Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The NFL's Top Core Special Team Players Ever

OPINION
By John Turney
Dedicated special teams players in a relatively new phenomenon in the NFL. It's thought that Alex Hawkins may have been the first to do it but we doubt that's 100% right, but he certainly is the first to be a team captain. We covered the year-by-year stop special teams HERE and here we are giving a treatment to the top players over a career. As you may suspect there a lot of overlap.

We've posted tackles totals the sake of completeness. Tackles can give some information but as always they have to be looked at in context. In 1994, when kickoffs were moved from the 35-yard line to the 30, more kickers were returned and therefore more opportunities for tackles.

These days, if you are a gunner for a team with a really good punter he will kick them high and get good hang time while not sacrificing much distance won't give you a chance for a lot of tackles. And kickoffs are now limited due to the kickoff line being moved forward, a much smaller percentage of kicks are returned and therefore tackles on kick returns are down.

But, since we'd collected totals over the years we thought some readers would like seeing them.

We've spoken to some coaches and executives and also rely on our own research and viewing of players to compose this list. And as always we could have extended the list beyond what you see here. We tried to pick those who made the most impact while also recognizing some lesser-known names. Yes, we have a bunch of guys tied at 50. Oh well.

And again, the guys at say, 22-23-24 and not necessarily better than those at 44-45-46. It's just a list. However, we do think the guys in the top ten had more significant careers than say the guys tied at 50.

Tasker played in 169 games, starting just ten. When he played on offense we as a decent enough receiver but what he was great at doing was being a gunner and also an edge rusher on punt- and kick block teams.

He totaled 111 tackles and forced five fumbles and recovered six and blocked six kicks in his career (17 'impact plays'). In 1987 he blocked one kick and deflected three others.

He was a five-time All-Pro and a seven-time Pro Bowler and five times was an NFL/AFC Special Team of the Year award winner (given by the NFLPA and NFL Alumni).

Not to quibble but he likely didn't deserve to be All-Pro/Pro Bowl in 1993 when he had just five tackles, but he was at an All-Pro level in 1988 and 1989 when he was not awarded so it kind of evens out. In 1993 Michael Bates should have been the All-Pro special teams selection in our view.

There has been talk of Tasker being the first special teamer to be worthy of the Hall of Fame, we are not sure that will happen but if it does he would be one of the 4-5 that are worthy.

Bauer played just six years, but he was extremely effective in all of them. He played before there were All-Pro slots for special teamers but he was highly rated by Proscout, Inc. and also won the NFL Alumni Special Team Player of the Year in 1982, the first year the award existed.

In his six years, he totaled 147 tackles, including an astounding 51 (as credited by the play-by-plays) in 1981. He didn't block kicks, he was more of a coverage guy and a blocker on the wedges and punt teams.

Bates was a fine kickoff returner gaining over 9,000 yards and five touchdowns and leading the NFL in yards per return twice and in touchdowns once. However, his greatest skill was as a gunner and kick blocker.

He played 145 games and has 102 tackles and he forced nine fumbles on special teams (recovered three) and blocked four kicks. The 16 'impact plays' is impressive.

As a special teamer and returner, he was All-Pro three times and a Pro Bowler five times and was the NFLPA NFC  Special Teams Player of the Year three times.

Bates was a safety by trade but his biggest role on defense was as a linebacker in the nickel/dime packages of the Cowboys where he could cover a back of blitz. But his biggest contributions to the team were as a core special teamer.

Bates player 15 years and in all of them he was running down on kicks and punts and making tackles. In 1983 and 1984 he was the NFL Alumni Special Teams Player of the Year and in 1984 he went to the Pro Bowl (the first season the NFL had a slot for special teamers on the squad). He was the NFLPA NFC  Special Teams Player of the Year in 1984 as well.

He played 217 games and totaled 176 tackles on special teams. The only negative is he wasn't a kick blocker and does lack a lot of forced fumbles and other 'impact plays'.

Sully played nine seasons and the last years in Tampa and Detroit he played less as a gunner, but some. But the Rams traded him to Tampa in 1985 because John Robinson felt it was fair to give him a shot to start for another team since the Rams were loaded at safety and Sully would never get a shot there. So, Sully moved to Tampa. There, he blocked the first punt in franchise history, the fourth he blocked in his career. 

Before that, he was a good dime back for Robinson and also played as a linebacker in the Rams 'Dollar defense' when they went to seven defensive backs.

