Whenever there is a question at New Orleans Saints Training Camp about a player's chances of making the final roster, special team ability is always included in the discussion. This is especially true when the secondary, linebacker and wide receiver positions are analyzed.
When two players are close to each other in talent, the ability to contribute in the kicking game is often the deciding factor in determining roster spots.
With only 53 spots on the final roster and 46 activated on game day, every slot is precious. Position decisions affect more than a singular position since nothing happens in a vacuum. If you keep one more player at one position, you have to take one fewer somewhere else.
One of the players "on the bubble," safety Jim Leonhard, said it concisely: "If you are not going to be a starter, you have to play on special teams." As a nine year veteran, Leonhard's future in the NFL will depend on his contribution in the kicking game.
Special teams are much more than punters, place kickers and return men. The other nine or ten men on the field are protectors, blockers and coverage people. After the Kansas City game we have become painfully aware of the importance of the coverage phase of special teams.
There was no question that the Saints special teams were disappointing against Kansas City. The Chiefs had three kickoff returns for 136 yards for an average of 45.3 yards per return and another 106 yards on six punt returns, averaging 17.7 yards per return.
Wide receiver Courtney Roby has been a special team stalwart for his eight years in the league. This year, it may be difficult for the presently injured Roby to make this team unless he can contribute more at wide receiver. However, we have said that before and he is still here.
He has had some flashes at wide out, but his receiving ability is considered an afterthought.
Another nine vet, corner back Chris Carr, knows that versatility counts. "The more things you can do, the better. To me, that is just as vital as defense, to play well on special teams and to play well on defense." Along with Leonhard, Carr was brought in because of his familiarity with Rob Ryan's defense. In both cases, however, their ability to make plays in the kicking game will be a deciding factor in their continued employment.
Wide Receiver Preston Parker enhanced his chances of making the squad with his play on special teams as both a returner and "gunner" on the punt team. He made himself more valuable against Kansas City with his coverage ability. On the other hand, fellow WR Jarred Fayson did not perform as well.
Mental errors in the kicking game are especially egregious. On the punt team, wing Jerico Nelson forgot to go on the field. This led to another error when Corey White lined up off the line of scrimmage creating an illegal procedure penalty. Instead of pinning KC at the 8, the Chiefs got the ball on the re-kick at the 31, an effective penalty of 23 yards. Mistakes like this could cost a roster spot.
The Saint specialist that is least often mentioned is 4th year long snapper Justin Drescher. He is very consistent and is excellent in the coverage game as well.
Special teams play will get a great deal of attention against the Oakland Raiders this week. Their special teams are led by Coordinator Bobby April, a Chalmette High graduate and former Saints coach. Bobby and I started our coaching careers together at Chalmette in the 70's. Even though it is a preseason game, Bobby will have them ready to play their best.
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