Rick Gosselin’s All-Time NFL Special Teams Squad
Eight Hall of Famers included on the 53-member team
(Published May 2018)
There’s a football adage that special teams are a third of the game.
But special teams do not get a third of the credit for success, a third of the practice time nor a third of the roster spots.
By and large, NFL teams carry 4-5 special teams “core” players. The remainder of the units in the kicking game are generally populated with young backups from the back end of the roster. They are usually undrafted players and lower-round draft picks subject to annual roster turnover.
Bill Bates and Steve Tasker were two of the greatest special-teams aces in NFL history. Both retired in 1998. I asked them then what the toughest part of their job was and both gave me the same answer – convincing a new group of teammates each year that what they do on special teams is important.
Some of the kicking game’s elite took the long way to the NFL. Adam Vinatieri is on the verge of becoming the NFL’s all-time leading scorer. But he went undrafted out of South Dakota State in 1995 and spent a season in Amsterdam kicking for the World League Admirals before the New England Patriots finally gave him a chance to kick in the NFL.
Brendon Ayanbadejo went undrafted out of UCLA in 1999 and played full seasons in the CFL, XFL and World League before finally hooking on with the Miami Dolphins in 2003. He went on to become a three-time Pro Bowl special-teams ace.
Bennie Thompson went undrafted out of Grambling in 1986 and spent three seasons in the CFL before finally getting his NFL opportunity with the Cleveland Browns in 1989. He became a two-time Pro Bowl special-teams ace. Mel Gray spent two seasons in the USFL before signing with the New Orleans Saints in 1986. He became an NFL all-decade selection at kick returner in the 1990s.
I’ve been a keen observer of the NFL kicking game since 1980 when I was covering the Kansas City Chiefs and special-teams coach Frank Gansz gave me his formula for ranking the league’s special teams. I’ve compiled those rankings every year since then. That’s 38 years worth of special-teams rankings … and counting.
NFL teams have 11 offensive starters, 11 defensive starters and no special-teams starters. I’m going to change that. I’ve compiled my all-time NFL special-teams unit with 22 starting spots – a kicker, punter, kickoff specialist, holder, deep snapper, personal protector for punts, kickoff returner, punt returner, two interior kick blockers, two edge kick blockers and 10 coverage aces.
I’ve also picked a second-team, which gives me 44 total players, and I’ve added nine “wild-card” spots for a 53-player roster devoted exclusively to special teamers. So here’s my all-time NFL special-teams team:
Placement Kicker: Adam Vinatieri. Undrafted. Seasons: 22 (1996-present). Teams 2 (New England, Indianapolis). Two Pro Bowls and selected to the NFL’s 2000s all-decade team. The NFL’s second-all-time leading scorer who needs just 58 points this season to overtake Hall of Famer Morten Andersen for the top spot. Vinatieri has scored 2,487 points and another 234 points in the playoffs, helping the Patriots win three Super Bowls and the Colts one. He kicked the game-winning field goal of 40-plus yards in the closing seconds of two of those New England Super Bowl victories.
Holder: Nolan Cromwell. Second-round draft pick. Seasons: 11 (1977-87). Teams: 1 (Los Angeles Rams). An NFL all-decade selection at safety for the 1980s. Having Cromwell taking the snaps for placements effectively slowed down the rush for kickers Frank Corral and Mike Lansford over the years. Cromwell was a wishbone quarterback at Kansas and also a track All-America in both the sprints and hurdles. So the rush units had to be aware that Cromwell could pick up the snap at any time on a fake and either run it or throw it. Holding for placements was once the domain of backup quarterbacks and skill players accustomed to handling the football. Now, in the era of the expanded 53-player rosters, every holder in the NFL doubles as the team’s punter. Cromwell went on to become a special-teams coach and won a Super Bowl ring with the 1996 Packers.
Kickoffs: Morten Andersen. Fourth-round draft pick. Seasons: 25 (1982-2007). Teams: 5 (New Orleans, Atlanta, NY Giants, Kansas City, Minnesota). One of only two pure placekickers in the Hall of Fame. NFL all-decade selection for both the 1980s and 1990s. His long leg gave NFL teams the courage to attempt long field goals (Andersen kicked 40 of 50-plus yards with a long of 60) and he also was among the first to make the kickoff a weapon for special teams. According to the Pro Football Journal, Andersen led the NFL in touchback percentage nine times and finished second four other times. “My ability to be effective and powerful on kickoffs set me apart,” Andersen said. “I always felt I dictated that play. I wanted to make the 21 other guys on the field spectators to a cool display of kicking.”
