By: Zach Metkler, GZ Sports Report Writer
In the final piece of the Steelers Position Breakdown series, I will be taking a look at the Steelers special teams situation heading into the 2016 season.
Players on Roster:
-#9 Chris Boswell (6’2″, 185 lbs.; 25 years old; 2 years experience; Rice)
-#4 Jordan Berry (6’5″, 195 lbs.; 25 years old; 2 years experience; Eastern Kentucky)
-#60 Greg Warren (6’3″, 252 lbs.; 34 years old; 12 years experience; North Carolina)
-#42 Matt Dooley (6’4″, 242 lbs.; 23 years old; 1 years experience; Indiana)
Undrafted Free Agents/Tryouts:
-#2 Will Monday (6’4″, 210 lbs.; 23 years old; Rookie; Duke)
Whenever kicker Shaun Suisham went down during the 2015 preseason, the Steelers kicker situation went from being completely set to disastrous after Suisham was diagnosed with a torn ACL. The team signed veteran kicker Garrett Hartley to replace the injured Suisham, but a similar outcome took place when Hartley went down with a season ending hamstring injury. The Steelers, desperate for a kicker, pulled the trigger and traded a 6th-round pick to the Jaguars in return for kicker Josh Scobee, who was the 3rd kicker for the Steelers before the regular season even began. To say Scobee was a disappointment would be an understatement. In his first regular season game against the Patriots, Scobee missed his first 2 field goal attempts (a 44- and 46-yard attempt) in a 28-21 loss. The train wreck only continued when in week 4 against the Ravens, Scobee missed 2 costly field goals late in the 4th quarter (a 49- and 41-yard attempt) while the Steelers held a 20-17 lead in the game. The Ravens were able to send the game into overtime and ultimately won the game 23-20. Two days following that game, the Steelers released Scobee.
Enter Chris Boswell.
Since Boswell’s signing on October 3, 2015, he has been a consistent presence for the Steelers. As a young, inexperienced kicker, he showed poise in key moments last season, especially in the playoffs, where he tied a franchise record by making 7 total field goals (he went 7/7) and became the youngest kicker in NFL history to make 4 field goals in a postseason game. To add to it, he also set the franchise record for the most field goals made by a rookie or first-year player (36). During the regular season, Boswell connected on 90.6% of his field goals in the regular season and boosted that percentage up to 92.3% after the playoffs, which was amongst the best in the league. Now with that being said, Boswell is far from a perfect kicker. During the regular season, his average kickoff was a mere 66.3 yards, which was slightly below the league average. Opponents were also able to return 63.5% of his kicks, which is especially disturbing with the new kickoff locations in the league. His kicking distance was also amongst the easiest in the league, with Boswell only attempting 2 field goals of 50 yards or longer and his 3 misses on the season came from between 40 and 49 yards. A large portion of this is likely due to the Steelers high powered offense, which was one of the best in the league last season, averaging 26.4 points per game, which was the 5th best in the NFL. This should not discourage Steelers fans, though, as Boswell should only get better in his second true year in the NFL. The team parted ways with Suisham this offseason after his knee injury was more severe than originally expected, leading to Suisham retiring from the NFL. This cleared cap space for the Steelers as well as clearing the way for Boswell to be the starting kicker again in 2016.
While the kicker situation is basically set in stone, punter is much more cloudy. Last season, Jordan Berry was quite impressive with his ball placement, often pinning teams deep in their own endzones. On 59 punts during the season, only 2 were touchbacks, showing his control and understanding of the Steelers punt coverage. While this is all fine, Berry also averaged a mere 42.3 yards per punt, which was the 3rd-lowest in the league by a kicker that had 16 starts on the season. Berry’s hang time on punts is fairly solid but he severely needs to improve on his distance if he wants to be a top-tier kicker in the NFL. The one impressive stat to contradict my previous statement is that Berry had the NFL’s longest punt last season, traveling 79 yards. However, this was one of his two touchbacks on the season, so that is basically null and void. Berry seemed to progressively get worse as the season went along, with him seemingly being unable to rise to the occasion against the Broncos in the divisional round.
With the Steelers revolving door at punter since the unfortunate injuries to Daniel
Sepulveda (the team has not employed the same punter in consecutive seasons since 2010), the odds are stacked against Berry to be the starting punter again in 2016. His competition this season will come in the form of undrafted free agent and former Duke punter Will Monday. While at Duke, he posted a career gross average of 43.5 yards, with his best average coming in his redshirt freshman year when he posted an average of 44.6 yards. During his final 3 seasons at Duke, he finished in the top 5 in college football in yards per punt, finishing 5th all-time in ACC history. He was also able to pin 46.7% of his punts inside the 20 yard line, which was one of the best percentages in college football. Unlike Berry, Monday seems to have solid power in his kicking leg, which could lead to a higher ceiling. He is extremely quick to punt the ball, averaging a 1.75 second snap-to-punt time, while only allowing an amazing 80 return yards over the past 2 seasons while at Duke. While Berry has solid hang time on his punts, Monday was much more inconsistent, often allowing punts to go almost on a string to the returner but this improved over his collegiate career, showing that he has the potential to develop as a punter. Punter will be one of the more overlooked position battles during the preseason, but it is an area the Steelers have struggle with and need to settle in on a player soon.
In 2016, Greg Warren will return for his 12th season as the Steelers steady and reliable long snapper. In the NFL, almost no one pays attention to the long snapper unless they do something wrong. During his career, Warren has been one of the best in the business and this season should continue to be no different, as Matt Dooley will serve little competition for Warren unless Warren is injured (which surprisingly has been an issue in the past, with season-ending injuries in 2008 and 2009).
Expected Depth Chart:
- Chris Boswell
- Will Monday
- Greg Warren
Nothing surprising here, as Chris Boswell and Greg Warren are all but locks to retain their starting spots on the roster. The Steelers will likely bring in another camp body to kick with Boswell, but unless the kicker they bring in turns into the second coming of Adam Vinatieri, Boswell is safe.
Punter, on the other hand, is far from a sure thing. The Steelers desperately need to settle on a long-term option. Will Monday was amongst the best punters in his class coming out of college and some draft pundits even had him sneaking into the late rounds of the NFL Draft. With Jordan Berry’s inconsistencies last season and the Steelers trend of not settling on a punter they aren’t fully sold on, Monday appears to be the lesser of two evils. Monday’s progression as a punter at Duke shows that he has a much higher ceiling than Berry, who has likely already reached his ceiling. As a young 23-year old punter, Monday is a new toy for special teams coach Danny Smith to play with and I expect that with a strong preseason, Monday will be the Steelers starting punter come week 1 of the regular season.
Coming up next: Steelers 53-man Roster Preview. Stay Tuned!