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Training Camp Preview

Bills' special teams look to rebound from disastrous 2018 season

This is the last in a series previewing each position on the Buffalo Bills before the July 25 start of training camp.

The problems were many for the Buffalo Bills' special teams last season.

That's why the unit has a new coach in Heath Farwell, who replaced long-time special teams coordinator Danny Crossman.

That's also why the Bills were willing to give the NFL's best return man last season, Andre Roberts, a free-agent contract that will pay him a reported $3 million this season in the form of a $1-million signing bonus and $2 million in guaranteed salary.

How much immediate difference Farwell and Roberts can make remains to be seen. It's more likely that if the Bills' special teams does, in fact, show improvement, it will be because kicker Stephen Hauschka and other incumbents perform far better than they did in 2018.

Returnees: Corey Bojorquez, Cory Carter, Reid Ferguson, Stephen Hauschka, Ray-Ray McCloud, Isaiah McKenzie, Marcus Murphy.

Newcomers: Chase McLaughlin, Andre Roberts.

Departures: None.

Key numbers: One statistical bright spot for the Bills' special teams last season was that they ranked 10th in the NFL in kickoff coverage by allowing an average of 22.2 yards per return. Things didn't go quite as well for their punt coverage. They were 20th in the league after allowing an average of 9.0 yards per return. ... Hauschka finished the 2018 season ranked 46th in the NFL's all-time list with 242 field goals made. His 17th consecutive field goal, which came against the Jets on Dec. 9, gave him the Bills' longest streak since Rian Lindell's 18 in 2007.

What to expect: It's hard to imagine the Bills being much worse in this area than they were last year.

Nevertheless, it's fair to say that Farwell, a former linebacker and special teams ace for the Minnesota Vikings (2005-10) and Seattle Seahawks (2011-14) is under a decent amount of pressure because of the expectation his hiring was intended to be a key step in turning things around. This is his first time as a special teams coordinator after spending the 2018 season as assistant special teams coach for the Carolina Panthers and the 2016 and '17 seasons as a coaching assistant and special teams coach for the Seattle Seahawks.

For the Bills, the encouraging parts of Farwell's resume are that the Panthers held opponents to only 406 yards in kickoff returns last season, which ranked fourth in the NFL, and that he helped the Seahawks win Super Bowl XLVIII while serving as their special teams captain.

"Playing fast and playing smart and playing with juice is kind of the motto we have got around here," Farwell told reporters during the Bills' offseason workouts. "It’s playing fast; we want that screaming off the tape. They’ve got to play with great effort, strength and then playing smart. We have got to be smart, we've got to know the rules ... and playing with energy. That’s what the best teams are about."

After converting only 78.6 percent of his field goals (22 of 28) for his lowest success rate since 2009, Hauschka has the biggest room for improvement. Part of his problems stemmed from the Bills using three different punters, meaning they had the same number of holders. He'll look to develop continuity with either of the two punters on the roster at the moment, Corey Bojorquez or Cory Carter, although it's entirely possible the Bills might sign someone at the position right before the season as they did last year with Bojorquez.

The Bills need to get back to being able to view Hauschka as the "House-money" guy he was after joining the team as a free agent in 2017. That wasn't the case when he missed field goals from 43 and 42 yards in the final two weeks of the season.

Bojorquez, who was claimed off waivers from the New England Patriots on Sept. 2, was active for eight games with the Bills before being placed on injured reserve on Oct. 31 with a shoulder injury. He actually suffered the injury on Oct. 7, and played three games with it before landing on IR. Bojorquez punted 45 times for 2,028 yards, an average of 45.1 yards per punt. He also placed 22 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line.

Bojorquez would appear to be the front-runner entering camp, although little is known about Carter. Despite being a part of the Bills since 2017, when they signed him to their practice squad, Carter has not appeared in a single game. The Bills placed him on injured reserve for the entire 2018 season.

Roberts offers plenty of hope for upgrading the Bills' return game, which ranked 24th in the NFL by averaging 21.2 yards per kickoff return and 21st in the league by averaging 6.7 yards per punt return. As a member of the New York Jets last year, Roberts was No. 1 in the league with 1,174 kickoff yards and was also first in the NFL with an average of 14.1 yards per punt return.

It is hard to envision any of last year's returners (McCloud, McKenzie or Murphy) seriously posing a challenge to Roberts. Safety Micah Hyde is a more than competent punt returner, but the Bills would prefer not to risk using him on special teams.

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