I have been meaning to bring up a topic for a while, and the debate surrounding Calvin Pryor's concussion while working on special teams makes this a timely topic.
The last two years the Jets have not gotten the terrific special teams play that spoiled us during much of Mike Westhoff's tenure. In 2012 the unit was just plain bad. Last year there was some improvement. Nick Folk had a great year, but the special teams on the whole were uneven. For example, the coverage units had the sixth worst average against punt returners in the league.
One theory we have heard floated is this play has been due to poor roster construction. The lack of depth since 2012 has been well-documented. Thus it follows the Jets' poor backups have given them poor special teams play. Mike Westhoff himself has used this as an explanation, but as coach of the 2012 unit he is not exactly an impartial observer. Blaming it on a lack of talent lets the coach off the hook.
I have never found this satisfying because high level players usually do not play on special teams. At least the playmakers don't. Some really good blockers do because teams only have so many big guys active who can block. Teams usually don't risk their smaller important players, though. There are exceptions like Eric Weddle of the Chargers, but there are not many big talents making a big impact on special teams.
One way to measure special teams performance is simply by individual tackles. Obviously this is not a complete and conclusive statistic since special teams entail more than coverage units, but players who make a lot of tackles tend to get labels special teams ace. You don't necessarily need to make a lot of tackles to be a valuable special teamer, but if you do make a lot of tackles, you probably are a valuable special teamer.
Who were the most prolific special teams tacklers in the NFL in 2013? Let's look at the numbers TeamRankings.com compiled:
|1||Marcus Easley||Buffalo Bills||WR||18|
|2||Justin Bethel||Arizona Cardinals||CB||17|
|3||Seyi Ajirotutu||San Diego Chargers||WR||16|
|4||Michael Wilhoite||San Francisco 49ers||LB||14|
|5||C.J. Spillman||San Francisco 49ers||S||13|
|5||Taiwan Jones||Oakland Raiders||CB||13|
|1||Lorenzo Alexander||Washington Redskins||LB||17|
|2||Spencer Paysinger||New York Giants||LB||16|
|3||Curtis Brown||Pittsburgh Steelers||DB||15|
|3||Bryan Braman||Houston Texans||LB||15|
|5||Tramaine Brock||San Francisco 49ers||DB||14|
|5||Alan Ball||Houston Texans||DB||14|
|5||Anthony Allen||Baltimore Ravens||RB||14|
The point here is star talent is not essential to perform well on special teams. It's difficult to argue the players the Jets have trotted out have appreciably less talent than some of the players listed above.
I'm sure talent helps, but the best players usually aren't out on special teams. It's impossible to prove how much of special teams play is based on talent, but usually you have backup level players. I personally would guess success has a lot to do with fundamentals and discipline. Know your assignment, execute it, and tackle properly. You don't need to be a great talent to do these things. Many special teams aces don't have it. I'm not sure it is an excuse.