In 124 games in his career, he made 82 tackles, but more impressively he blocked seven kicks (four punts and three placekicks) and forced six fumbles and recovered for a total of 17 'impact plays'.

While going through our notes on the play-by-plays we made while watching it was great to see "nice hit" or "big hit" next to his name on a special teams tackle. He could smack some people.

A ten-year NFL player, Ayanbadejo was a two-time All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowler, making 144 tackles in 142 games. He forced four fumbles and recovered right for 12 'impact plays'.
Osgood played 179 games and like Ayanbadejo was a two-time All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowler. He totaled 139 tackles and forced four fumbles, recovered three and blocked a pair of kicks.

Larry Izzo was a fine core special teamer for the Dolphins, Patriots, and Jets. He was an All-Pro once and Pro Bowler three times and totaled 204 tackles in 200 games. He also successfully completed two fake punts in his career as an upback.

Slater is a four-time All-Pro and a six-time Pro Bowler and had totaled 131 tackles in his career. Oddly, he has no forced fumbles and no blocked kicks, but he's sure made his bones as a cover guy.

Tatupu played 199 games and made 170 tackles he was All-Pro in 1986 and a Pro Bowler and AFC Special Teams Player of the Year and was just as effective in 1985.

Thompson played eight seasons but made an impact of special teams making 85 tackles in 116 games. In 1990 he was All-Pro, made the Pro Bowl, was All-AFC and was voted the NFLPA NFC  Special Teams Player of the Year for the Giants. And 1989 may have been a better season for him.

Hawkins played ten years and was a special teams captain for the Colts. He won an Associated Press Player of the Week award for his special teams play and also a late catch when he was filling in on offense. We've seen him play, even a few full games and he does show up when the ball is going downfield.

But we admit, we include him based on anecdotal evidence that he stood out on special teams in his era. One piece of that was that he was mentioned in George Allen's 1985 book on special teams as a member of his personal "Special Teams Hall of Fame". That endorsement goes a long way in our view.

A three-time Pro Bowler, Bethel made 102 tackles in 110 games. He forced four fumbles, recovered three and blocked four punts for a total of 11 'impact plays'. Still young and could really pad those totals over the next few seasons and challenge guys like Bates and Sully and Tasker in the impact play column. Call him 'thirteenth with a bullet'.


Thompson played 152 games and made 162 tackles, he was All-Pro once and a Pro Bowler twice. He forced a pair of fumbles, recovered five and blocked a field goal.

Burns played 197 games and made 203 tackles. He also made 14 'impact' plays with eight forced fumbles, five recoveries and a blocked kick. Oddly, in 13 seasons, he was never a Pro Bowler or All-pro or even All-AFC as a special teamer. He doesn't even get mentions for the "best ever" posts you see from time to time even though his production is up there with Bill Bates and Larry Izzo. Well, that stops now. 

One of the best kick returners and overall returners in NFL history, Cribbs was a great core special teamer. He was an All-Pro once and a Pro Bowler three times, but those were based on returns.

He made 131 tackles in 110 games in his career.

Wolfley was a four-time Pro Bowler and an All-Pro once and was a Special Teams Player of the Year twice. He blocked a kick and made 71 tackles and was like Bauer in that we wasn't a speed guy, a gunner, but was a great blocker on the wedge and was a great wedge buster.

One hundred eleven tackles, four Pro Bowls and one NFC Special Teams Player of the Year award. he finished with 2 forced fumbles and recovered one as well.

In 136 games Whigham recorded 114 tackles, blocked a kick, forced four fumbles and recovered a pair. He was All-Pro in 2001 and was the AFC Special Teams Player of the Year in 1997 and was a Pro Bowler in both years.

A dominant special teamer who played just six seasons and in 79 games made 89 tackles and blocked two kicks, and his blocked kicks resulted in points, either touchdowns or safeties. He was All-AFC in 1988.

McAfee is quite a physical freak to take the pounding he did. A fullback by trade and played sixteen seasons and played on special teams in all of them. He played 194 games and made 178 tackles and was a Pro Bowler in 2002. He scored a touchdown on a blocked punt in 1998 for the Steelers.

Gleason played seven seasons before he was felled by illness. In that time he played 83 games made 63 tackles and blocked four kicks and recovered a pair of fumbles on special teams.

