NFL Prospects: Special Teams

2007 promises to be a strong year for special teams

April 16, 2007

By Rob Rang

Special to CSTV.com from the Sports Xchange

 

The argument that special teams play is more valued in the NFL today than ever before has wheels. Just look at Chicago and Indianapolis, reigning conference champions.

 

Chicago's defense gets much of the credit for the Bears' Super Bowl run. But the Bears' special teams had a significant hand in their ascension to the championship game. Rookie Devin Hester returned six kicks for scores and made the Pro Bowl. Kicker Robbie Gould, also a Pro Bowl selection, hit 38 of 42 field-goal attempts, including the game-winner in overtime in the NFC Championship Game. Punter Brad Maynard is also among the steadiest in the league.

 

Indianapolis free-agent acquisition Adam Vinatieri was viewed by some as the missing ingredient that helped the Colts get over the hump and become Super Bowl champions.

 

Fortunately for the 28 other teams in the league, the 2007 NFL Draft is a particularly strong one for special-teams prospects. For the first time in years, there is a reasonable possibility that a return specialist, kicker and punter will all be drafted in the first three rounds.

 

An in-depth look at the best returners, kickers, punters, and long snappers available in the draft:

 

RETURN SPECIALISTS:

 

1. Ted Ginn, Jr., RS/WR, Ohio State, 6-0, 180, JR:

 

An explosive runner likely to be drafted in the first round as a receiver, Ginn may offer a more immediate impact with his return skills. He leaves Ohio State as the Big Ten record holder with six punt returns for scores. Also returned two kickoffs for scores. Possesses an outstanding combination of quickness, agility, balance and pure speed, but he may lack the size, route-running and natural hands to develop into a lead receiver.

 

2. Aaron Ross, RS/CB, Texas, 6-1, 192, SR:

 

The Thorpe Award winner as the nation's top defensive back, the speedy Ross will be drafted in the first round because of his ability to shut down opposing wide receivers, but he brings the added element of game-breaking punt-return ability. Ross was used as a kick returner twice (26.5 average) at Texas, but returned 76 punts for an impressive 11.8-yard average. Three times he returned punts for scores. Pure speed, agility and balance make him one of the better athletes on the field. He's dangerous each time the ball is in his hands.

 

3. Johnnie Lee Higgins, RS/WR, UTEP, 5-11, 184, SR:

 

Productive receiver and return specialist with the size, speed and agility to continue playing both roles at the NFL level. Best asset might be his acceleration. Once he reaches the open field, Higgins has the burst to pull away from defenders. Averaged 19.88 yards per kick return over his three seasons at the position. He took over primary punt-return duties as a junior, averaging 9.4 yards per return. He seemed more comfortable in that role as a senior, returning two punts for touchdowns.

 

4. Yamon Figurs, RS/WR, Kansas State, 5-11, 174, SR:

 

Figurs isn't the receiver prospect that Ginn Jr. and Higgins are, and won't likely be drafted anywhere near as high. Still, he's viewed by many as the best pure returner in the draft.

 

Figurs recorded the fastest time (4.30 seconds in the 40-yard dash) of anyone tested at the 2007 Scouting Combine. As a senior at Kansas State, he was voted First Team All-Big 12 as a return specialist, averaging 12.2 yards per punt return and 22.6 yards per kickoff return. He returned a punt 81 yards for a touchdown against Illinois State to start the season and had a 52-yard return against Texas. Invited to the Hula Bowl, Figurs returned a kickoff for an apparent touchdown before it was ruled that he stepped out of bounds. Nicknamed "The Playmaker" for his return ability and his old school face mask preferred by Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin.

 

Others to watch:

 

-- Antonio Pittman, RS/RB, Ohio State, 5-11, 195, SR: Has the size, vision and elusiveness scouts prefer in kick returners.

-- Travarous Bain, RS/CB, Hampton, 6-0, 182, SR: Former Miami Hurricane has great speed and agility.

-- Steve Breaston, RS/WR, Michigan, 6-1, 178, SR: Best chance in the NFL might be as return specialist.

-- Syndric Steptoe, RS/WR, Arizona, 5-9, 194, SR: Lacks classic speed (4.55) but he's elusive and has dependable hands.

-- Tim Mixon, RS/CB, California, 5-9, 186, SR: All-Pac-10 return specialist and cornerback before tearing ACL in 2006.

 

 

KICKERS:

 

1. Mason Crosby, Colorado, 6-1, 214, SR:

 

Possesses as strong a leg as any kicking prospect in the past 10 years. Kicked a career-long 60-yard field goal at Colorado, and proved his range had nothing to do with the thin Colorado air with a 58-yarder at Miami -- the longest without a kicking tee at sea level in D-I history. Leg strength translates on kickoffs, with 138 of 203 career kickoffs going for touchbacks. Crosby isn't just a big leg, as he has converted 75 percent of his career field-goal attempts, including 40 of 44 from 40 yards or less.

