Programming note: I may not have/make time to finish going through the second preseason game until Saturday afternoon, so no post on that.
We conclude our trip around the Tennessee Titans position by position as we approach the 2013 regular season with a look at the special teams.
I went through this in the offseason positional analysis, but special teams is kind of an odd fit for the positional analysis concept, as it really has five different elements albeit with three or four overlapping dyadic pairs that feature interrelated skills. There are (1) place kicking-field goals and extra points, (2) kickoffs and kickoff coverage, (3) punts and punt coverage, (4) kickoff returns, and (5) punt returns. Your interrelated skills tend to be (a) the kickoff kicker is also either the kicker or the punter, (b) kickoff coverage and punt coverage, (c) kickoff return blocking and punt return blocking, and sometimes though not always (d) the kickoff and punt returner is the same person. There's one coach in charge of this mess, but a mess is what I consider it.
That coach running the asylum in a different one this year in Nate Kaczor. The Titans were pretty average on special teams in 2012 after a couple pretty good seasons, and that was enough for Mike Munchak to send Alan Lowry on his way. I thought it was a curious move, especially considering who else lost their job, but Munchak wasn't in a position to part with Lowry after one of the pretty lousy seasons he had in the past. Kaczor inherits the same core special teams players Lowry had, so what kind of improvement is it logical to expect?
Rob Bironas will once again be the kicker and the kickoff man. He had a down year in 2012, struggling on longer field goals and leaving too many kicks short of the end zone until the Titans seemed to take the calculated risk of having him kick more line drives. The strategy worked. As I noted in Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, the Titans had above-average kickoff value the second half of last season, so I'd assume they'll do that again. The problem with the strategy is it's a high-variance one. If it results in a kick out of the end zone, it works. If it does not, even a decision to bring a kick into the end zone out for a return can work well.
The big concern over Bironas comes from missing a couple kicks inside 40 yards against the Bengals. As Bironas himself noted, those missed kicks were the result of bad timing, a normal preseason occurrence of the sort I more or less dismissed back in 2011. I'm still not concerned about those two missed kicks specifically, but rather that Bironas was a below-average kicker in 2012. The proper expectation for him, in my view, is he'll be roughly a league average kicker on field goals and suffer the normal slight but real decline in leg strength kickers suffer from 34 to 35. He hasn't been an outstanding kickoff distance man in years, whether by Football Outsiders numbers or my eyes, and I'm not counting on a barrage of 50 yard field goals ever again. He should be good enough, though not the weapon he's been in the past.
Brett Kern is the punter again. He's pretty average or maybe a little above it, though punters can be hard to judge. He's more inconsistent than I would prefer, though he has enough long kicks to counterbalance those. I haven't noticed any particular problems with him as a holder.
Beau Brinkley is the long-snapper. The Titans aren't looking to replace him, nor do I think they should be. Taylor Thompson is his nominal backup, though Lavar Edwards noted in an interview he did it in high school and has spent some time doing it in practice. Fernando Velasco has also been the nominal backup long-snapper in the past, including last year. Between those three, the Titans should not ever have to hold impromptu long-snapper tryouts on the sidelines in the middle of a game, as the Seahawks did a couple years ago.
Maikon Bonani is the man whose job it is to kick when Bironas needs a rest day in camp. As with every other player who has filled that role for the Titans the past couple years, I wish him luck in finding a job with a different team.
A year after he won the kick and punt returner jobs pretty much by default, that could happen again for Darius Reynaud. He was a good punt returner last year but less impressive on kickoffs thanks to a penchant for bringing out too many kicks in the end zone. The Titans most of the year particularly struggled when they started inside the 20, so I got to yelling at my TV when that happened. In my calmer moments, I realize even when they started at the 20 the Titans weren't world-beaters, so I was getting a bit over-exercise over four or eight yards of field position. I thought Marc Mariani's better value on offense gave him a good shot to win the job, but his current shoulder injury may give Reynaud an insuperable edge.
After a season of average special teams in 2012, I see the Titans with a kicker likely to be around average, a punter in the same group, and a return group with some upside. Nate Kaczor's job will be to improve the kickoff and punt coverage teams, which were below average last year. On the whole, I see the Titans as likeliest to end up with the same roughly average special teams unit they had last year.