It’s just about time to wind this series down. As we’ve seen throughout our look at the offenses and defenses in the NFC South, the Saints are the best team on paper, the Buccaneers and Falcons are tagging behind but have the potential to be terrific, and the Panthers promise to be a work in progress. The hope is that the Falcons blow by the ancient-quarterbacked teams in New Orleans and Tampa Bay, but as we know, that’s not a given.
Today, let’s talk special teams, where things are more of the same for everyone except for the Buccaneers, who stink.
#1: New Orleans Saints
Annoyingly, the Saints are the obvious top choice here again.
Will Lutz is one of the league’s more reliable kickers, and he’s coming off a season where he posted the 7th-highest field goal conversion rate in the NFL. Thomas Morstead is one of the league’s most reliable punters, having posted the 8th-highest average yards per punt in the NFL last year. They were also 7th in average yards per punt return and 9th in average yards per kick return, and they had the 3rd-highest average kickoff yardage and touchback percentage. They quite simply are a well-coached, well-rounded special teams unit coming off a great year, which makes them a no-brainer choice for the top spot here again.
#2: Carolina Panthers
The coaching staff overhaul means some uncertainty here, but the Panthers have a good group and they’re unlikely to fall apart.
Assuming Graham Gano is healthy, the Panthers will be able to choose between a hyper-reliable veteran and Joey Slye, who has a strong leg but is coming off a so-so year. Compare that to the Falcons, who have Younghoe Koo as a veteran option but no competition at the moment, or the Bucs and their shaky kicker situation. They were also among the best teams in the NFL in terms of inducing touchbacks a year ago, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Michael Palardy is a rock solid punter who had the 10th-highest yards per punt average in the NFL in 2019, but the Panthers will have to deal with uncertainty at returner, where they’re mulling everything from young options to Christian McCaffrey. so there is work ahead. Ultimately, their veteran punter and kicker options put them ahead of the Falcons, but there’s work to be done for Carolina, as there is across much of their roster.
#3: Atlanta Falcons
I debated putting the Falcons higher than the Panthers here, but once again there are simply too many unknowns.
Let’s start with kicker. Younghoe Koo did a nice job last year, but was only so-so on kickoffs outside of his brilliant onside kick work and was not used beyond 50 yards on field goals. The Falcons have more or less vowed to give him some competition, but have yet to sign any competition for him. If Koo is the guy, he’ll likely be pretty close to nails at 45 and under, but may not be a realistic option for longer field goals if his 2019 usage is indicative of what the team thinks of his capabilities at that range.
Punter was a massive liability last year, with Matt Bosher’s injury hurting him while he was on the field and largely keeping him off of it. That forced the team into a carousel at the punter position, but they’re already in better shape this year with the reliable Ryan Allen and promising rookie Sterling Hofrichter on board. Hofrichter is likely to win the gig, and his strong leg and versatility (he also kicked field goals!) could make him an option on both kickoffs and long field goals, making him a nice potential complement to Koo.
The team’s coverage unit is actually pretty good, but their return game is a bit of an unknown with Kenjon Barner gone and young players like Olamide Zaccheaus and Chris Rowland vying to replace him. Rowland was a stellar returner in college, and will hopefully remain one in the NFL.
There’s talent here, and if Hofrichter and Rowland deliver on their promise, this could be a significantly better unit than it was a year ago. There’s just no way to be sure that’ll happen in June, unfortunately.
#4: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Quietly, this is a weakness for the Bucs, and one that hasn’t been talked about enough.
First, where this team excels: Kicker Matt Gay was the best in the NFL at touchbacks and stellar at kickoffs more broadly. That’s where the good news ends.
Gay was one of the least accurate kickers in the NFL in 2019, with the Bucs ranking 22nd in field goal percentage and 26th in field goal percentage. The team currently only has Gay and chronic tryout kicker Elliott Fry on the roster, meaning they’re banking on improvement from Gay in 2020. That may or may not happen.
The Bucs were also 29th in yards per punt with veteran punter Bradley Pinion, who is returning. For comparison’s sake, that puts them just ahead of the Falcons, who went through something like five punters last year thanks to injury and ineffectiveness. I can’t see that getting markedly better.
On returns, the Bucs were 28th in yards per kick return and 29th in yards per punt return, the kinds of very dismal marks we unfortunately came to associate with Keith Armstrong’s units in his final years with the Falcons. They’re still assembling the kind of quality special teamers more broadly who make things work well here, and I don’t think their offseason suggests they’ve done enough to drastically improve this unit.
Look for the Bucs to be pretty comfortably the worst special teams group in this division again in 2020.
How would you rank these units?