This is the fifth in a 10-part series previewing some of the biggest questions the Buffalo Bills will have to answer when training camp begins July 27 at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford.
If the question in the headline of this article sounds familiar, it’s because the exact same thing was asked at this time a year ago.
The Buffalo Bills’ special teams has underperformed for two straight years. After ranking second overall in 2014 in the Dallas Morning News’ rankings – which are accepted as the league standard – the Bills slumped to 16th in 2015. That ranking dropped all the way down to 24th in 2016.
Despite that, special teams coordinator Danny Crossman will be back for a fifth season at the helm. Like Rex Ryan did before him, Sean McDermott elected to keep Crossman on staff. He’ll have a new assistant, as Matthew Smiley joined the coaching staff this offseason while Eric Smith and Kathryn Smith weren’t retained.
The biggest change, however, is with the team’s personnel. Gone from last year are mainstays Jonathan Meeks (second on the team with 316 snaps on special teams), Lerentee McCray (fourth with 255 snaps) and Corey White (fifth, 247). Kicker Dan Carpenter was also cut, as was long snapper Garrison Sanborn.
That’s the nature of special teams in the NFL, which are made up largely by reserve players who are replaceable. Sergio Brown, Mike Gillislee and Robert Blanton are other players who saw significant snaps in 2016 and are now ex-Bills.
“I mean, that’s part of this business,” Crossman said. “You’d like to be able to really build something where you have a gradual progression… You know, those couple of true core guys as they age and they move out either because of age and/or they develop as a position guy, you constantly have those guys behind them to be able to establish and take over those roles. So if you have great competition throughout the roster it’s really going to help you in my phase in terms of always having that next guy ready to step in.”
While there will be significant turnover, the Bills did manage to re-sign a pair of players in linebacker Lorenzo Alexander and safety Colt Anderson who figure to play key roles on special teams. Linebacker Ramon Humber, who led the team with 336 snaps and 12 tackles, is also back, while draft picks Matt Milano and Tanner Vallejo are projected to be immediate contributors.
“I really feel good right now about where we’re going,” Crossman said. “Now we got to develop it.”
He’ll get that chance under McDermott, who has built significant time to work on special teams into each practice.
“Coach has been outstanding,” Crossman told the Bills’ official website. “He’s given us good time both in the meeting room and on the practice field. Those periods throughout the course of the practice is ideal because that’s how the game is played. You’ve got to be able to transition from your offensive or defensive position to the kicking game and then after you have to transition back to offense or defense. That’s the ideal way to do it in my opinion and fortunately coach agrees.”
So where do the Bills need to improve most? The kicking game is a good place to start. 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).
That’s why Carpenter is gone and will be replaced by former Seahawks kicker Stephen Hauschka. A Super Bowl winner, Hauschka signed a four-year contract with the Bills. He’s got a career conversion rate of 87.2 percent on field goals, which ranks third in NFL history.
“We feel great as an organization with Stephen and his abilities to be an outstanding performer both on PATs, field goals, and kickoffs,” Crossman said.
The punting game wasn’t much better in 2016, as the Bills ranked 30th in net punting average (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.
Although punter Colton Schmidt was re-signed, he’ll be challenge at camp by rookie undrafted free agent Austin Rehkow.
“Colton’s bright enough to realize that everybody’s job is up for grabs,” Crossman said. “Obviously here, but around the National Football League, you have to perform. And you’re performing and you’re competing not only against the guys that are sitting in that room today, you’re competing against the guy that could be sitting in there tomorrow or two months from now."