AC In The AM: Special Teams Should Soon Come Into Focus

Danny Crossman was at an advantage the moment he was hired as special teams coordinator of the Miami Dolphins. He didn’t have to study tape to learn about the explosiveness of Jakeem Grant or the speed and moves of Kenyan Drake. He saw it all first hand and in this case his memory was all he needed.

Crossman came to the Dolphins after spending six seasons as special teams coach of the Buffalo Bills. So he got to face the Dolphins twice a year. You do that over and over and you quickly gain a thorough knowledge of your opponent.

Now we’ll get to see what Crossman does with that knowledge.

“Anytime there is familiarity, it is going to help you and obviously being in the same division (it is at) even another level,” Crossman said. “With the time I spent in Buffalo, I have a pretty good feel for who they are and the schemes they played. Now it’s just trying to tie that together with how we’re going to build it and what we’re going to do here.”

With the preseason approaching its halfway point, the special teams will soon start coming into focus as the roster takes shape and the skillsets become more evident. With only a few exceptions, such as a player like Walt Aikens, the core special teams players have yet to surface. But that will soon change. Crossman has already seen enough of these players to have a good indication of which ones can help him and in what ways.

See, he is unable to wait until the cut down from 90 to 53 players on the final day of this month. He’s got to have packages installed by then and if he needs to make some late adjustments because of roster decisions, at least he’ll already have the nucleus of his units in place.

“There are some good, quality players here and we’ll see if we can develop them and get them even better,” Crossman said.

Draft picks, undrafted rookies and young players in general trying to make this team need not be reminded that special teams could be their ticket. They hear it every day on the practice field and in the meeting rooms.

Look at long-snapper John Denney. He’s punching his ticket for a 15th season, yet nothing is guaranteed as Denney is competing this summer against rookie Wesley Farnsworth, another decision on Crossman’s plate.

With all of that in mind, let’s break down the three main special teams categories and see where things stack up, knowing the most important decisions have yet to be made:

Kick Returns

Crossman will have plenty of enticing options, but none more enticing than Grant and Drake. Both can go the distance. Both have already compiled impressive resumes. Both are in their primes.

Before seeing his 2018 season end with a heal injury, Grant had returned a kickoff 102 yards for a touchdown in the season opener against Tennessee and a punt 71 yards for a touchdown about a month later in Cincinnati. As for Drake, who can forget his 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to beat the New York Jets in his rookie season?

Crossman is going to have fun figuring out ways of further utilizing these two very talented returners. Others will surely join the mix. Maybe we’ll see a Kalen Ballage or a Mark Walton or even an Albert Wilson get a look at some point. In the preseason opener we saw receiver Isaiah Ford back there. But with Grant and Drake the Dolphins clearly have two of the league’s most dynamic returners and it’s hard to imagine one or both of them not being the focal point once the season begins.

Punt and kickoff coverage

Three of the top four tacklers on special teams from a season ago are no longer with the team, creating a huge void that must be filled this summer. Crossman has been working long and hard trying to identify the top special teams candidates. By now, he has a pretty good feel.

I’m getting the distinct impression that just about the whole roster could be in play here, that this coaching staff won’t hesitate using starters on special teams, certainly when they possess the right physical tools. We got a taste of this in the preseason opener when, among others, safety T.J. McDonald and defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick were out there on the coverage teams. I expect to see others as the preseason unfolds. Jerome Baker? Ballage? Plenty of options.

Now, there will still be several core special teams players who will make the team on that ability alone– maybe as many as six or seven -- and you can’t undervalue what they mean to this team. Someone like Aikens, a 6-year veteran, would appear to be a given. Seemingly always in the conversation for the AFC’s special teams player in the Pro Bowl, Aikens finished second on the team in coverage tackles last season.

Who will join him this season? There is a long list of possibilities, a list that Crossman must pair down in the next few weeks, most of them first and second year players such as linebackers Sam Eguavoen, Andrew Van Ginkel and Terill Hanks and defensive backs Cornell Armstrong, Torry McTyer and Jalen Davis just to name a few. Others will emerge this week in Tampa and next week on the practice field. Livelihoods will depend on it.

Kicking

The Dolphins have two excellent kickers in placekicker Jason Sanders and punter Matt Haack. That neither of them has competition right now in training camp tells you how highly this coaching staff covets their abilities. Both are coming off strong seasons.

Sanders nailed 18 of 20 field goal attempts as a rookie, the fifth best percentage in team history, and all but one of his 36 extra point attempts. Haack, entering his third season, set the single season franchise record in 2018 with 35 punts coming to rest inside the 20-yard line. His 44.6-yard average wasn’t too shabby either.

The next few weeks are all about getting Sanders and Haack ready for the season while Crossman tries to fill in the blanks on the coverage and return teams. Could turn out to be some of the most important decisions of the summer.

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