Punter: Ray Guy. First-round draft pick. Seasons: 14 (1973-86). Teams: 1 (Raiders). The only pure punter in the Hall of Fame. Seven Pro Bowls and a member of the NFL’s 75th anniversary team. Guy became the first punter ever selected with a first-round draft pick and went on to lead the NFL in punting in three of his first five seasons. His leg became a weapon that helped the Raiders win three Super Bowls. One of the most memorable plays in Super Bowl history was a leaping Guy snaring a high, errant snap with one hand against the Redskins in the 1984 game and then launching a 42-yard punt.
Personal protector: John Lynch. Second-round draft pick. Seasons: 15 (1993-2007). Teams: 2 (Tampa Bay, Denver). A nine-time Pro Bowl safety. The personal protector is the last blocker before the rush gets to the punter. As one of the league’s most ferocious hitters, Lynch brought toughness to his post. And as a former baseball pitcher and Stanford graduate, Lynch was the prototype for the personal protector position. It was Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy’s decision to put him back there. Bucs special teams coach “Joe Marciano always felt that the quickest way to lose a game was to get punts blocked,” Dungy said. “So the personal protector had to sort out a lot of things, figure out what to do and then make smart decisions. Also, if you wanted to have any type of fakes, you need a smart guy back there. John was versatile. He could throw the ball, he could run it. But the biggest thing is he was a good decision maker. He handled all the fakes – whether to run them and when to run them against a certain look. Is it on? Is it off? If they give you overloads you had to change the protection. You have to change the direction of the kicks. So you had to be smart and tough. And a lot of times that guy doesn’t get blocked. So if you have a guy who can make tackles at that position, it was huge.”
Long snapper: Steve DeOssie. Fourth-round draft pick. Seasons: 12 (1984-95). Teams: 4 (Dallas, NY Giants, NY Jets, New England). Before the era of expanded rosters, teams did not have the luxury of carrying a deep snapper. So teams used tight ends, linebackers and some centers – anyone who could make those long snaps on a fairly consistent basis. DeOssie, a linebacker, changed the dynamic of the deep snapper position. Bill Belichick was on staff when DeOssie’s snapping helped the Giants win a Super Bowl. “The all-time snapper in my book is Steve DeOssie,” Belichick said. “Steve was a good snapper, but he was also good in coverage and could snap-and-block. He was the player who changed punt formations to spread the punt (coverage) with gunners. We tried to rush him when I was the special teams coach at the Giants but we couldn’t get close – so we could never force Dallas to bring the gunners in tight. In my opinion, he was one of the most impactful players in the punting game during my coaching career in the NFL.” The two Pro Bowl deep snappers in 2017 (Jake McQuaide, Clark Harris) combined for five tackles. DeOssie made 20 special teams tackles in one season alone (1988) and 81 in his career.
Coverage: Steve Tasker. Ninth-round draft pick: Seasons: 13 (1985-97). Teams: 1 (Buffalo). A seven-time Pro Bowl special-teams ace. Like Cromwell, Tasker was from the tiny Kansas town of Smith Center. He was the Swiss army knife of special teams. Marv Levy, one of the NFL’s first special-teams coaches, brought Tasker to Buffalo in 1986 to be his special-teams ace. And that he was. Tasker covered kicks, blocked kicks, returned both punts and kickoffs and also had stretches when he was the holder on placements and the personal protector on punts. He did it all. Tasker blocked a punt in the 1993 Super Bowl and a week later blocked a field goal in the Pro Bowl and returned it for a touchdown. He remains the only special-teams ace ever voted the MVP of a Pro Bowl. He finished his career with 186 career special-teams tackles.
Coverage: Matthew Slater. Fifth-round draft pick. Seasons: 10 (2008-current). Teams: 1 (New England). A seven-time Pro Bowl special-teams ace. Slater’s father Jackie is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as an offensive tackle – and Matthew has already gone to as many Pro Bowls as his dad. His Pro Bowls have all come in succession – and those seven consecutive Pro Bowls are a record for an NFL special teamer. He’s also a seven-time special-teams captain of the Patriots. “He’s a great captain,” Belichick said. “He makes his teammates better.” Slater has 136 career special-teams tackles and 12 more in the playoffs. His best season was 21 tackles in 2010.
