One of the tougher jobs in the league in terms of continuity is that of special teams coordinator. The level of turnover from one season to the next is considerable. So, to be in the situation the Raiders are in this season is rare.
Seven players on the roster played the majority of snaps on special teams last season and all of them are back this year. Those players are Marquel Lee, Erik Harris, Derek Carrier, Kyle Wilber, Keith Smith, Nicholas Morrow, and Dwayne Harris.
“I think their performance pounded the table for them,” said Raiders special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia. “The guys are going into the second year in our program and the way we’re trying to practice and play games. I thought we were solid a year ago and I think they feel like we can improve on what we did, so we can all play better. So, we’re excited about the group we have coming back and competing for a roster spot.”
Players like Wilber, Smith, and Dwayne Harris had played under Bisaccia in his previous coaching stops, so there is even more continuity for Bisaccia. Harris in particular displayed some outstanding, heads-up return and flier abilities.
Harris’s abilities as well as that of the rest of unit helped the Raiders have the fourth best punt return average in the league (11.6). His 99-yard touchdown return against Denver and the killer blocks along the way certainly helped with that average. Those blocks came from Wilber, Lee, Morrow, and Nick Nelson.
Special teams abilities take a backseat to those abilities on offense and defense, but earn players roster spots. Of these players, only Erik Harris saw significant starts, but he made the squad originally based on his standout gunner abilities.
The questionable areas on the team last year were kicker, punter, and long snapper.
Kicker was figured out in week six when the team signed Daniel Carlson who had been the Vikings’ fifth round pick in 2018 and cut after one bad game. His spot is secure after going 16 of 17 with the Raiders last season.
Punter and long snapper are currently an open competition. Johnny Townsend was statistically the worst punter in football last season and will have to beat out undrafted rookie AJ Cole or whomever else the Raiders may decide to bring in before the season starts.
“He’s really done a tremendous job working on his hang time,” Bisaccia said of Townsend. “That’s improved tremendously over the course of the year. Now, we’ve given up a little bit of direction to get his hang time where we’d like it to be and hopefully we can get him both the hang and the direction going into training camp.”
Long snapper was in good shape last season with veteran Andrew DePaola tore his ACL in the season opener and they had to sign rookie Trent Sieg who had been in Ravens camp and he held down the position well the rest of the season.
“Yeah it’s definitely a competition,” Bisaccia said of long snapper. “Andrew is coming back from an ACL surgery and he’s really had a tremendous offseason, not only in the training room but in the weight room, and he hasn’t missed a day of OTA’s or any of our training camp days. Trent came in as a rookie and was a solid player, he got a lot of funky looks that he had to protect against and got a lot of help from the two guards that where in there and had some experience, but it’s certainly a competition right now. I think they understand that and well make some decisions as time goes on.”
Townsend will have to show marked improvement to get the punting job and Sieg would figure to have a tough time taking DePaola’s spot considering the Raiders investment in him last year and their high opinion of him.
And of course, there will be a few young players who will figure to break onto the squad as well. But it won’t be so easy to knock any of this core group out of their spots.