The Titans' special teams were 26th in the league last year, according to composite rankings by Rich Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News. The 22 categories which compose the rankings even include opponents' field goal percentage.
The low ranking for the Titans is consistent with the grades I assigned to the special teams players in their report card.
That was last year. We now look forward to the 2010 season and the changes which need to occur.
Two positions, kicker and punter, seem to be set. I was pleasantly surprised with what I saw from Brett Kern last season as Craig Hentrich's replacement. Rob Bironas will handle field goal and kickoff duties again.
Other special teams positions will be up for grabs and we'll look at them after the jump.
Punt and kick returner(s): As noted in the special teams report card, five players were used as punt returners last year and seven Titans returned more than one kick. The results were unsatisfactory and changes need to be made. That doesn't necessarily mean personnel changes; it may simply require an increase in production.
Mark Jones is the prime example of that. He had solid career numbers as a return man prior to joining the Titans in free agency a year ago. In 2006 and 2007 he averaged 29.0 and 28.6 yards on kick returns and he averaged 11.9 and 11.4 yards per punt return in 2007 and 2008. To put those numbers into context, they're better than Chris Carr ever had.
Jones had hamstring injuries which limited him to only three games last year. He's still under contract for another season so he'll compete for a job in training camp again. Can he regain the form he showed earlier in his career which made him an attractive pickup for the Titans a year ago? If he's able to put up numbers similar to those from 2006 through 2008 then the Titans could be better off than they were with Carr.
This might not sit well with some people, but I believe Jeff Fisher will give Ryan Mouton another shot at returning kicks. Not punts, but kicks, which he did well in college. If you were surprised, like I was, that the Titans drafted Mouton in the third round, you have to think it was in large part for his ability as a kick returner. I don't see why they would draft him that high solely for his DB skills, especially since he's probably going to sit on the bench behind Vincent Fuller for three years.
Mouton returned only one kickoff last year, with disastrous results. Fisher didn't utilize him as a kick returner again and it reminded me of what he did with Pacman Jones in his rookie season. After Pacman muffed or fumbled a few punts, Fisher replaced him temporarily, letting him get settled in as a corner before putting him back as a return man. It wouldn't be out of character for Fisher to do the same with Mouton. I won't be surprised if Mouton gets another shot at returning kicks in OTAs/minicamps and training camp. If it works, fine. If not, at least it was attempted.
I also fully anticipate there will be several newcomers who will be in the mix this summer and I'd like for Jones and Mouton to have some stiff competition for the return jobs.
Snapper: Ken Amato has snapped for the Titans since 2003 and is an unrestricted free agent as this is written. The Titans are reportedly "in talks" with his agent, which doesn't really mean anything. For all we know, Mike Reinfeldt may have little interest in re-signing him.
Amato has been placed on Injured Reserve twice in his career after injuries sustained in covering punts.
Is it just my imagination or has anyone else noticed this? Amato's snaps seem to be more erratic than those of other snappers. Perhaps his bad snaps have been somewhat overlooked because Craig Hentrich was so good at handling them but it sure seemed like he had more than his share of off-target snaps. It seems like Hentrich saved his bacon several times a year.
Thirteen snappers, including Amato, who were on a NFL roster last year will be free agents and there's no telling how many street free agents there will be. There should also be regular position players who can snap that will be available in free agency. Finding a replacement for Amato, if that's the route the Titans decide to go, shouldn't be difficult.
Holder: Kern did a pretty good job at that last year. I recall he was able to get one of Amato's high snaps down for Bironas' game-winning field goal against the Dolphins.
Coverage teams: Most of the Titans' leading tacklers on special teams will be back in camp this summer, including Craig Stevens, Donnie Nickey, Mouton, Gerald McRath, Jason McCourty, Michael Griffin, Colin Allred and Stanford Keglar.
Coach: Alan Lowry will be in charge of special teams again, a fact which will stick in the craw of many fans. It's something that you'll have to get used to if you aren't already resigned to the situation. Unless he screws up really bad, Lowry will remain as long as Fisher does.
To recap, three positions are in decent shape - kicker, punter and holder. A snapper needs to be signed and I wouldn't be averse to someone more consistent than Amato. Most importantly, the kick returner and punt returner spots need to be upgraded. Whether that occurs in free agency or the draft, an infusion of new talent is needed to challenge the incumbent returners.