Hall of Fame coach George Allen was always known for underscoring the importance of special teams. And back in 1969, during Allen's tenure with the Los Angeles Rams, he became the first coach in NFL history to employ a full-time special teams coach, tabbing 32-year-old Dick Vermeil for the job. Shortly thereafter in that same offseason, Philadelphia Eagles coach Jerry Williams followed suit by hiring his own full-time special teams boss, former college coach Marv Levy. Thus began a true emphasis in pro football on the game's other third.
By 1988, every NFL team had a full-time special teams coach. And by last year's count, 25 teams had an assistant to the special teams coach.
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Special teams have taken on a paramount significance nowadays. Consequently, many special teamers receive national recognition. From the electric returners (Devin Hester, Patrick Peterson, Darren Sproles) to the clutch kickers (Adam Vinatieri, David Akers, Rob Bironas) to even the booming punters (Andy Lee, Shane Lechler), standout special teamers are getting noticed.
But even in today's game, there are still special teams studs whose work is vastly underappreciated; the unsung heroes who excel in non-glamour roles. I would like to call attention to 10 of these players, the best of the best in three vital areas of special teams:
- Four-core players. (Guys who participate on the four main special teams units: kickoff, kick return, punt and punt return.)
- Long snappers.
- Kick blockers.
Without further ado, here are my top players in each role:
1. Montell Owens, Jacksonville Jaguars: I asked a number of coaches across the league to name the best pure special teams player, and Owens was routinely the first name offered up. Jacksonville signed him as an undrafted free agent out of Maine back in 2006 and he's become a real stalwart, recording 95 career special teams tackles and making the last two Pro Bowls. Owens lines up everywhere, is a very smart player and is particularly effective on kickoff coverage because he's nearly impossible to block.
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2. Matthew Slater, New England Patriots: The Patriots seem to select a special teamer in every draft (including Ohio State's Nate Ebner in April). Matthew Slater, the son of Hall of Famer Jackie Slater, was taken by New England in the fifth round of the 2008 draft. Slater is extremely versatile, playing across all special teams units, as well as some offense and defense. He made his first Pro Bowl team last season, to go along with the seven Pro Bowl nods Jackie earned in his 20 years with the Rams.
3. Bryan Braman, Houston Texans: When Bobby King joined the Texans' coaching staff as a defensive assistant last offseason, one of the first things he did was recommend that Houston sign Braman, an undrafted free agent whom King had coached at West Texas A&M University. Braman had some off-field issues during his collegiate days, but King guaranteed he would keep Braman on the straight and narrow and even had the rookie live with him for part of the 2011 season. This addition certainly paid off. Braman has outstanding size and speed. He's the first man down the field on kickoffs and does a fantastic job holding up blockers on punt return.
1. Jon Condo, Oakland Raiders: The third time was a charm for Condo, who passed through Dallas and New England before sticking in Oakland. Right now, he's the best long snapper in the NFL. He's a very good protector and actually has good speed and coverage skills, despite starting from the center position. The Raiders' punter (Lechler) and kicker (Sebastian Janikowski) both made the Pro Bowl last season, thanks in part to Condo's flawless delivery.
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2. Jon Weeks, Houston Texans: Back in 2009, Weeks was working at a hospital in Phoenix when Jake Delhomme entered the building after suffering an injury in a game against the Arizona Cardinals. After speaking with Weeks, Delhomme encouraged the former Baylor long snapper to attend a kicking camp with NFL scouts present and see if he could catch on with a team. One thing led to another and the Texans scooped him up for the 2010 campaign. Weeks is smaller than your average NFL long snapper at 5-foot-10, but he covers very well. And in six years -- four at Baylor, two at Houston -- he's never had a bad snap.
3. Patrick Mannelly, Chicago Bears: The sixth-round pick out of Duke in 1998 is about to enter his 15th season as the Bears' long snapper. Although he tore his ACL last November -- snapping a franchise-record streak of 147 consecutive games played -- Mannelly is expected to be ready for 2012. Due to inclement weather conditions, Chicago is not an easy place to snap the ball. But Mannelly gets it back with speed and accuracy and does an admirable job getting down the field after the snap.
1. Julius Peppers, Chicago Bears: All three kick blockers on this list are highly regarded for their defensive prowess, but their special teams impact can go overlooked. Peppers is probably one of the best kick blockers of all time. He brings great length at 6-foot-7 with an enormous wingspan, and he can either bull rush you or olé you. Most importantly, he goes extremely hard every time, regardless of the score. Opposing special teams coaches really have to game plan against Peppers.
2. Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants: Pierre-Paul preserved a vital come-from-behind win over Dallas last December by blocking Dan Bailey's potential game-tying field goal in the waning moments. Without that win, the eventual Super Bowl champion very well might've missed the playoffs altogether. Like Peppers, Pierre-Paul is another player with exceptional length and jumping ability, as well as a relentless motor. He's a real difference maker whenever he's on the field, through defense and special teams.
3. Calais Campbell, Arizona Cardinals: Campbell is quite a physical specimen at 6-foot-8, 300 pounds, and he boasts a devastating swim move. The Cardinals do a great job of creating situations that provide Campbell with an isolated matchup, but at the same time, opposing special teams coaches are very aware of his abilities and make a special effort to contain him.