In Defense Of The Kickoff Specialist
In the dead of the off-season, there are often a lot of predictions of 53-man rosters. The Bills had one roster member last year that was somewhat unique in the NFL, and he got a lot of talk in Buffalo this past season. His name is Jordan Gay, and he is a kickoff specialist.
Counting Buffalo's John Potter for 6 weeks in 2012, there have only been 8 kickoff specialists in the NFL since 2006. Last year, the Broncos used Brandon McManus for the latter half of the season after a tumultuous year for the kicking team. The kickoff specialist is rarer than the fullback--a dying position according to modern coaching philosophies.
But it shouldn't be. Jordan Gay is one of the more valuable uses of a roster spot on the Bills. Let me explain:
The Bills are going into their 3rd season with seasoned vet Dan Carpenter. Carpenter is turning 30 this season, so injuries are important at this point in his career. He's shown multiple times that he has a long distance leg, but a big reason that he stays around is that he doesn't have to waste energy doing kickoffs.
"But it's only like 5-10 times a game" you say, but think about the practice time they put into it. Keeping Carpenter out of kickoffs all together means he's healthier in the long run, and can spend more time working on field goals.
According to Pro Football Focus, Carpenter was the 27th best at kickoffs in the league in 2013. He had a ranking of 11.0 (an arbitrary scale they use, but anything over 1.0 is considered good) so he wasn't terrible, but there were 26 better kickoffers than him last season.
2014 was a better year for Buffalo:
Gay and Carpenter finished 13th and 17th overall, respectively according to PFF. Of course, each one of them only does half the work, so let's refine that more.
Gay finished 9th in kickoffs, and Carpenter finished 4th in field goals/extra points.
Add their scores up and it's good enough for the 8th best kicker in the league. Two of the 7 kickers above this aggregate Bills kicker are actually punters (Pat McAfee & Sam Martin) who do the kickoffs for their team.
Buffalo hasn't had a top 10 kicker according to PFF in the site's existence - since 2007 the best the Bills have had was Rian Lindell (in 2007) at 19th.
So, is this worth a dedicated roster spot?
That depends how you view the value of a roster spot. Ultimately, this is a question of the 53rd roster spot. What kind of players usually get used with that last roster spot? In the middle of the season they can be situational backups that need to come in for injuries. But teams often make mistakes with the bottom of their roster.
Buffalo, for example, decided to cut WR Mike Williams in favor of WR Deonte Thompson in the middle of the season. A solid veteran for an unproven, undrafted rookie. They also used a roster spot for a few games on ILB Larry Dean, to be the third string behind veteran Keith Rivers, who already wasn't playing as much as he should.
Plenty of teams can stack talent at the bottom of their roster--and the 2014 Bills are far from the epitome of roster management. Look at Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler. He was only active for 11 games last season, and yet he made arguably the biggest play of the 2014 Playoffs.
The 53rd man can absolutely change a game. But so can a bad kicker.
Detroit directly lost their game against Buffalo due to awful kicking. The 17-14 loss included 3 Alex Henery misses, and he was cut in the following days. Through their first five weeks the Lions were only 4 of 12 for field goals, including 1 of 9 beyond 40 yards.
The kicking game definitely isn't everything, but when it's bad, it's really bad.
Perhaps the biggest reason to defend Jordan Gay's kickoff specialist roster spot is that he makes another player better. Look at how Carpenter progressed in his kicking from 2013 to 2014. Obviously the increase may be caused by a number of other factors, but one has to believe that a more focused practice regimen and avoiding wear and tear helped Carpenter a lot.
The kickoff specialist isn't something that every team should run to do--because it is obviously better if one person can perform the duties of two--but it should be considered a legitimate strategy.