Tyree played six seasons and was called the best special teams player by Ernie Accorsi. he made 74 tackles in 83 games and blocked a punt in 2005 (and was voted to the Pro Bowl that year). Oh, and made a pretty good catch in a Super Bowl, too.

24. Travis Jervey
An All-Pro in 1997 (and a Pro Bowler), Jervey was more in the Wolfley mold, not a gunner but ran down the middle on coverages. As a result, he didn't have the tackles numbers as some of the others. But many say he was as good as any core special teamer. 

A lesser-known player but very effective. In the Bauer, Jervey, and Wolfley mode but did make 60 tackles in 100 games.

Young was the AFC Special Teams Player of the Year award winner in 1984 and 1985. In 1984 he had 19 tackles a forced fumble and blocked two kicks.

Owens was a Pro Bowler as a  fullback once and as a special teamer another season, he made 74 tackles in 111 games and forced three fumbles on special teams and recovered three.

Morey totaled 95 tackles in 112 games he also blocked a kick in 2008 and went to the Pro Bowl that year. Also, part of the dark side of football and Morey is suffering from CTE-type symptoms and was from a very young age.

29. Sam Anno
A one-time NFC Special Teams Player of the Year (1989) and was credited with over 80 tackles in his career, high for a long snapper.

30. Jeff Barnes
Listed by George Allen was one of the best in the business in the late-1970s he was a smaller linebacker who could run. Could make tackles on coverage and block punts. Was mentioned in George Allen's book as a member of his "Special Teams Hall of Fame".

31. Rich Saul
He was a top, top special teams player from 1970 to 1974 before he became a full-time starter and center. He was a long snapper and was a wedge buster on kickoffs and on the front wall on returns. The Rams special teams in his era were the best, even including the Redskins, who got more ink, and Saul was a major reason. His special teams coaches from 1970-74? Marv Levy, Rich Brooks, Dick Vermeil and Elijah Pitts, not a bad group.

32. Rusty Tillman

Always good, named by Dan Daley as the 1970 Special Teamer on his All-Decade team in the Pro Football Chronicle. In 1974 Tillman had 15 tackles and 42 successful blocks on potential tackles and scored an 88.8 grade by George Allen. In 1975 he graded even higher with a 90.6 with 10 tackles and 55 blocks.

33. Jim Jensen
"Crash" was the leader of the Dolphins special teams of the 1980s. He usually was the long snapper on punts and ended his career with 97 tackles. He was also a fine third-down receiver on offense.

Was likely the AFL's best special team player from 1968-70. Belser, in 1968 he had 21 special teams tackles and blocked a punt and a blocked PAT and busted plenty of wedges. In 1969 he had 17 tackles and 16 more in in 1970.

A two-time Pro Bowler and the AFC Special Teams Player of the Year, Porter was a fine right end in the Seahawk nickel defense at 210 pounds. He was a demon on special teams for two years and then was a starter in the base defense and didn't run down on kicks anymore,
36. Henry Schmidt
Schmidt is a crib from Paul Zimmerman's All-Time Team. Said Dr. Z, "He was the greatest hot man, or wedge-buster, that I’d ever seen. I had watched him in his rookie year with the 49ers in 1959. He was inordinately fast coming down the field, for a guy 6’4”, 254 pounds. The Niners fans loved him, but when he’d hit the wedge and splinter it like kindling, it would draw a gasp . . . usually, the ball carrier would be part of the mob that Henry took down on his wild attacks".

How can a guy like that not be included? Schmidt played from 1959-66.

37. Hardy Brown
Dan Daly named Brown his special teams ace for the 1950s All-Decade Team in his Pro Football Chronicles book and has drawn mention from Hall of Fame writer Rick Gosselin, "(Brown) was 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."

38. Vince Papale
He only played three years (he was hurt one) but he was legit, not some fairy tale. Had there been a slot for a Pro Bowl special teamer he would have likely gotten it at least once. Would be higher if he played longer.

Farwell was a Pro Bowler in 2009 after missing the 2008 season with an ACL injury. One of the few players that averaged over one special teams tackle per game. 

40. Mark Pike
A defensive end by trade, Mark Pike made 159 tackles in 173 games and forced three fumbles, recovered one and blocked a kick.

41. Corey Graham
The tackle tally for Graham was 105 tackles and two forced fumbles in 157 games and he was voted a Pro Bowler in 2011.

In '80 Jenson had 15 tackles and blocked a punt and in 1984 he made 17 tackles and forced a fumble. He was, for years (like Bankston and Barnes) a core special teams player.