Coverage: Michael Bates. Sixth-round draft pick. Seasons: 11 (1993-2003). Teams: 6 (Seattle, Carolina, Cleveland, Washington, NY Jets, Dallas). A five-time Pro Bowler as both an ace and return specialist and also a member of the NFL 1990s all-decade team. His game was speed. Bates won a bronze medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics in the 200 meters. Like most aces, Bates was a special-teams multi-tasker. In addition to setting a Seattle franchise record with 22 special-teams tackles in 1992, Bates also led the NFL in kickoff returns in both 1996 (30.2-yard average) and 1997 (27.3-yard average). He returned five kickoffs for touchdowns in his career.
Coverage: Elbert Shelley. 11th round draft pick. Seasons: 10 (1987-96). Teams: 1 (Atlanta). A four-time Pro Bowl special-teams ace. One of the NFL’s earliest and most proficient gunners on the punt team.
Coverage: Ron Wolfley. Fourth-round draft pick. Seasons: 10 (1985-95). Teams: 3 (Arizona, Cleveland, Rams). A four-time Pro Bowl special-teams ace. “Wolfley had less speed than those other guys,” Belichick said, “but he was very tough with a top motor. He was physical to run through blockers. He wasn’t always the first downfield, but he was around the ball and smart to recognize wall returns and the blocking schemes. He played next to the center on the punt team and was both strong and smart in protection.”
Coverage: Larry Izzo. Undrafted. Seasons: 14 (1996-2009). Teams: 3 (Miami, New England, NY Jets). A three-time Pro Bowl special-teams ace. Miami coach Jimmy Johnson announced in mid-August during his first training camp with the Dolphins in 1996 that the only two players who have guaranteed themselves roster spots were his Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino and the undrafted rookie Izzo. He bore out Johnson’s confidence in him early and often. The NFL does not track special teams tackles – just another disrespect card in the kicking game’s deck. But Izzo collected what is believed to be an NFL-record 298 career special-teams tackles, including 33 with Miami in 1999 and 31 with New England in 2003. “On special teams so many things happen that you haven’t practiced,” Johnson said. “You need players who are alert, smart and can react. Larry was very instinctive, a tremendous playmaker. He made every tackle in college. He was just undersized.”
Coverage: Bennie Thompson. Undrafted. Seasons: 11 (1989-99). Teams: 4 (New Orleans, Kansas City, Cleveland, Baltimore). A two-time Pro Bowl special-teams ace. Thompson was captain of the Cleveland special teams that finished first in the NFL in 1994. He led the team with 21 special-teams tackles that season and finished his career with 173. He recovered three fumbles, forced two other fumbles and blocked a punt. He collected double figures in special-teams tackles during nine consecutive seasons (1990-98).
Coverage: Reyna Thompson. Ninth-round draft pick. Seasons: 8 (1986-93). Teams: 3 (Miami, NY Giants, New England). One Pro Bowl. Belichick broke into NFL coaching as a special-teams coach and always placed a premium on the kicking game. So it is no surprise that of the 10 coverage players on this first team, Belichick was on the coaching staff with five of them – Bennie and Reyna Thompson, Slater, Izzo and Wolfley. Reyna was a special-teams ace of the Dolphins but jumped to the Giants in Plan B free agency in 1989. He collected a team-leading 21 special-teams tackles that season and in 1990, with the Giants on the way to their first Lombardi Trophy, CBS analyst John Madden called Thompson, “the best special-teams player ever.”
Coverage: Bill Bates. Undrafted. Seasons: 15 (1983-97). Teams: 1 (Dallas). One Pro Bowl. The dynamic kick coverage of Bates in 1983 and 1984 earned him NFLPA Special Teams Player of the Year honors both seasons. His brilliance forced the NFL to create a spot in the Pro Bowl for a special-teams ace. Bates was the first to receive that Pro Bowl recognition in 1994. “Every guy who plays special teams in this league owes a debt of gratitude to Bill,” Tasker said. “He was the first guy to make the general public aware of what goes on in special teams. Everybody around the country knew who he was and that he was a great special-teams player. He’s the guy who made everyone say, `Wait a minute. This guy is contributing too much not to be recognized. There have to be other guys out there like him.’” Bates collected 216 career special-teams tackles, including a career-best 26 in 1994. He also returned punts for the Cowboys in 1985.
