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Training camp questions: Can the special teams bounce back?

The News will examine 10 questions facing the Buffalo Bills leading up to the start of training camp.

By Jay Skurski

News Sports Reporter

Lost amid the defensive shortcomings on the Buffalo Bills in 2015 was the step back taken on special teams.

A year after finishing second overall in the Dallas Morning News’ rankings, the Bills dropped to 16th in 2015.

A maddening amount of penalties contributed to the drop, as did a lack of big-play ability in the return game. Buffalo ranked 30th in kickoff returns and 22nd in punt returns, failing to record a touchdown in either category.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the special teams went through a dramatic makeover in the offseason. Gone are returners Percy Harvin (retired) and Leodis McKelvin (signed with Philadelphia), along with coverage men Ron Brooks (signed with Philadelphia), Boobie Dixon (released) and Chris Hogan (signed with New England).

While Buffalo’s spending was limited in free agency, the moves the team did make were geared toward helping the special teams bounce back. Whether they can do that in 2016 is one of the questions the team will need to answer as it prepares to report to St. John Fisher College in Pittsford for the start of training camp next week.

“You’d rather the cycle not have such an exodus,” special teams coordinator Danny Crossman told the team’s official website earlier this offseason. “You’d like to keep some guys and maintain that nucleus, but that’s just how it works sometimes. It’s going to be one of those years with how the situation has worked out that we’ll have a bunch of new faces, but it’s also exciting at the same time.”

Safeties Robert Blanton and Colt Anderson, linebackers Lorenzo Alexander and Jamari Lattimore and defensive back Javier Arenas are all new to the team and will be counted on to fill important special-teams roles.

Linebacker Randell Johnson and safeties Corey Graham, Jonathan Meeks and Duke Williams all are back and played big roles last year, as well.

“Until we know at the end what the makeup of the roster is, we’ll work several different things and have some concepts and thoughts in mind,” Crossman told buffalobills.com. “Once the roster is ironed out, we’ll streamline things to exactly what we want to try to get done.”

While the Bills’ overall ranking dropped, there were some positives from last season. Buffalo led the NFL in kickoff coverage, allowing just 17.2 yards per kick return. The Bills also led the NFL in opponent drive start, which was on average just short of the 20-yard line. The team’s four takeaways on special teams also tied for the NFL lead.

Here are three big concerns for the Bills’ special teams heading into training camp:

• The return game. The Bills got almost nothing from it last year. In fact, of the eight players who did it more than once last year, six of them are no longer with the team. That means jobs are wide open. Candidates include receivers Marquise Goodwin and rookie Kolby Listenbee, as well as defensive backs Javier Arenas and rookie Kevon Seymour. Bills coach Rex Ryan said in the spring that Arenas’ path to the roster has to come as the punt returner.

Veteran receiver Robert Woods also has experience as a punt returner, which is a job fellow receiver Greg Salas worked on in the spring, as well. The favorite, however, might be receiver Walt Powell. He ended last season returning both kicks and punts.

• Marcus Easley’s health. The Bills’ top “gunner,” Easley suffered a devastating injury in Week 16 against Dallas, dislocating his knee and shattering it in three places. Recovery was estimated at six to nine months, so that puts Easley close to being ready for the start of the season, if he’s on schedule. Easley has made a career out of overcoming injuries, so this challenge will be nothing new for him.

• The kicking competition. Veteran holdover Dan Carpenter got Ryan’s blood boiling at times last season, missing six extra points. Carpenter, however, still hit 85 percent of his field goals. For a “down” year, that’s pretty good. Carpenter suffered a hamstring injury on his kicking leg just before the start of training camp last year and missed almost three weeks because of it. He is fully healthy now and had a good spring.

“I think he looks good,” Ryan said. “We’re expecting him to bounce back. Last year, he made just about every field goal. He’s obviously a proven kicker in this league, and I think coming back a year after the injury is really going to help him.”

Marshall Morgan, an undrafted free agent from Georgia, has been signed to compete with Carpenter for the job. Morgan has a big leg, but his accuracy in college did not come close to approaching what Carpenter has done in the NFL.

Kickoff specialist Jordan Gay is also on the roster. With the league changing the touchback rule so that teams get the ball on their 25-yard line now, it will be interesting to see how Crossman approaches kickoffs. It might not make sense to simply bomb the ball through the end zone anymore. Instead, if the Bills are confident in their coverage units, they may want to land the ball near the goal line and cover the kick, which could lead to tackles inside the 25.

If that’s the case, the need for Gay on the roster would drop, and it would become a straight kicking competition. If that’s the case, Carpenter has to be considered the favorite.

email: jskurski@buffnews.com

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