We conclude our trip around the Tennessee Titans as we head into the 2013 offseason with a look at the special teams.
I like to start these positional analyses with a more macro-level view of where the Titans are in the position, focusing less on the specific individuals than in trying to provide a bit of context for where the position has been, where it is, and where it seems to be going. That's harder to do on special teams.
Far more than is the case even for a position with some division of responsibility like outside linebacker, special teams is made up of (a) one set of three skills, two of which are normally handled by one person and one by another; (b) an unrelated fourth skill, which is customarily handled by the other of the aforementioned duo; (c) an unrelated fifth skill, which is customarily handled by a third person who may or may not have responsibilities elsewhere; and (d) one other set of two skills, which may be handled by the same or different people. The results of skills in groupings (a) and (d) are also heavily influenced by (e) people from other positions, some of whom have significant responsibilities elsewhere on the team that are or are not related to what they do on special teams. As I indicated, a bit of a mess.
My preferred metric for evaluating special teams play, and not just because I write for them, is Football Outsiders' numbers. By FO metrics, the Titans were a touch below average on special teams in 2012. They actually finished first in the league in punt return value, a little above average in kickoff return value, a little below average on field goals and extra points, and well below average on both punts and kickoffs. I've previously written about the effect of field position on the Titans offense and defense in 2012, which dealt with field position following punts and kickoffs.
Of the three players I typically categorize as special teams players when I do my roster breakdowns, two are under contract and should and are likely to return in 2013, while the status of the third is an open question after a down season. The primary return man in 2012 is a free agent, but the job isn't guaranteed to be his if he does return. Oh, and for the first time since the Clinton administration, the Titans have a new special teams coach.
After several excellent seasons, Rob Bironas had a down season in 2012. Research that antedates my affiliation with them had led me to write before that about all kickers have inconsistent kicking seasons, and Bironas finally had his turn. By conventional statistics, he made all of his extra points, as he has since his rookie season, and made 25 of 31 field goals. He was perfect inside of 40 yards, going 19 for 19, but struggled from beyond that, going 6-12 from 40+ (though one of his misses was a long field goal that should never have been attempted). Bironas's accuracy from long range had been his trademark, but in a year where the entire league made 80% of their kicks from 40-49 yards out, hitting only half his kicks is clearly a disappointment.
Bironas also handles the kickoff duties. He was great at that when he first joined the Titans, but it hasn't been a particular strength of his for several years now. By FO numbers excluding returns (and squib/onside kicks), he ranked 27th in kickoff distance. The Titans seemed to recognize he was struggled somewhat with distance during the season, and I thought he started kicking more line drives later on in an attempt to get more distance and more touchbacks. By FO numbers, his distance was better, and returns against him were shorter, the second half of the season.
Bironas is a free agent this offseason, and the big question is should the Titans pay him what he thinks he's worth, which is apparently an above-average amount for an NFL kicker? Based on his performance from 2009-11, he might be worth that much. In 2012, though, he was a below-average kicker, which makes the answer clearly not. At 35, Bironas does not seem likely to recover the leg strength had had a half-decade ago. His value thus is based on his distance kicking, which was either an extremely unusual and valuable skill or a historical aberration and unlikely to recur given the typical effects of age on leg strength. I wouldn't pay him, and would run a kicking competition a la 2005, but I'm not sure the Titans share my cognitive difficulties about paying players premium salaries coming off subpar seasons.
Brett Kern is the punter. If you read the official site, you learn Kern set franchise records for gross and net average. If you look at the league's site, you learn Kern ranked only 8th in gross and 14th in net. Counting only punts actually kicked, he ranked 12th in distance by FO metrics. We saw at times the inconsistency in his game that helped get the Broncos to cut him. On the whole, though, he's somewhere between an average and above-average punter. Under contract at a modest salary for 2013 and 2014, there's no reason at all for the Titans to part with him, and I don't expect them to.
Kern is also the holder (the fourth skill I was thinking of in the introduction). Teams seem to have adapted to the punter as the holder because of his availability for special teams practice and his lack of need elsewhere. Kern does a good enough job at that.
The man whose job it is to get the ball to Kern to kick on punts and to put down on kicks is Beau Brinkley. The undrafted free agent rookie replaced Ken Amato, who'd had more not so great moments than in the past and had a shaky injury history, and did a fine, though not exceptional, job at it in 2012. Under contract for a modest price, I haven't seen a reason not to bring him back for 2013, though his job may be about the most precarious secure one on the roster. The backup long snapper job is more of a question mark. Fernando Velasco was listed there last preseason, while Kevin Matthews was listed there in the preseason. Whoever that is isn't a big deal, as he would probably only do it for a game in which Brinkley gets hurt, then the Titans would make a roster move.
Darius Reynaud was your return man in 2012 for both punts and kickoffs. He had a couple return touchdowns. Those were nice, and they certainly helped the Titans win some games. I think he's a better punt than kick returner, which is a good thing to be in this age of lots of touchbacks. He's a free agent this offseason. The Titans have expressed some interest in bringing him back. I'm not sure just how much of that is ritualistic.
Though I talked about him when I wrote up the running backs, I would rate his non-special teams value as minimal; from what the Titans have said, I don't think he has any value as a backup running back. While he had a fine year returning, I wouldn't classify him as a great returner. With Marc Mariani returning from his broken leg and a player who seems to have non-special teams value (even if he's just a fourth receiver, that's something in putting together the 46 actives) and has return experience, I wouldn't classify Reynaud as an absolute lock to make the roster even if he does return. I'm sure Reynaud could guess this as well and will look for a financial commitment that suggests the Titans do value him a lot or another team with less competition. Given the need to win in 2013, I expect the Titans to try to retain him.
Brett Kern will punt. Beau Brinkley will long-snap. Beyond those two, the Titans have two decisions to make.
As I indicated, I think the Titans will value what Darius Reynaud showed he could do in 2012 and look to retain him. They won't break the bank to do so, but I think they could, if they wanted to, put together an attractive offer to keep him. If I were in their shoes, I would put together a competitive offer but still have a competition and if he goes elsewhere, then it's Mariani and whatever else they do.
When it comes to Rob Bironas, the Titans could choose to franchise him if they don't use the tag on Jared Cook. More likely, though, Cook gets tagged and Bironas is allowed to leave. In that case, the Titans will look for a modestly-priced veteran free agent and maybe an undrafted free agent or two and let the best man win.
Return units should improve with improved quality from the roster as a whole. A full season from Patrick Bailey would help. So would fewer penalties from Tommie Campbell. I have no insight on new special teams coach Nate Kaczor.