Coverage: Hank Bauer. Undrafted. Seasons: 6 (1977-82). Teams: 1 (San Diego). Bates may have opened the NFL’s eyes to kick coverage, but Bauer had them dropping jaws a few years earlier. An undrafted free-agent running back out of tiny Cal Lutheran, Bauer went to camp with the Cowboys in 1977 but was released early in training camp. He hooked on with the Chargers and played 13 games that season chasing kicks. He then spent six years mastering his craft. In 1981, Bauer was credited with a staggering 52 tackles on special teams, including 31 unassisted.
Kickoff returner: Gale Sayers. First-round draft pick. Seasons: 7 (1965-71). Teams: 1 (Chicago). A Hall of Fame halfback and a member of the NFL’s 75th anniversary team. Sayers led the NFL in kickoff returns with an average of 31.2 yards in 1966. He was even better in 1967 with an average of 37.7 yards per return but finished second in the NFL to Travis Williams (41.1) that season. Sayers holds the NFL record with a 30.6-yard career average and six touchdowns.
Punt returner: Devin Hester. Second-round draft pick. Seasons: 11 (2006-16). Teams: 4 (Chicago, Atlanta, Baltimore, Seattle). A member of the 2000s NFL all-decade team. Hester holds the NFL record for touchdowns on kick returns with 19 – 14 on punts and five on kickoffs. He scored a 20th touchdown when he became the only player to return the opening kickoff of a Super Bowl for a touchdown, a 92-yarder against the Colts in 2007. Hester led the NFL in punt returns in back-to-back seasons, averaging 17.1 yards in 2010 and 16.2 yards in 2011. He ranks eighth all-time with his 11.7-yard punt return average and also averaged 24.9 yards on kickoffs.
Interior kick blocker: Ted Hendricks. First-round draft pick. Seasons: 15 (1969-83). Teams: 3 (Baltimore, Green Bay, Raiders). A Hall of Fame outside linebacker and a member of the NFL’s 75th anniversary team. Hendricks was 6-7, 220 pounds and used his length to great advantage on kicking downs. The Mad Stork is credited with blocking an NFL-record 25 kicks, including a staggering seven in one season with the Packers in 1974 – 3 field goals, 3 punts and an extra point.
Interior kick blocker: Matt Blair. Second-round draft pick. Seasons: 12 (1974-85). Teams: 1 (Minnesota). A six-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker with 23 career sacks and 16 interceptions. But he ranks second all-time in blocked kicks behind Hendricks with 20. He blocked three field goals, 16 extra points and one punt. He blocked five kicks in 1979 alone.
Edge kick blocker: Albert Lewis. Third-round draft pick. Seasons: 16 (1983-98). Teams: 2 (Kansas City, Raiders). A four-time Pro Bowl cornerback with 42 career interceptions. Lewis blocked 12 kicks – 11 punts and a field goal. He blocked four punts in 1986 and four more in 1990. His final block in 1986 came in the AFC wild-card playoff game against the Jets. He blocked a Dave Jennings punt and the ball sailed high into the air 40 yards backwards, where Lewis fell on it in the end zone for a touchdown. He also blocked a Seattle punt in 1993 and recovered it in the end zone for his second career TD. As a rookie in 1983, Lewis also led the Chiefs in special-teams tackles with 27.
Edge kick blocker: Eddie Meador. Seventh-round draft pick. Seasons: 12 (1959-70). Teams: 1 (LA Rams). An NFL all-decade selection at safety for the 1960s. Meador retired after the 1970 season. Forty-seven years later, he still holds the franchise records for career interceptions (46) and blocked kicks (10). All of his blocks came on punts. He also returned 43 kickoffs and seven punts for the Rams and threw an 18-yard touchdown pass off a fake field-goal attempt.
Kicker: Jan Stenerud. Third-round draft pick. Seasons: 19 (Kansas City, Green Bay, Minnesota). Hall of Famer. Four-time Pro Bowler and member of the NFL’s 75th anniversary team. Stenerud ranks 13th all-time in field goals (373) and 15th in points (1,699). Stenerud kicked at least one 50-yard field goal in nine of his first 10 seasons – and that was before teams routinely attempted kicks from that distance. In 1981, at the age of 39, Stenerud converted a career-best 91.7 percent of his field goals (22 of 24) for the Green Bay Packers and scored 101 points. He kicked three field goals in Kansas City’s 16-7 upset of the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl III.
