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Looking for special teams value in the 2019 NFL Draft

Wake Forest v North Carolina State Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

By now, we’ve discussed most of the main prospects, need areas and positional groups ahead of this year’s draft. However, one area which is often overlooked is the extra value you can find in terms of special teams contributors, usually in the later rounds or even by signing undrafted free agents.

These really fall into two groups. The first is specialists, which doesn’t just include kickers, punters, long snappers and return men, but also all-round contributors who can make a roster for their special teams prowess alone. The Jets signed both Rontez Miles and Nick Bellore as undrafted free agents and they proved to be this kind of player.

The second group comprises those good offensive or defensive prospects that also bring value on special teams. This means they can make vital contributions so that their roster spot doesn’t go to waste if it takes them some time to get into the rotation.

Sometimes players that started out by contributing on special teams can end up making good contributions on offense or defense, since sticking around for a few years gives them time to develop and know what is required of them. Josh Martin was a recent example of this.

Equally a player who was targeted as a position player might just end up as a specialist, like Justin Miller, or a player who had good special teams potential will end up being so indispensable that their special teams abilities are rendered moot, like Darrelle Revis.

Let’s work our way through some examples to identify some hidden gems, or players who might be more valuable than they are currently considered to be.

Kickers and Punters

The ones to watch here are Utah duo Matt Gay and Mitch Wishnowsky whom the Jets reportedly showed interest in at their pro day. The Jets signed Utah punter Tom Hackett as an undrafted free agent a few years ago and he’s been mentoring his Australian compatriot Wishnowsky.

Aside from Gay, the top rated kickers include LSU’s Cole Tracy and Oklahoma’s Austin Seibert. The Jets already let Chandler Catanzaro walk once so presumably they’re not married to him as their kicker for this year.

Other punter options include Jack Fox from Rice and Jake Bailey from Stanford but the Jets are less likely to make a move here because they have Lac Edwards, who they seem happy with.

Return Specialists

It seems like the pool of return specialists in this year’s draft is a little thinner than we’ve seen in the past, but the Jets could bring one in to compete to be Andre Roberts’ replacement. A player like Greg Dortch from Wake Forest - the only player in this year’s class with multiple punt return touchdowns in 2018 - or Tony Pollard from Memphis, who had seven career kickoff returns, could be valuable.

If you wanted someone capable of returning both punts and kickoffs, Georgia’s Mecole Hardman could be a good choice. He’s also got a lot of potential as a receiver.

Higher-profile prospects that have kick return experience include South Carolina wide receiver Deebo Samuel and Ohio State wide receiver Parris Campbell. However, specialists that would be picked up almost exclusively for their return abilities include Michael Walker from Boston College and J-Shun Harris II from Indiana. Harris is a tough cookie, as he has recovered from three ACL tears.

Long Snappers

Long Snappers are people too and Indiana’s Dan Godsil or Nick Moore from Georgia seem to be regarded as the most likely to be targeted. The Jets seem unlikely to move on from Thomas Hennessy, though.

All-round contributors

In looking for an all-round “special teams monster”, the obvious candidate is Minnesota linebacker Blake Cashman who racked up an impressive 38 special teams tackles over the past three years.

However, scouts also showed interest in the likes of linebackers Connor Strachan from Boston College and Joey Alfieri from Stanford, as well as Texas A&M fullback Cullen Gillaspia, who are all considered to have the potential to be that kind of player. Any of these could prove to be a valuable late-round pick-up or undrafted free agent signing.

As ever, there’s a bunch of cornerback prospects who’ve had good production as gunners in college, including David Long, Amani Hooker, Justin Layne and Julian Love. Even Byron Murphy, who some had expected to be the first cornerback selected, had five special teams tackles in limited action last year. However, it seems more likely he’ll start somewhere and not be used on special teams and that could apply to some of the others named above, too.

Some other defensive backs that are good special teams contributors but also could be considered good defensive prospects include Fresno State safety Mike Bell, Florida safety Chauncey Gardener-Johnson and two players we mentioned the other day in our list of players not enough people are talking about; Marshall’s Malik Gant and Akron’s Kyron Brown.

Pollard, who was mentioned above for his return abilities, has also been productive in kick coverage. He had nine tackles in 2017, where he saw plenty of work as a gunner. Ohio State receiver Terry McLaurin has also shown some abilities as a gunner, but the Jets might be skeptical of this because when they drafted Devin Smith from the same school, he was considered to be an excellent gunner, but when he actually got to the NFL he had no idea how to deal with being double-teamed.

Finally, Boston College defensive lineman Zach Allen has also shown an ability to contribute on special teams. He blocked two kicks in 2018.