Position review: Dolphins special teams has its ups and downs
Much like the other components of the Miami Dolphins, the special teams unit had various moments of triumphs and failures last season.
With rookie receiver Jarvis Landry dazzling fans with his kickoff returns for big gains, the team benefitted greatly with excellent field position. The team also set a franchise record with three blocked punts for the season and their five combined blocks on punts and field goals was their most since they blocked seven in 1977. DE Terrence Fede’s blocked punt against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 16 with 41 seconds left in the game made history, as the Dolphins became the first team ever to record a go-ahead safety in the final minute of a game.
But there were plenty of missteps made throughout the season by the special teams unit. They led the NFL with four giveaways and they were fooled by fake punt plays against the Detroit Lions and the New York Jets. The team also suffered from surprisingly average production from both kicker Caleb Sturgis and punter Brandon Fields at arguably the two most critical spots.
"I thought it was a little up-and-down, kind of like our team," said head coach Joe Philbin on his overall thoughts of the work the special teams did. "I think we kind of started slow. Then I thought we really picked it up and made some impactful plays and did some positive things.
"I thought our block teams really did a good job. We got our hands on the ball quite a bit. I thought that aspect of our game was good. Our coverage was probably just average at the end of the day. Our return game was probably more average than we would like it to be."
Miami placed 12th overall among other NFL teams in a special ranking the Dallas Morning News releases at the end of each season, but can they improve the unit and perhaps get more consistency out of them?
Let’s take stock of the 2014 special teams core before moving onwards:
K Caleb Sturgis
Dan Carpenter’s replacement was inconsistent at times in 2014 and hasn’t definitively shown in two years that he is the Dolphins’ kicker of the future. The team may have saved plenty of money with the release of Carpenter two years ago, but his steadiness has been missed.
Sturgis went from a decent rookie campaign to ranking 27th in the league in field goal percentage in 2014. Even though he scored 128 points, the second most ever in a Dolphins season, and his 29 field goals tied for fifth-best in team history, he will likely face heavy competition in training camp but should have plenty of opportunities to impress.
P Brandon Fields
Usually reliable during his career, the former Pro Bowler was shaky at times last year but came around late in the season to finish 12th in the NFL with an average of 46.3 yards. Still, his net punting average that placed him 23rd (and at one point in the season dead last) is a sign that either 2014 was an anomaly or proof that his skills are diminishing. But which one is it? Will the Dolphins pursue an upgrade and give him some true competition in training camp for the first time in his otherwise-stellar career?
LS John Denney
The two-time Pro Bowler has never missed a game in his 10-year career through 160 games to hold the franchise record. He did that despite playing with a knee injury through much of last season. He’s not going anywhere.
LB Jason Trusnik
The captain of the special teams unit is as reliable as they come and the Dolphins can safely count on him as one of the anchors of the unit if they choose to resign him, as he is one of their 16 free agents. Due to injuries, he was shuffled over to the inside linebacker position and made six starts, totaling 48 tackles and one interception. As a valuable and versatile player who has participated in 64 consecutive games over four seasons as well as a trusted voice in the locker room, Miami should try to lock him up quickly.
PR/KR Jarvis Landry
His NFL career got off to a sizzling start and his efforts were rewarded with the AFC Special Teams Player of the Month award after averaging a second-best 35.6 yards per kickoff return for the month of October. The 63rd pick in the draft had some trouble at times holding on to the ball on punt returns, but nevertheless finished fourth in the NFLâwith a 28.1-yard kickoff average and his kickoff return average was the second-highest ever in franchise history. He also tied for 13th in the NFL with an 8.2 average on punt returns. The rookie’s role as a wide receiver expanded as the season wore on, but Miami could simply choose to continue developing him in a dual role for next season.
PR/KR Damien Williams
The undrafted rookie out of the University of Oklahoma had his moments backing up Landry as well as Lamar Miller at the tailback position. Should Landry continue to develop as a true threat as a wide receiver, Williams could have more opportunities with the special teams unit.
"He’s a guy we have a lot of confidence in," said Philbin. "He’s a talented guy."
POSSIBLE FREE-AGENT TARGETS
Should the Dolphins go in a different direction instead of Sturgis and Fields, the free agent market includes some intriguing names. Three of the best kickers in the game — Stephen Gostkowski (New England Patriots), Justin Tucker (Baltimore Ravens) and Matt Bryant (Atlanta Falcons) — may be available. As for punters, Brett Kern (Tennessee Titans) and Chris Jones (Dallas Cowboys) could entice the Dolphins.
BEST DRAFT OPTIONS
Miami chose Sturgis in the fifth round and Fields in the seventh round so they have gone this route before to mine talent but the pickings may be slim this year. Kickers Sam Ficken of Penn State and Josh Lambo from Texas A&M could be available deep in the draft but most likely the Dolphins will simply try out similarly talented players that went undrafted if they’re not interested in any free-agent veterans.
Special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi has done an admirable job since taking over in 2010, with 13 total blocked kicks recorded since then. The team’s overall depth will dictate how much of the leftover talent can make an overall impact on special teams next season, but aside from big question marks with Sturgis and Fields, the team would be wise to fine-tune the unit instead of overhauling it.