Holder: Brad Maynard. Third-round draft pick. Seasons: 15 (1997-2011). Teams: 3 (NY Giants, Chicago, Cleveland). His primary job was as a punter and his 1,339 career kicks rank fourth all-time. But he was a master at holding for placements kicks. “He could catch the ball with one hand,” said Dave Toub, his special-teams coach with the Bears. “That was his warmup. He was caught on TV doing that on the sideline. He was able to catch and hold for our right-footed kicker (Robbie Gould) with his left hand-only.” There have been only three 30-field goal seasons in Bears history and Gould had two of them with Maynard holding. A former high-school quarterback, Maynard was adept at fakes on both field goals and punts. He completed 5-of-8 career passes for 94 yards and two touchdowns.
Kickoffs: Lee Johnson. Fifth-round draft pick. Seasons: 18 (1985-2002). Teams: 6 (Houston, Cleveland, Cincinnati, New England, Minnesota, Philadelphia). Johnson ranks fifth all-time with his 1,226 career punts but a big part of the reason he stuck around so long was his ability to handle the kickoff chores as well. In the 1980s, when Andersen was the NFL’s all-decade kicker, the only two seasons he didn’t lead the NFL in touchback percentage were 1986 and 1989 – and Johnson ranked No. 1 in those years.
Punter: Shane Lechler. Fifth-round draft pick. Seasons: 18 (2000-present). Teams: 2 (Raiders, Houston). A member of the 2000s NFL all-decade team. Guy went to six consecutive Pro Bowls, tops among punters. Lechler is next with five consecutive appearances (2007-11). He led the NFL in punting five times, including a career-best 51.1 yard average in 2009. Lechler ranks second in career punts (1,444) and first in career average (47.6 yards).
Personal protector: Brian Mitchell. Fifth-round draft pick. Seasons: 14 (1990-2003). Teams: 3 (Washington, Philadelphia, NY Giants). Mitchell needed to be somewhere on this team and he could have been anywhere – personal protector, coverage, return specialist… Mitchell returned more kicks (1,070) for more yards (19.013) than any player in NFL history. He also scored 13 touchdowns on nine punts and four kickoffs. As a rookie, he led the Eagles in special-teams tackles with 26. Mitchell was a stout blocker in his capacity as personal protector and, as a former college quarterback, always a threat to pass or run off a fake. He threw a 57-yard touchdown pass to Brian Dawkins on a fake punt in a 2002 game against the Texans.
Deep snapper: Patrick Mannelly. Sixth-round draft pick. Seasons: 16 (1998-2013). Teams: 1 (Chicago). The Bears are one of the NFL’s most historic franchises with nine championships and 27 Hall of Famers. But no one played more seasons (16) or more games for the Bears (245) than Mannelly. When you’re that good, you can play a long time. His snaps helped Robbie Gould become Chicago’s all-time leading scorer with 1,207 points and allowed Brad Maynard to set a franchise record for inside-the-20 punts with 284. “Mannelly was a perfectionist,” Toub said. “He turned long-snapping into a science. He was the first to count the rotations of the ball on a short snap so the holder never gets the laces and he also developed cutting edge drills that are used by most special-teams coaches today.”
Coverage: Justin Bethel. Sixth-round draft pick. Seasons: 6 (2012-current). Teams: 2 (Arizona, Atlanta). Three-time Pro Bowl special-teams ace. Bethel has 88 career special-teams tackles, forcing four fumbles and recovering three others. He also has blocked three field goals and an extra point. He returned one of those blocked field goals 82 yards for a touchdown in a 2016 game against Chicago.
Coverage: Kassim Osgood. Undrafted. Seasons: 12 (2003-14). Teams: 4 (San Diego, Jacksonville, Detroit, San Francisco). Three-time Pro Bowl special-teams ace. Osgood collected 134 career special-teams tackles, forced four fumbles, recovered three others and blocked a punt. He also recovered a muffed punt in the end zone in a game against Tennessee in 2013 for his only career special-teams touchdown. He posted a career-best 19 tackles in the kicking game for San Diego in 2005.
Coverage: Brendon Ayanbadejo. Undrafted. Seasons: 10 (2003-12). Teams: 3 (Miami, Chicago, Baltimore). Three-time Pro Bowl special-teams ace. He collected 187 career special-teams tackles, leading his team in such tackles in seven of his 10 seasons. “Brendon was basically unblockable,” Toub said. “He was extremely fast and very football smart with great instincts. I would free him up to just go to the ball and everyone else just played off of him. He would draw a double team which would free up other guys.”