  

2. Justin Medlock, UCLA, 6-0, 201, SR:

 

An All-Pac-10 selection all four seasons with the Bruins, Medlock leaves with a career accuracy mark of 79.5 percent (70 of 88). He lacks the monster leg some scouts look for -- he has a long of 52 yards and on kickoffs consistently falls short of the five-yard line. Statistically, he improved throughout his career, topping it off with a senior season worthy of First Team All-American honors, when he converted 26 of 30 attempts. Worth noting: Medlock was suspended in December 2005 after being arrested for a felony DUI and leaving the scene of an accident.

 

3. Nick Folk, Arizona, 6-2, 225, SR:

 

Folk is an emerging talent who overcame previous struggles with long-distance field-goal attempts to enjoy a standout senior campaign.

 

Folk was a First Team All-Pac-10 choice in 2006, making 15 of 20 field goals and doubling as the team's punter -- averaging 44 yards per punt. Helped himself with a strong performance at the Senior Bowl, showing his leg strength matched favorably with Crosby's. Despite impressive leg strength, Folk struggled with attempts from beyond 40 yards in his career, making only 11 of 21. Folk has converted 17 of 23 tries inside the 40-yard line over the past three seasons. 

 

Others to watch:

 

-- Jesse Ainsworth, Arizona State, 6-2, 218, SR: Made 91 percent of his field-goal attempts inside 40 yards.

-- Brian Wingert, Northern Iowa, 6-1, 185, SR: Strong leg for kickoffs and made 75.9 percent of his career field-goal attempts.

-- Matt Clark, Auburn, 6-0, 181, SR: Clark is exclusively a kickoff specialist. Last season, 77 percent of his kickoffs were touchbacks.

 

 

PUNTERS:

 

1. Daniel Sepulveda, Baylor, 6-3, 229, SR:

 

Everyone's All-American in 2006, Sepulveda could challenge Todd Sauerbrun (No. 56 overall, 1995) as the highest-drafted punter in NFL history. His career punting average of 45.24 yards is the highest in D-I history among punters with more than 50 attempts. He's a two-time winner of the Ray Guy Award as the nation's best punter (2004, 2006). Tore the ACL in his right (non-kicking) leg in April of 2006, but recovered in time to play every game last season. Built like a linebacker -- and was recruited as one when he signed with Baylor out of high school.

 

2. Adam Podlesh, Maryland, 5-11, 202, SR:

 

Podlesh is a rare athlete for the punter position. Has been timed in the 4.4s and has an athletic, sculpted frame. Shows a strong leg, averaging 43.2 yards per punt over the past two seasons. The only player in Maryland history to have been honored as an All-ACC choice four times. Offers unique possibilities for fakes due to his athleticism and physicality.

 

3. Kody Bliss, Auburn, 5-11, 179, SR:

 

While Bliss may lack the size and athleticism of the two other highly regarded punting prospects, his 45.72-yard average in the ultra-athletic SEC is impressive. Bliss was a consistent standout at Auburn since his freshman season, and has plenty of leg strength despite his less-than imposing frame. He could be more accurate as a pooch punter. He had nearly as many touchbacks (eight) as punts downed inside the 20-yard line (13).

 

Others to watch:

 

-- Brendan Carney, Syracuse, 6-4, 203, SR: Improving talent who had zero punts blocked as a senior after having nine blocked the previous three years.

-- Brandon Fields, Michigan State, 6-5, 239, SR: Four-time All-Big Ten honoree. 

-- Adam Graessle, Pittsburgh, 6-4, 215, SR: Has a strong leg that allowed him to be used as a kickoff specialist as well as punter.

 

 

LONG SNAPPERS:

 

1. Nick Leeson, LS, Virginia Tech, 6-2, 255, SR:

 

Leeson is considered the clear-cut premier senior long snapper by most scouts.  According to Virginia Tech statistics, he had only one bad snap over the past two years. Has the size and athleticism to hold up at the NFL level. Leeson, along with Arkansas' Brett Goode, were the first pure long snappers ever to be invited to the Senior Bowl. Leeson was a three-year starter for a program renowned for its special-teams play. 

 

2. Jared Retkofsky, LS, TCU, 6-5, 265, SR:

 

Unlike many prospects at this position, Retkofsky has the size and experience at other positions to contribute outside of special teams. He was a contributor at left defensive end and defensive tackle throughout his career with the Horned Frogs. Overall, he's a good athlete who left TCU with the record for broad jump (10'1") by a defensive lineman, and he consistently ran the 40-yard dash in the 4.8s.

 

3. Zak DeOssie, LS/ILB, Brown, 6-5, 250, SR:

 

Graded as only a marginal long-snapping prospect, DeOssie is viewed as a quality inside linebacker worthy of mid-round consideration. His father, Steve, was a linebacker and long snapper for Dallas, New England, and the Giants and Jets. Zak DeOssie was voted a finalist the past two years for the Buck Buchanan Award, presented annually to I-AA's best defensive player. He took over the long-snapping duties at Brown as a senior.

 

Others to watch:

 

-- Aaron King, UTEP, 6-1, 239, SR: King was a four-year starter and finished with four tackles in coverage in 2006. One of only three pure long snappers invited to NFL Scouting Combine (Leeson, Retkofsky).

 

-- Lane Kelly, Nebraska, 6-4, 270, SR: A four-year starter in the Big 12 with NFL size.