43. Ike Reese
A Pro Bowl special teamer for the Eagles was particularly dominant in 2001-03.

44. Gary Stills
A one-time Pro Bowler and totaled over 140 special teams tackles.

45. Jim Schwantz
A one-time Pro Bowler, he was solid in coverage for the Cowboys and 49ers. Another player who played more in the middle of the coverage teams and as such didn't make as many tackles as some others but was still very effective.

One of the best special teams demons of the 1970s. He was one of those players who played on all seven (kick, punt, kick return, punt return, onside, kickoff and kickoff return).

47. Brian Baschnagel
Made a lot of tackles and always graded high by Proscout, Inc. Was also an excellent holder for placekicks.
Led the Rams "Haymond's Headhunters" with the Rams from 1969-71. He also returned kicks and punts and did a good job. He was also a great special teamer with the Colts and Eagles prior to joining the Rams.


It took Ray Nitschke until his fourth season to secure a full-time starting MLB job, in the first 3 years and change he was a dominant special teams player according to the literature of the time and in his two biographies. It was an era that called the coverage units the 'bomb squads'.

50t. Dave Meggyesy
Meggyesy makes the list based mostly on anecdotal evidence, he reports on his speial teams work in his book and also was named by Dan Daly to his 1960s All-Decade team in his book The Pro Football Chronicles

50t. Pete Banaszak
Often among the league leaders (based on our research) in special teams tackles.

50t. Charlie Scales
Listed on the recommendation of John Wooten who was a teammate and who was a longtime NFL scout.

50t. Marty Schottenheimer
Never able to secure a starting job for long Schottenheimer just bore down and played where he could and learned the game,


Why not throw in Bill Cowher in next to his coaching mentor?  Cowher only played four years (he missed 1981 with an injury) but was the top special teams for both the Browns and Eagles when he was with them. 

Braman had a short career but impactful. We think he should have been All-Pro in 2012.


Recently cut, Maragos was a key factor in a few wins for the Eagles and there isn't much more you can ask of a special teamer—to help you win a close game.

50t. Ken Rose
Rose was a good blitzer in the 1988 Jets nickel defense he also was an excellent coverage on kicks as well.


50t. Michael Thomas
A current player who has a chance to really move up. A fun player to watch run down and make tackles.

50t. Cory Littleton
Only has three seasons in but has blocked four punts and deflected one and had one near, near-miss. Now that he's a starter he may not cover kicks and punts anymore (he didn't in 2018) so he may be a guy that was dominant then never really returned to coverage maybe similar to Nitschke.

50t. Blake Costanzo
Short career, played at a Pro Bowl-level on special teams in 2008 and 2009.

50t. Alex Bannister
Bannister had three really terrific seasons then three injury-plagued seasons.

Rivers played six seasons and five he was a core special teams guy. Had a stellar year in 1993 and was almost as good in 1994.

7 comments:

  1. amazing great listing.....of course, there is the issue of a. lack of film (pre-70s), b. absence of "weighting" of various roles.....(this 'feels' like a 'gunners' list).....that said, wonderful identification of some serious studs......I love the downfield 'tackle/game' ratio.....the leaders are +1.0 and there aren't a lot of them....Hawkins and Schmidt...anwcdotal pioneers.....where are the Ward Cuffs and Turk Edwards from the 40s?....speaking of Schmidt and 'wedge-busters'...what about a shout out to Gil Mains who it is claimed busted the 'front-four' kick return protectors by jumping feet first back in the day?.....

    ReplyDelete
  2. there are lots of players we left off, maybe will expand someday, but the special teams era really came about in the 1960s and then really, the 1970s as rosters explanded. Prior to that the punt team was the offense, the kicking teams was the offense and the punt and kick blocking teams were the defense. Maybe the QB would punt, or they'd send in a punter. Often the safeties were the punt returns. So they were not a separate "special teams" group, really, until way past the 1950s. Therefore most of the players will be recent

    ReplyDelete
  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. ken rose, norwood vann, don davis, harrold morrow and many others.. we just go to 50 and called it quits

      Delete
  4. I like Michael Bates, he's a great player, I even somehow followed his physical training and exercises on rowing machines thanks to him, I started playing sports and actively follow the matches

    ReplyDelete
  5. No love for Timmy Brown?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. He was a returner, not a core special teams guy.

      Delete