. Anyone else notice that, or is it just my imagination? Amato had some competition in camp last summer and I’m sure he will again. He does have a few things in his favor. He’s a reserve linebacker who gets on the field in certain packages and also blocks on the kickoff return team.
Of course, these are just some of the players who make up the special teams. The Titans have a core group of guys who are generally unnoticed and unsung. These guys bust their butts on both kick coverage and punt coverage. They also block on both kick and punt returns, so they’re on all four of those units. Because of that, they’re some of my favorite guys, even if they don’t get much playing time otherwise. This core group is comprised of Donnie Nickey, Colin Allred, Josh Stamer and Stanford Keglar.
Donnie Nickey — He’s a little more noticeable than the others since he’s also been Hentrich’s personal protector on punts and has been used on some of Alan Lowry’s trick plays out of punt formation. Nickey tied for the team lead with 11 special teams tackles last year. As the backup strong safety, he doesn’t get much regular playing time and he’s one of those guys who’s always on the bubble when the final roster cutdown is made at the end of training camp. If it wasn’t for his contributions on special teams, he probably wouldn’t have made the team the last year or two.
Colin Allred — The second-year weakside linebacker also tied for the team lead with 11 special teams tackles. He won’t get much playing time on defense as long as Keith Bulluck remains healthy but he should be wearing the two-tone blue again in 2009.
Josh Stamer — He had eight tackles on special teams last year, and like Allred, spent most of his time on the bench when the defense was on the field. He’s David Thornton’s backup on the strong side and also like Allred, should be back this fall.
Stanford Keglar — Not a bad rookie year. Once he started making the 45-man gameday active roster, he proved his worth on teams play, contributing nine tackles. He’s third on the depth chart behind Bulluck and Allred at Will, but don’t look for anyone to replace him on the roster this fall.
Other notables:
Michael Griffin — I really don’t like the idea of using him as much as the Titans did on coverage teams. I don’t have that much of a problem using him there against a team with a really dangerous return man. He did a good job there last year with some key tackles on guys like Devin Hester but if it’s not a key situation and if the returner on the other team isn’t that dangerous, I feel he’s too valuable on defense to be used that much on special teams. Griffin also tied for the team lead with 11 special teams tackles and recovered a fumble as well.
Eric King —  A valuable special teamer since joining the Titans, King had six tackles on coverage before breaking his arm again and spending the rest of the season on Injured Reserve. He’s also the Titans third-best cornerback and is another guy who’s scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. I’d like to see him re-signed as well.
Tuff Harris — After being promoted to the active roster, Harris had a special teams tackle in each of the last six regular season games. If he can make the team this year, he can have an impact on the coverage units.
Casey Cramer — The Titans just re-signed him, so he’ll be back in training camp this summer. Cramer didn’t survive the final roster cut at the end of camp last year and was then picked up by the Dolphins, who later released him. As a Titan in 2006 and 2007, he was one of those core players who played on all the special teams and he’ll undoubtedly do the same again if he can make the 53-man roster. I don’t see Cramer getting much playing time at either fullback or tight end, which makes you think the Titans re-signed him to be a role player on special teams.
What are your thoughts about these special teams positions and players?