The Bubble Battle: Breaking Tie Breakers with Special Teams Play

Who's going to prove themselves in the game's third phase?
Who’s going to prove themselves in the game’s third phase?

Any fan who has followed the NFL for a reasonable period of time has found or heard tell that the key to making the roster for those on the bubble is to make it on special teams. People see it on ESPN, Hard Knocks and any local sports coverage, as well as the plurality of written media around the country:

Young players are often too worried about learning the playbook, mastering the intricacies of the offense or defense, jockeying for position on the depth chart early in camp. But come cutdown time, they realize special teams is the key for fringe players.

NFL teams must cut their 90-player training camp rosters down to 75 by 4 p.m. Tuesday, and by Saturday evening teams must trim it to 53. Because [Special Teams Coordinator Darren] Rizzi determines who is on his unit, which makes up the third phase of football games, his opinions carry weight for the final five to 10 spots on the roster.

“History will tell you have an opportunity to make this football team,” said running backs coach Dan Roushar. “The quickest way to do that is to make an impression in the special teams.”

Lynch has had plenty of opportunities to use his skills as a runner at NIU, but he’s never blocked or tackled in high-level football. He’ll desperately need to work on his blocking and tackling to make himself appealing as a special teams contributor. Special teams may be his only shot at making this roster.

“Special teams are huge in this league, especially if you’re going to be one of those guys on the bubble trying to make the roster,” [Denver Broncos receiver Tavarres] King said.

The calculus is well laid-out by Gang Green Nation:

The guy who posts 9 catches for 100 yards in a preseason game has clearly had a good night and taken a step to making his team’s roster. Is this necessarily the most important thing if his team is set at the position, and his only way to making the roster is as the fifth receiver? Perhaps not.  This guy’s playing time is likely to be limited, and he will not be a featured part of his team’s offense. What if this guy is an ace gunner on punt coverage units and is a quality return man? He will make much more of an impact in these roles so in an odd way they might be at least as important in a team’s evaluation.

This is the kind of thing that makes it tough on a guy likeDavid Nelson. I don’t think Nelson is explosive enough to be a quality starter. He’s NFL material, though. You could do a lot worse for a depth guy. The problem is he doesn’t really add value anywhere else. If you had a guy with Nelson’s receiving skills who was a special teams ace, you probably would have a player with decent value. Nelson might not make the roster if a younger guy he is up against can provide said value at another spot.

It’s even the lens by which smart sportswriters are looking at the odds of out of the closet Michael Sam’s chance of making the roster:

Improved pass-rushing traits will do nothing but help Sam’s chances of landing a roster spot, especially if he can translate that work into preseason games.

Sam’s biggest advantage when stacking up against the other linemen vying for jobs, though, is his ability to help on special teams.

That’s all probably true. So what are we to make of it? It’s the most difficult thing for an outsider to evaluate—both because special teams play is relatively esoteric to the outside football community and because people rarely keep track of it in camp. The closest proxy we have in Minnesota is the evolving depth chart put together by Mike Priefer every night and displayed for all the football community to see in the morning. Players that stay at the top of the depth charts of the various rosters probably have the best chance of making them.


We don’t have all the information on the special teams depth charts, but I do have most of it. For the most part, I’ve kept a running tally of the depth charts for the kickoff unit, kickoff return unit, punt unit, punt return unit, the gunners, jammers and returners. That means I don’t have the field goal or field goal block unit, so it’s somewhat incomplete but at least indicative.

I gave returners seven points for being on top of the return depth chart, and one fewer point for every spot below the top one they are. I gave every player three points for being on the first team punt, punt return, kickoff and kickoff return units, two points for being on the second team units and one point for being on the third units. I also gave them similar points for their place as jammers or gunners. In future years, I may be able to better use this data to predict rosters, but for now this will do.

This naturally ignores talent differences—Robinson is a good gunner, which would imply that the difference between the gunners above him and he do not have as large a talent difference as he does with those below him (exactly like how the difference between the top four quarterbacks is probably smaller than the difference between the fourth-best quarterback and the fifth-best one). A better method might provide additional points for those who are static on the top and assume that fluid movement is among those with flatter talent distributions, but that’s a lot of work and might introduce too much noise into a rough process anyway.

So, when you’re constructing your 53-man roster, consider the following point-getters to determine your tiebreakers (as of July 31st):

Player ST Points
Marcus Sherels 19
Adam Thielen 15
Shaun Prater 12
Mistral Raymond 11
Jabari Price 10
Jarius Wright 10
Larry Dean 9
Michael Mauti 9
Matt Asiata 8
Rhett Ellison 8
Antone Exum 8
Gerald Hodges 8
Kain Colter 8
Kurt Coleman 7
Cordarelle Patterson 7
Josh Robinson 7
Jamarca Sanford 6
Brandon Watts 6
Jerick McKinnon 6
Jerome Felton 6
Robert Blanton 6
Erik Lora 6
Joe Banyard 5
Audie Cole 5
Derek Cox 5
Justin Trattou 3
Scott Crichton 3
Brandan Bishop 3
Rodney Smith 3
Zach Line 3
Kamar Jorden 3
Joe Berger 3
AC Leonard 3
Jasper Brinkley 3
Harrison Smith 3
Xavier Rhodes 3
Robert Steeples 2
Allen Reisner 2
Julian Posey 2
Jeff Baca 2
Anthony Barr 2
Kendall James 1
Mike Higgins 1
Donte Foster 1
Ty Walker 1

If your guy is on the bubble and not on one of these rosters, the fight is that much tougher.

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