Assessing the Colts during the offseason: Special teams
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – By any standard, the Indianapolis Colts weren’t good enough in 2016.
The only bottom line that matters: finishing 8-8 (again) and missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1997-98.
It’s going to take significant personnel changes during the offseason if the Colts are going to return to relevancy. That includes prudent investments in veteran free agency, which begins March 9, and further bolstering a flawed roster through the April 27-29 draft.
Before we consider outside solutions, we’ll conclude our position-by-position look at the Colts. This is the final installment.
Today: Special teams
- Under contract: K Adam Vinatieri, LS Matt Overton, K Devon Bell.
- Pending free agents: KR Jordan Todman.
- Retired: P Pat McAfee.
- Looking back: More of the same, which is to say more quality output. Coaches harp on the fact they oversee a three-part operation – offense, defense, special teams – but often that third part seems to be an afterthought. It can be overlooked until the placekicker duck-hooks a critical field goal, the punter shanks a pivotal attempt or the return specialist fields a punt inside the 5-yard line.
The Colts had their issues last season – one blocked punt and a couple of other near-misses; the coverage team failing to keep a couple of nicely-placed punts out of the end zone, etc. – but only someone with an agenda would nit-pick with this group’s overall performance.
Vinatieri continued to defy Father Time. The NFL’s oldest active player – he turned 44 in December – set a league record by stretching his streak of successful field goals to 44 before missing a 42-yarder against the Titans in week 11. He finished the season 27-of-31, and knocked down 7-of-9 attempts of at least 50 yards.
McAfee? Boomstick enjoyed arguably his best season. His 49.3 average led the league and broke his own team record (48.2 in 2012). His 42.7 net ranked third. Opponents returned only 17 of his 55 punts and the 139 return yards were the third-fewest in the league.
McAfee also remained a weapon on kickoffs. Despite a conscious attempt at cutting back on possible touchbacks and pinning opponents inside the 20, he generated touchbacks on 55.7 percent of his kickoffs and had 13 kick returns stopped short of the 20. The opposition’s starting field position after kickoffs was the 23.9-yard line, sixth-best.
There were early adventures on punt returns by Chester Rogers, but Todman offered quality work on kickoffs. His 29.9 average would have ranked No. 2 in the league had he had enough returns to qualify, and the highlight came at Green Bay when he returned the opening kick 99 yards for a touchdown.
- Looking ahead: For the first time since the 2009 offseason, uncertainty hovers over the position. That’s when the Colts had to replace long-time punter Hunter Smith, a free agent who wasn’t re-signed. They did so by investing a seventh-round draft pick – No. 222 overall – in McAfee.
Now, they must replace McAfee. The colorful one announced his retirement Feb. 2 to fully commit to his comedic interests. Also contributing to McAfee’s decision was wear and tear on his body. A third knee surgery in four years is required.
To provide perspective to the Colts’ history with punters, consider McAfee’s successor will be just their fifth since their relocation in 1984. That’s a span of 33 seasons. Preceding McAfee were Smith, Chris Gardocki and Rohn Stark.
So let’s not be dismissive when considering the magnitude of replacing McAfee. As we mentioned earlier, he helped tip field position in the Colts’ favor with his kickoffs. And he was an expert holder for Vinatieri. One more tidbit: he retires with a career passer rating of 95.8 (1-of-2, 35 yards).
The Colts signed Devon Bell to a futures contract, so he represents an in-house candidate to replace McAfee. He was with the Detroit Lions during last year’s training camp, but has zero NFL experience. At Mississippi State, Bell handled punts, field goals and kickoffs.
However, it’s a good best McAfee’s successor isn’t on the roster.
First-time general manager Chris Ballard places a premium on elite special teams play, so he might determine the best avenue to fill McAfee’s void is a late-round draft pick. That’s worked well in the past. McAfee and Smith were seventh-round picks, and accomplished enough to hold down that spot for 18 seasons.
Management also should give strong consideration to re-signing Todman. His return skills were evident last year, but he also was a core cover guy and offered reliable depth at running back.
- Offseason priority: High.