The Buffalo Bills' special teams continued a downward trend in 2016.
The team finished 24th in the Dallas Morning News' annual rankings, down from 16th in 2015 and second in 2014. Compiled each year by Morning News writer Rick Gosselin, the paper’s rankings are accepted as the league standard.
Gosselin assigns a score to each team in 22 different special-teams categories – with one point given to the best team and 32 to the worst in each category – so the lowest total is best. The Bills finished with 419.5 points. The Philadelphia Eagles led the league for the second time in three seasons, with 226.5 points.
Buffalo's kicking game shoulders most of the blame for the low ranking. The Bills ranked tied for 28th in made field goals (19) and 30th in field-goal percentage (76 percent), as well as 27th in extra-point percentage (88.9 percent).
"I don't really feel like I hit the ball poorly at all this year," kicker Dan Carpenter said during locker cleanout. "I feel like I struck the ball better this year probably than I have in the last two years, for sure. So it's just things like" hitting the uprights. "It’s frustrating. You're talking inches when you’re 48 yards away or whatever."
The Bills could save $2.4 million against the salary cap by releasing Carpenter, which puts his roster spot in serious jeopardy.
"I have one year left on my contract and I'll be preparing like I'm coming back here unless they tell me I’m not," he said at the end of the season.
Punter Colton Schmidt also had a down year in 2016. The Bills ranked 30th in net punting average in 2016 (38.1 yards), down from seventh the year before (41.3). Buffalo's gross punting average of 42.4 yards ranked 31st, and the team placed just 20 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line, which ranked 28th. Schmidt is a restricted free agent this offseason.
The decision not to carry a kickoff specialist all season – Jordan Gay played just three games – also hurt the Bills. After leading the NFL in average yards allowed on kick returns in 2015 (17.2), the Bills dropped to 17th this past season (21.7 yards). According to Football Outsiders' rankings, the Bills went from first to worst in opponent's average drive start following a kickoff. In 2016, Buffalo's opponents started at the 26.82-yard line following kickoffs, after starting at the 20.07-yard line in 2015.
Not having ace gunner Marcus Easley all season because of a knee injury hurt the coverage units.
One bright spot for special teams was returner Brandon Tate. He helped the Bills finish sixth in punt-return average, at 11.2 yards.
In four years under Danny Crossman, the Bills have now finished 31st, second, 16th and 24th in the rankings. Despite that, new coach Sean McDermott retained Crossman when he took over, as did Rex Ryan when he replaced Doug Marrone after the 2014 season.
The Bills have made a pair of signings this offseason with an eye on special teams, bringing back linebacker Ramon Humber and safety Colt Anderson. Humber led the Bills with 12 tackles on special teams and played a team-high 336 snaps, 73 percent of the team's total.