Coverage: Larry Whigham. Fourth-round draft pick. Seasons: 9 (1994-2002). Teams: 2 (New England, Chicago). Two-time special-teams ace. Whigham collected 113 tackles, blocked three punts, forced a fumble and recovered another to earn a spot on the 1990s New England Patriots all-decade team. The Patriots returned his forced fumble and one of his blocked punts for touchdowns. Whigham also intercepted four career passes on defense, including three thrown by Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino.
Coverage: Montell Owens. Undrafted. Seasons: 9 (2006-14). Teams: 3 (Jacksonville, Detroit, Chicago). Two-time Pro Bowl special-teams ace. Owens spent his first seven seasons with the Jaguars and set franchise records for special-teams tackles in a season (30) and a career (118). In the 2011 Pro Bowl, Owens scooped up a fumbled kickoff by Devin Hester and returned it for a touchdown.
Coverage: Rufus Porter. Undrafted. Seasons: 10 (1988-97). Teams: 3 (Seattle, New Orleans, Tampa Bay). Two-time special-teams ace. “Rufus was just a full-speed guy,” former Seahawks kicker Norm Johnson told seahawks.com. “He obviously had great athletic ability. I spent 18 years in the NFL and have been around only a handful of guys that had the knack like Rufus — the knack for avoiding and knifing through and still finding the ball. It was amazing – and Rufus was one of those amazing guys.”
Coverage: Mosi Tatupu. Eighth-round draft pick. Seasons: 14 (1978-91). Teams: 3 (New England, LA Rams). One Pro Bowl. Tatupu started only 22 games at fullback in his 13 seasons with New England but was named to the Patriots’50th anniversary. Why? Because of the impact he had as a special-teams player and captain. He collected 35 tackles on special teams in 1985 alone. He forced three career fumbles in the regular season and two more in the playoffs. A Hawaiian legend as a prep running back, the Maui Quarterback Club annually awarded the Mosi Tatupu Award to the best special-teams player in college football. Future Patriot and Pro Bowler Wes Welker was among the winners.
Coverage: Fredd Young. Third-round draft pick. Seasons: 7 (1984-90). Teams: 2 (Seattle, Indianapolis). Two-time Pro Bowl special-teams ace. Young was the first AFC player ever selected to the Pro Bowl as a special-teams ace as a rookie in 1984 when he collected 20 tackles, blocked two punts and forced a fumble. Even though Young became a starting outside linebacker in 1985 and led the team with 118 tackles, he continued his duties on special teams and went to his second consecutive Pro Bowl for his prowess in the kicking game. He blocked a field goal in his final season with the Seahawks in 1987, then left for the Colts in free agency. Even though he was signed as a starting outside linebacker, Young volunteered to cover kickoffs that season and collected 14 tackles.
Coverage: Sean Morey. Seventh-round draft pick. Seasons: 11 (1999-2009). Teams: 4 (New England, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Arizona). One Pro Bowl. Morey served as a special-teams captain for both Pittsburgh and Arizona. He collected 151 career tackles in the kicking game, including a career-best 28 with the Eagles in 2003. Where Morey played, winning followed. He played in an NFC championship game with the Eagles and Super Bowls with both the Steelers and Cardinals. He blocked a punt in overtime in a 2008 game against the Cowboys that was returned by Monty Biesel for a touchdown – the only time in NFL history a game ended on a blocked punt. Morey also has a 76-yard kickoff return to his credit and a 13-yard rush on a fake punt.
Coverage: Fred McAfee. Sixth-round draft pick. Seasons: 16 (1991-2006). Teams: 4 (New Orleans, Arizona, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay). One Pro Bowl. A special-teams captain for both the Saints and Steelers, McAfee collected 210 career tackles in the kicking game with six fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles. He posted a career-best 30 of those tackles in 2005 with the Saints. He also recovered a blocked punt for a Pittsburgh touchdown in a game against Kansas City in 1998 and ran a fake punt 53 yards for the Saints in a 2004 game against Minnesota.
Kickoff returner: Josh Cribbs. Undrafted. Seasons: 9 (2005-13). Teams: 3 (Cleveland, NY Jets, Indianapolis). Three-time Pro Bowler and member of the 2000s NFL all-decade team. Shares the NFL record with eight kickoff returns for touchdowns. Cribbs ranks third all-time in combined kick return yardage with 13,488. He also ranks third in career kickoff return yardage with 11,113. He led the NFL with an average of 30.7 yards on kickoff returns in 2007, then returned three kicks for touchdowns in 2009. Cribbs returned a kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown against Baltimore in 2008 – and also led the team in special-teams tackles with 28 that season and a fumble recovery.
