Enter new Special Teams Coordinator Bobby April. He is considered one of the better special teams coaches in the league although he comes from St. Louis where the Rams' unit struggled last year. The biggest change is in the philosophy of the personnel that will be used. April and Head Coach Mike Mularkey both say that the best players will be on the unit. That means starters will see more times covering and blocking for punts and kicks, as well as returning them, more than at any time in Bills history.
The team is set at punter, where Brian Moorman continues his quest for a richly deserved Pro Bowl berth. He broke the team record for punting average last year and he will hold the job for years to come. Kicker Rian Lindell is also entrenched in his job but he struggled last year. He needs a bounce back year and coaches feel since he's healthy, after undergoing shoulder surgery in the offseason, he should achieve more success.
The punt and kick coverage units were solid last year and with the additions of a few veteran players, should continue to be near the top of the league. The only factor hurting these units is the loss of special teams "stars" Sammy Morris and DaShon Polk. The leaders of the coverage teams should be Coy Wire, Joe Burns, and Josh Stamer. All three of them excelled last year in coverage.
The weak part of the unit last year that needs to be seriously addressed is the return game. For years, the Bills haven't had a breakaway punt and kick returner. They thought they had their man last year in Antonio Brown after he returned two punts or touchdowns in preseason. He was dismal in the regular season and the team started experimenting with other players back there. Players that will get a shot at both punt and kick returns include Brown, Terrence McGee, Nate Clements, Josh Reed, and undrafted free agent RB Shaud Williams along with seventh round pick Jonathan Smith among others.
Reed may excel as a kick returner and McGee had a lot of success returning punts in college but didn't get much of a chance in his rookie season. Clements has always done a good job returning punts and loves doing it but the previous coaching staff didn't want him doing it since he was a starter. That no longer seems to be a concern. Williams best chance at making the team is as a returner, no other running back on the roster fits the returner mold. Smith is fast and small but his chances of making the team will be on his return ability also.
The only training camp battles to watch is the return game, I feel that Reed would make an excellent kick returner along with McGee and Clements should handle the punt return duties. No matter who returns it the team needs to set up the returns better with solid blocking schemes that seemed to be missing last year.
This unit has a chance to be very strong it all depends on how April gets the crew to mesh and how many starters they realistically will use. One thing is for sure, if the coverage units hold up to last year's standards and the return game improves (there is nowhere to go but up) then the special teams has a chance to truly be special. Hey, we may even return a kick for a score, something that has been very scarce in past years with the Bills.
This is the first of a series of three articles previewing the Bills training camp.