As part of an occasional series, Fanspeak will offer tips and best practices for its wildly popular and first-of-its-kind On The Clock draft simulator.
Today’s topic: If your team needs a special teams player like a kicker, punter or long-snapper, it’s best not to wait until priority free agency.
New England wide receiver Matthew Slater has one career reception in 12 seasons.
And yet, Slater has been named first-team All-Pro five times, earned eight trips to the Pro Bowl and is a three-time Super Bowl champion and is one of the team captains.
And despite his age – he’ll be 35 by the time the season starts – Slater just resigned with New England on a two-year contract reportedly worth $2.6 million per year.
The reason Slater has carved out a very successful NFL career is because he possesses a unique skill: He’s an elite gunner on special teams. Slater has 154 tackles for his career, including 120 solo tackles, and is widely seen as the best gunner in the NFL.
During his tenure at UCLA, Slater bounced around from defensive back to wide receiver, but he made his mark as an elite returner, setting new school records and returning three kicks for touchdowns in 2007. But he was also a special teams ace on their coverage units.
All of that was enough for New England to make Slater a fifth-round draft choice in 2008, the 153rd player selected.
And therein lies an important lesson when it comes to special teams, from punters and kickers to long snappers, gunners and returners: Don’t assume the one you want will be available as a priority free agent.
Finding a Day 3 rookie who can contribute right away is either a coup or a sign that a team is dealing with serious injuries.
But, generally speaking, players drafted on Day 3 last that long for a reason. Notre Dame receiver Chase Claypool and Florida receiver Van Jefferson are the exceptions to the rule, as both are generally seen as second- to fourth-round prospects who are also exceptional gunners on special teams. Likewise, TCU receiver Jalen Reagor is not only a fringe first-rounder, but he’s also one of the top kick returners.
And that makes those players incredibly valuable because it’s like you’re drafting two players: a potential rookie starter at WR and a special teams ace.
Instead, Fanspeak combed through all the special teams rankings and statistics to find players who are considered Day 3 to priority free agent-type of prospects.
Again, some of these players will be drafted – but if your team is badly in need of a player at one of these positions, then you better address the position before you run out of picks.
Georgia’s Rodrigo Blankenship might be the most famous kicker – just Google “Georgia kicker” and watch as the first suggested result is “Georgia kicker glasses,” with a link to Blankenship. But he’s not the only one who could be drafted. Analysts are also high on Utah State’s Dominik Eberle.
Eberle made 64 out of 81 career field goals, good for 79 percent, while hitting all 167 extra point attempts as a four-year starter. Blankenship, also a four-year starter, was even more accurate, hitting 80 out of 97 FG attempts and all 200 extra point attempts. He also had 234 career touchbacks and won the Lou Groza award as the nation’s top kicker.
East Carolina’s Jake Verity (60-77 FGs, 77.9 percent; 100-102 XPs) and TCU’s Jonathan Song (40-44, 90.9 percent; 104-106 XPs) also could be drafted.
Several punters could hear their names called on Day 3, including Texas A&M’s Braden Mann (48.9 career average), South Carolina’s Joseph Charlton (45.5 career average) and Arizona State’s Michael Turk (46.0 in lone season at ASU), who is a redshirt sophomore.
One long-snapper has been drafted in each of the past five years, but there’s a chance as many as three could be drafted this year.
Liam McCullough of Ohio State is one of the most accomplished long snappers, as the hometown product finished his four-year career with 431 consecutive good snaps.
LSU’s Blake Ferguson earned two degrees, was twice named permanent team captain – the first time in school history that a LS earned that honor – and played in 52 consecutive games as a four-year starter.
Ferguson was one of two long snappers invited to the Combine, the other being Iowa State’s Steven Wirtel, who put on a show at the event. Checking in at 6-foot-4, 235 pounds, Wirtel ran a 4.76 second 40 and put up 19 reps in the bench press. His 40 time set a Combine record for long snappers, and his bench press was the fifth-best mark.
Due to rules changes, kick returners aren’t as coveted by NFL teams as they used to be. Still, no one returned more kicks last season than Massachusetts cornerback Isaiah Rodgers, a 5-foot-10, 170-pound senior.
Rodgers led the nation in kickoff returns (his 53 kickoffs were 16 more than the next-closest player) and kickoff return yardage (his 1,295 yards were 346 yards more than the next-closest player).
And while analysts say he likely doesn’t possess the speed or strength to be a regular contributor on defense, Rodgers’ college production and Pro Day results suggest otherwise. Rodgers allegedly ran a 4.28-second 40-yard dash at his school’s Pro Day, and he finished his career with 187 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, four fumble recoveries, four forced fumbles, 34 passes defensed and 11 interceptions, with three of them returned for TDs.
My boy @rodgers_isaiah wasn’t invited to the @NFLCombine He woulda been #1 in the 40 #2 in the Vertical and #3 in the 3-Cone Drill…. somebody gone get a Gem in the Draft !!!!! pic.twitter.com/dcvR0tuJ1E
— Coach P (@DauntaPeterson) March 25, 2020
Like Rodgers, Wyoming receiver Austin Conway (5-10, 183) is an undersized player who offers more than just special teams value as a punt returner.
Conway was used all over the field on offense, with 127 receptions for 1,216 yards and 5 TDs for his career to go along with 287 rushing yards and 3 TDs. He even has one career touchdown pass.
But Conway’s real value is as a punt returner, where he led the nation with 34 returns. His 366 return yards, good for an average of 10.8 per game, ranked second nationally. For his career, Conway returned 114 punts for 953 yards (8.4 yards per return) and 1 TD.
Jake Rigdon (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers the NFL draft for Fanspeak and the On The Clock, which is the only NFL draft simulator that allows you to customize and use your own big board while giving you control over trades.