Punt returner: Billy “White Shoes” Johnson. 15th round draft pick. Seasons: 14 (1974-88). Teams: 3 (Houston Oilers, Atlanta, Washington). Member of the NFL’s 75th anniversary team and also the NFL all-decade teams of both the 1970s and 1980s. Three Pro Bowls. White Shoes led the NFL in punt returns for the Oilers in both 1975 with a 15.3-yard average and 1977 with a 15.4-yard average. He returned six career punts for touchdowns and two kickoffs. Johnson also was an accomplished receiver, leading the Falcons with 64 receptions for 709 yards and four touchdowns in 1983 and then catching 62 passes for 830 yards and five touchdowns in 1985. He was among the first NFL players to celebrate touchdowns with dances. He dubbed his the “Funky Chicken.”
Interior kick blocker: Alan Page. First-round draft pick. Seasons: 15 (1967-81). Teams: 2 (Minnesota, Chicago). Hall of Fame defensive tackle. Bud Grant built one of the great kick block units in NFL history with Blair and Page on the inside. Page blocked 16 kicks – eight field goals, seven extra points and one punt. Page blocked five kicks in 1976 alone.
Interior kick blocker: Shaun Rogers. Second-round draft pick: Seasons: 13 (2001-13). Teams: 4 (Detroit, Cleveland, New Orleans, NY Giants). A three-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle, Rogers proved to be a force on special teams with 17 blocked placement kicks. He rejected 14 field goals and three extra points. In 2004, he blocked a 27-yard attempt by Paul Edinger and teammate Bracey Walker returned it 92 yards for a touchdown. There was no art to the block, just effort. “Some guys take that play off,” Rogers told me in 2004. “I try to be one of those guys who doesn’t.” A former Detroit special teams coach Chuck Priefer told me back then the success of Rogers was a product of size, athleticism and his eyes. “He’s got vision,” Priefer said. “He sees the ball. Not many guys do.”
Edge kick blocker: Ed Reed. First-round draft pick. Seasons: 12 (2002-13). Teams: 3 (Baltimore, Houston, NY Jets). A nine-time Pro Bowl safety who was named to the 2000s NFL all-decade team. Whether he played defense or special teams, Reed was a magnet for the football. He intercepted 64 career passes, seventh all-time, and also blocked four punts and returned a record three of them himself for touchdowns. “I showed tape of Reed every time we played the Ravens, even when he wasn’t being used in that (punt-block) capacity,” Belichick said. “I was scared to death that he would line up on the edge against us.” Reed only returned 29 punts in his career but ran one back 63 yards for a touchdown against Cincinnati in 2007.
Edge kick blocker: Jack Youngblood. First-round draft pick. Seasons: 14 (1971-84). Teams: 1 (LA Rams). Hall of Fame defensive end and the No. 4 pass rusher of all-time with 151 ½ career sacks. His pass rush made him a dominant third-down player. His speed off the edge made him a dominant fourth-down player as well. Youngblood blocked eight career punts.
Rounding out a 53-player roster:
Placement kicker: Jason Hanson. Second-round draft pick. Seasons: 21 (1992-2012). Teams: 1 (Detroit). Two Pro Bowls. Hanson set an NFL record by playing 21 seasons with one team. He scored 2,150 points, fourth all-time, and kicked 52 field goals of 50 yards or more, second all-time. His 495 career field goals rank fourth all time. Eight of those 50-yarders came during the 2008 season. His 188 field goals of 40 yards or more are another NFL record, including a record streak of 24 in a row from that distance. Nineteen of his field goals were game winners in the fourth quarter or overtime, and his nine overtime field goals are another NFL record. Hanson also collected 36 career special-teams tackles.
Holder: Paul Krause. Second-round draft pick. Seasons: 16 (1964-79). Teams: 2 (Washington, Minnesota). A Hall of Fame safety and the NFL’s all-time interception leader with 81. From 1968 through 1977, the Vikings were one of the NFL’s best teams with nine division championships, four NFC title and four Super Bowl appearances. During that entire 10-year stretch, Fred Cox handling the placekicking, Hall of Famer Mick Tingelhoff the deep snapping and Krause the holding. That trio produced 986 kicking points with Cox leading the NFL in scoring in both 1969 (121 points) and 1970 (125 points). Krause also threw an 11-yard touchdown off a fake field goal and rushed for a pair of first downs.
