It must be tough to be Bruce DeHaven this season.
After a brilliant stint running the Buffalo Bills special teams under Marv Levy during the Super Bowl era of the late 80s and early 90s, Bruce was brought back to Buffalo in 2010 to once again take the coaching reins of the special teams.
Now, he man who was responsible for the coaching of standouts like Mark Pike and Steve Tasker during those championship runs has a cup that is just runnething over in 2012, fielding a unit that looks strong in almost all areas.
First, there’s Rian Lindell and Brian Moorman, both of who seem to have found that elusive fountain of youth that keeps players producing well past their primes and are entering their 10th season as the kicking duo in Buffalo. In training camp thus far, both of the veteran kickers are outperforming their rookie couterparts and proving that youth and potential aren’t necessarily better than a veteran leg.
The recently re-signed Lindell (four more years at $11 million) has been looking so good that seventh round pick John Potter from Western Michigan is looking like he’ll become the kickoff specialist for now.
Meanwhile, Moorman is still out-kicking his competition, undrafted free agent Shawn Powell, displaying more power and hangtime than the younger punter (at least for now) and maybe working towards extending his time in Buffalo beyond the 2012 season (he’s a free agent in 2013).
Then, there’s long snapper Garrison Sanborne, who has no competition for the position in his third year and has shown no reason to look for any with another solid camp so far in 2012 (sorry, no excitement there).
However, the real surplus of talent seems to be at kick returner, which DeHaven himself has vowed is so deep he could have “five to six options for the position” come game day. Granted, not all of them are the most rational choices as some of these players stand to be more use in other areas, but with such a long list of candidates, here’s a quick look at what each brings to the table, beginning with perhaps the least likely to start.
– In 2010, Spiller spent most of his rookie season returning kicks, amassing 1014 yards on 44 returns, including a 95 yarder for a TD versus the Patriots. Last season he was getting some decent work returning as well, averaging 23.8 per attempt, but as the Bills tried to expand his role and were then forced to plug him in to the running game full time when Jackson went down, his return opportunities dried up as his importance to the ground game was elevated.
With the potential one-two punch of Spiller and Jackson out of the backfield in 2012, you’ll likely not see him field any special teams work this season, but that doesn’t discount him as a great option should the situation arise, whether it be injuries or poor performance for the others on this list.
– Though he’s only returned 15 kicks as a member of the Bills for 282 yards, it wasn’t that long ago that he was doing some incredible things for the Jets.
In 2010, Smith returned 50 kicks for a healthy 1432 yds and 2 TDs, an average of 28.6 per return. He had 34 returns of 20+ yards that year and 6 for more than 40 yards, but seems entirely too valuable as a Wildcat QB or wide receiver threat to use him as a return man this year. Still, it’s nice to know he’s there should he be needed and he’s currently listed third on the depth chart.
TJ Graham – In college, the Bills rookie receiver set the ACC record with 3,103 return yards and scored 4 special teams TDs over his career (he averaged 22.7 per kick, 9.5 per punt overall).
A speedster who also ran track at NC State (he posted a 4.39 40 at the Combine), Graham could definitely see some work in Buffalo doing the same, as ignoring this facet of his game would be a silly oversight on the part of the Buffalo coaching staff.
As Graham grows into the offense as a deep threat receiver, using him as the new Roscoe Parrish might give opposing teams fits covering him both defensively and on special teams, yielding some big yardage numbers in his initial season.
Leodis McKelvin – Now we’re at a more likely candidate for the spot, as McKelvin has been impressing in camp returning this season, much like he did during his first season (2008) when he returned 52 kicks for 1468 total yards and a TD. Though he’s only returned 19 total in the three years since, he’s been impressing DeHaven and the coaching staff in training camp and will likely see time both as a nickel corner and returning kicks.
Considering he’s in the last year of his contract, and isn’t entirely necessary at the cornerback spot with Aaron Williams and Stephon Gilmore already grabbing the starting spots (don’t forget about rookie Ron Brooks either), he’s looking to make himself essential to Buffalo in some way and being second on the depth chart for returns has to be promising. However, that still puts him behind the number one option thus far for returning…
Justin Rogers – Last year, Rogers only had 16 tackles and an INT playing cornerback, but started to impress on special teams by averaging 28.7 yards per return on 13 attempts (373 yards total) in his rookie campaign. It should come as no real surprise, as in college Rogers surpassed Brian Westbrook’s all-time record for total kick return yards in the Colonial Athletic Association with 2561 and averaged 12.4 per punt return to boot.
As the current number one option on the return depth chart, Rogers has looked like a record holder in camp this season, taking the majority of the returns during drills and rising to the top of the pile as the season quickly approaches. While he still may be a backup option at corner, he is currently the best option for returns and should stay that way come the season, becoming known for his play on special teams more than his defensive prowess.
Again, poor Bruce DeHaven, to have such a variety of weapons on special teams this year. Sure, it might not quite be the dominant force that Buffalo was in the early 90s, but there’s no doubting that it’ll be strong once more in 2012.