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Squib Kick: Ranking the NFC West special teams

The final installment as we enter the 2017 season.

NFL: Pro Bowl Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

If you want to keep up with the series, here is last weeks list.

We had a small turnout last week, understandable with the start of training camp. Last week had 124 votes cast. Seattle took home 74 (60%), Arizona 42 (34%), the 49ers 5 (4%), and the Rams 3 (2%).

This is it. We have finally reached the end of our offseason rankings. It’s been a fun ride, and I have thoroughly enjoyed a healthy debate with the different fan bases. It did get tense at times, but more often than not things got settled in a civil manner.

This final installment will touch base on the special teams. These will clearly be less interesting than prior positional groups, but it’s important we put a pretty little bow on the series.

So without further ado, let's rank!

Arizona Cardinals: Fourth

Richie Leone
Aaron Brewer
Matt Wile
Phil Dawson
TJ Logan

In 2016 the Cardinals ranked near the bottom in nearly every statistical category. Chandler Catanzaro had a rough year, and the team ultimately decided it was best he started new somewhere else. They brought in the ageless wonder Phil Dawson to help ease their kicking struggles, and hopefully improve the unit as a whole.

Aaron Brewer was brought back as well. Brewer replaced Kam Canaday early in the season after numerous snaps lead to a number of poor kicks from Catanzaro and Butler. I'm sure Cardinal fans are hopeful they don’t hear his name often this season.

Matt Wile and Riche Leone are entrenched in a punting competition. The team went through three in 2016, having poor results from both Ryan Quigley and Drew Butler. Arians and Keim had a concerted effort to upgrade the position, bringing back Wile and signing Leone from the CFL. Early in camp, Wile has the upper hand being listed as the starting punter and holder on the team's officially unofficial depth chart.

The team has been unable to find a legitimate return man since Peterson's electric rookie season. They hope that sixth round selection TJ Logan will be the guy going into 2017. Patrick Peterson has continued to work as the starting punt return man, but I still believe that to be a risky move.

There’s potential in the group, which is odd considering their kicker is 42 years old. If Wile or Leone can actually punt the ball, they are already than Drew Butler. All Dawson has to do is stay healthy, and keep making clutch long field goals to win a game. Brewer simply has to NOT have his name called. Logan will have to learn to return punts, but the early signs are promising.

Seattle Seahawks: Third

Jon Ryan
Blair Walsh
Tyler Lockett
Nolan Frese
Tyler Ott

The Seahawks finished seventh in kick return yards allowed, and 15th in punt return yards allowed.

Jon Ryan returns as the Seahawks starting punter. He averaged 44 yards per punt on 71 total punts. The Seahawks did not bring in any competition or a camp leg.

Blair Walsh was signed by the team to replace Steven Hauschka. Hauschka was allowed to walk in free agency, following a “down” season in which he hit 33-of-37 field goals. Walsh was cut by the Vikings during the 2016 season as he had appeared to have lost his confidence following a 2015 playoff game in which he missed a last second field goal against the Seahawks. The team replaced a career 87% kicker with a career 84% kicker, taking a huge chance.

Tyler Lockett will start the 2017 preseason on the Seahawks PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list. But that is only expected to last for about a week. Lockett was the team's primary returner in 2016, averaging 8.4 yards per punt and 26.3 per kick. Lockett is an incredibly dangerous returner, and one of the best in the NFL.

The only competition the Seahawks have in camp is at long snapper. Both players were with the Seahawks in 2016, with Ott replacing Frese after he was placed on IR. Both guys will compete, but my guess would be that it is Frese’s job to lose.

The Seahawks have no glaring weaknesses, but taking a risk on Walsh could backfire. That will be something to watch in 2017.

San Francisco 49ers: Second

Robbie Gould
Kyle Nelson
Nick Rose
Bradley Pinion
Bruce Ellington/Trent Taylor

The 49ers likely know who will wind up where. Gould is entering his 13th NFL season and will be competing with Nick Rose, a guy who has not played in an NFL game yet.

Bradley Pinion remains entrenched as the teams starting punter. This comes despite averaging only 44 yards per punt in 2016. Pinion saw his command improve in 2016, bringing his touchbacks from 43 his rookie year, to only 24 on 100 punts.

Kyle Nelson has been with the team since 2014 and has two years left on his contract. Clearly, a talented long snapper for the team to keep him around.

Bruce Ellington is the favorite to be the team's returner. Trent Taylor will garner some looks, and with how he has been performing in practices, he could be a noise maker in 2016.

As a coverage unit, they were middle of the pack, allowing 8.6 yards per punt return, and were among the league leaders allowing only 19.8 yards per kick return.

The team was 25th in kick return yardage, but Jeremy Kerley helped the team rank in the top ten in punt returns with 9.4 yards per return. With Kerley liking not taking the reigns as the returner this season, this is where the questions lay.

Los Angeles Rams: First

Greg Zuerlein
Johnny Hekker
Jake McQuaide
Tavon Austin/Pharoh Cooper

And the Rams claim another top spot.

Johnny Hekker is one of the best punters in the game. In fact, Hekker downed 51 punts inside the 20-yard line in 2016, 13 more than the next team. Hekker only committed one touchback all season. Hekker averaged 47.8 yards per punt, with his net average of only 46 yards per punt.

Zuerlein bounced back from a poor 2015 season that saw him make only 66.7% of his kicks. Zuerlein has made 79.4% of his kicks in his career but has had a fantastic season after a poor one. Consistency will be the key moving forward.

McQuaide has been with the Rams since 2011, so there’s no need for alarm from him.

The return game will be interesting in 2016. Tavon Austin has proven himself to be a capable and electric return man in the NFL. With the departure of Benny Cunningham to the Bears, the team will lean on Pharoh Cooper to make an impact on kick returns. Both have the ability to be solid NFL return men.

The coverage unit was remarkable in 2016. The team only allowed 19.5 yards per kick return and an astonishingly low 4.3 yards per punt return.

The Rams special teams were never an issue under Jeff Fisher. Now in the Sean McVay era, the Rams have to be hoping that they can continue that success, but that McVay will bring success to the other two units as well.

That wraps it up. An easy ranking to end our offseason series. It’s been fun to debate with everyone, and I look forward to a little bit of trash talk in the next few months.

So what say you? Agree or disagree? Discuss in the comments below and vote!

Poll

Who has the best Special Teams in the NFC West?

This poll is closed

  • 16%
    Arizona Cardinals
    (12 votes)
  • 54%
    Los Angeles Rams
    (39 votes)
  • 0%
    San Francisco 49ers
    (0 votes)
  • 28%
    Seattle Seahawks
    (20 votes)
71 votes total Vote Now

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