Punter: Jerrel Wilson. 11th-round draft pick. Seasons: 16 (1963-1978). Teams: 2 (Kansas City, New England). Three-time Pro Bowler and a member of the all-time AFL team. Nicknamed “Thunderfoot,” Wilson led the AFL in punting twice, then led the NFL three times after the two leagues merged in 1970. His five individual punting crowns are an NFL record. Wilson averaged 48.5 yards per punt in Super Bowl III, helping tilt the field position in Kansas City’s favor in the upset of the Vikings.
Deep snapper: Don Muhlbach. Undrafted. Seasons: 14 (2004-current). Teams: 1 (Detroit). One Pro Bowl. Muhlbach is only the fourth player in franchise history to play 200 games. Jason Hanson, the NFL’s fourth all-time leading scorer, converted 82.3 percent of his career field goals. His accuracy improved by almost six percent in his final nine seasons after Muhlbach arrived and started delivering his rocket snaps. Now Matt Prater is benefitting from those snaps. In his four seasons with the Lions, Prater is converting 85.9 percent of his field goals with 22 from 50 yards and beyond.
Punt returner: Rick Upchurch. Fourth-round draft pick. Seasons: 9 (1975-83). Teams: 1 (Denver). Four Pro Bowls and a member of the 1980s NFL all-decade team. Upchurch led the league in punt returns three times with a 13.7-yard average in 1976, a 13.7 yard average in 1978 and a 16.1-yard average in 1982. He is one of only five players in history with a career punt return average better than 12 yards (12.1). He had eight career punt returns for touchdowns, including four during the 1976 season.
Kickoff returner: Mel Gray. Undrafted. Seasons: 12 (1986-97). Teams: 4 (New Orleans, Detroit, Houston, Philadelphia). Four Pro Bowls and a member of the 1990s NFL all-decade team. Gray led the NFL in punt returns twice with his 14.7-yard average in 1987 and 15.4-yard average in 1992. He also has led the NFL in kickoff returns with his 25.8-yard average in 1991 and 28.4-yard average in 1994. He scored nine career touchdowns on returns, six on kickoffs and three on punts. Three of those touchdowns came on kickoffs in 1994.
Coverage: Mark Pike. Seventh-round draft pick. Seasons: 11 (1987-97). Teams: 1 (Buffalo). Special teams were pivotal in Buffalo’s winning four AFC titles and playing in four Super Bowls in the 1990s. But everyone involved in the Buffalo kicking game was overshadowed by Steve Tasker. That’s a shame, because one of the NFL’s best special-teams players of the decade played alongside Tasker and never went to a Pro Bowl. Pike collected 255 tackles in the kicking game, leading the Bills in special-teams tackles in seven of his last eight seasons. He collected 36 tackles in 1990, 31 in 1994 and 32 in 1996. He added 34 more special-teams tackles in the post-season. Pike also blocked a field goal in his career.
Coverage: Hardy Brown. 12th-round draft pick. Seasons: 10 (1948-60). Teams: 7 (Brooklyn, Chicago Hornets, Baltimore, Washington, San Francisco, Chicago Cardinals, Denver). One Pro Bowl. Back in the 1950s, in the era of 33-player rosters, starters on offense and defense played four downs, not three. Brown played linebacker on defense and a stalker on special teams. He was one of the most feared hitters in the game’s history, mastering the right shoulder shiver into the face of ball carriers. His tackles were often knockout blows. “Over the years I guess I got 75-80 knockouts playing professional football,” Brown told NFL Films in a documentary on the football’s hardest hitters. “I don’t feel sorry for anybody I hit.” The Rams once put a $500 bounty on his head.
Interior kick blocker: Julius Peppers. First-round draft pick. Seasons: 16 (2002-curent). Teams: 3 (Carolina, Buffalo, Green Bay). Nine Pro Bowls as a defensive end and a member of the 2000s NFL all-decade team. The pass rush is priority for Peppers, who ranks fourth all-time with 154 ½ sacks. But his special-teams play is a bonus. He has blocked 13 career kicks — 12 field goals and an extra point. A former college basketball player at North Carolina, his leaping ability comes in hand on kicking downs.