My preferred metric for evaluating special teams play, and not just because I write for them, is Football Outsiders' ratings. That's for the same basic reason I wrote yesterday's post on the pass rush: context matters. Take, for instance, field goals. NFL kickers as a whole hit roughly 90% of their kicks from inside of 40 or so yards. Kicks attempted in indoor stadiums and in warm weather are made more frequently than kicks in cold weather. Players like Mike Vanderjagt and Nate Kaeding put up many seasons with good accuracy rates where they weren't actually that great thanks to not attempting long kicks and playing their home games in generally very favorable conditions.
I'm pleased to report, then, that Rob Bironas going 29 for 32 on field goal attempts last year, plus his 34-34 on extra points, was the second-most valuable kicking performance in the NFL last year. He was a very good 9-10 on attempts from 40-49 yards and an even better 6 of 7 from 50 yards and beyond, with his only miss there coming on what would have been a record-setting 67 yard try. As I wrote last preseason, almost all kickers have bouts of inconsistency, and it wouldn't surprise me to see Bironas finally have a bit of a down season.
As superlative as Bironas has been on field goal attempts, his record on kickoffs has been much more mixed the last couple seasons. In contrast to his strong and accurate leg on field goals, his kickoff distance was a little below-average last season after a couple seasons where he ranked narrowly above average. For whatever reason, Bironas doesn't seem to be getting the same kickoff distance he was earlier in his career. Bironas is entering the final year of his current contract this year; I'd expect the Titans to franchise him barring a massive dropoff in his leg strength this year.
The Titans were improved a bit on kickoff coverage in 2011, thanks to coverage team improvement, but still came out around league average. On a team that had good special teams results, this was the worst aspect. Better results here will come from better discipline. The Titans re-signed special teams standouts Tim Shaw and Patrick Bailey this offseason, which were not high-profile but still were important, but need to be solid and could use one more player who makes a big impact. Aaron Francisco, perhaps?
Punter Brett Kern returns as well. His distance was improved, but he still came out a bit below league-average on distance. While he doesn't seem to be directionally-kicking the same way a player like former Jaguars and current Bears punter Adam Podlesh is, his kicks seem to have the same effect. The Titans have been good on punts every year he's been here, even when they haven't been great on kickoffs, and Kern probably deserves more credit than he's gotten.
The player snapping the ball to Kern on both punts and kickoffs (where he is the holder for Bironas) certainly appears to be Beau Brinkley. The only true long-snapper on the roster, Brinkley is vying to be the first rookie undrafted free agent to stick with the Titans since 2006. Veteran long-snapper Ken Amato was not re-signed by the team in the offseason, and the Titans cut Jake Ingram, who'd filled in when Amato was injured, after minicamps this offseason. Fernando Velasco is listed on the unofficial depth chart as the backup long-snapper; I don't recall ever seeing him long-snap. Going with Brinkley is a bit of a risk, and he had a non-great but still plenty good enough snap that may have contributed to Will Batson's field goal miss in the first preseason game. If Brinkley falters, it'd be easy enough to give a player like Amato a call.
The other key new face on special teams will be the new returner after Marc Mariani's broken leg that will cost him the 2012 season. That creates a void at both the kick return and punt return spots. The favorite for both jobs looks like Darius Reynaud. Mariani was a good kick returner, but the change to the kickoff spot devalues that position. Reynaud seems to be a little bit shiftier and a better punt returner than Mariani, and has broken a long return twice in the preseason. Excellent blocking played a role in both of those and the Titans' general returning excellence the past two seasons. Assuming Reynaud can avoid additional muffs like the one he had against Arizona, the Titans should be in good hands again at returner this year.
Unless Reynaud or any other return man is plagued by the fumbling problems we saw in early 2009, the Titans seem poised to have another year of excellent special teams play in 2012.