Special changes could net big returns

NFL draftIn the last two weeks, the Seahawks’ special teams have undergone a major upgrade — and they might get better yet.

Sure, the field goal game is again a question — the team apparently relying on a 40-year-old who missed last season with a back injury and can’t kick from 50 anymore. But the rest could be really strong, thanks to a new punter, another dynamic returner and potentially big rule changes.

In eight years under coach Brian Schneider, the Seahawks have ranked in the NFL’s top five four times (per Football Outsiders), but they also have ranked 15-20 four times. Last year was their worst ranking yet (20th) because their punt game was not very good — 24th in returns and 30th in net punting — and their field goal team ranked 30th as Blair Walsh hit just 72.4 percent and helped lose a couple of games.

To get the special teams back to helping win games, the Seahawks have added Sebastian Janikowski, Michael Dickson, Rashaad Penny and some other potential impact players.

Janikowski didn’t even play last season, yet Seattle gave him a $600,000 signing bonus after Oakland cut him. In 2016, he ranked 20th in the NFL at 82.9 percent, hitting just 3 of 8 from 50 yards or longer.

It’s assumed that Janikowski will get the job, but Jason Myers could get a chance, too. Myers, who is 14 years younger than Janikowski, made 86.7 percent of his field goals with Jacksonville in 2015, although he dropped to 79.4 percent in 2016 (five of his seven misses were from 50 or longer). He went 0 for 3 from 50-plus last year and the Jags cut him after he missed two 54-yarders in a loss to the Rams in the sixth game.

Neither seems like a great option if the Hawks need long kicks, but the Hawks just need them to be better than Walsh for now.

The more exciting special-teams elements will be punts and returns. Dickson’s Down Under kicking style apparently has the potential to create issues for returners.

“He has a lot of different kicks,” Schneider told 710 ESPN. “He has a couple of kicks … where he can put some different spin on the ball and drop it a little bit differently and it looks a little bit different for the returners.”

Schneider said one of the kicks is the “Wild Bill,” where Dickson drops the ball flat and it looks like a knuckleball when it comes down. “He’s had so many years (of) Australian Rules football, so it’s really natural for him to have a lot of kicks. We’ll see how it comes into play.”

The Seahawks tied for second in the NFL with three takeaways on special teams last season, and that number could escalate if Dickson really can spin the ball the way everyone says.

“Around here, it’s all about the ball,” Schneider said. “So, any time you can create a turnover in the kicking game, it’s a big plus.”

On top of that, Dickson can really boom the ball and pin teams inside the 20-yard line (like he did to Missouri nine times last season). Schneider said he can blast 65-yarders with 4.9-second hang time.

None of this is any surprise to Tom Herman, who coached Dickson at Texas. “He was one of our best defensive players because he gave our defense such long fields time after time after time,” Herman told 710 ESPN. “The one thing that he can do that’s just so extraordinary is, if you’re backed up, he can bomb you out with a 60-, 65-yarder. And, if you stall around midfield, he can drop the thing pretty much wherever you tell him to drop it.”

If the Hawks stay healthy so their top special-teamers can play together consistently, their coverage units should improve immensely as well. After all, they have some stellar cover guys in Neiko Thorpe, D.J. Alexander, Shaquem Griffin, Marcus Johnson, et al.

The return game should improve for two reasons: (1) Tyler Lockett is now 100 percent healthy and (2) Penny should provide some relief for Lockett on kick returns to keep him fresh for punts. Coming off a broken leg last year, Lockett’s punt return average plummeted from 8.4 to 6.6; maybe he can approach the 9.5 of his All-Pro rookie year.

The Seahawks were not bad on kick returns last year, ranking fifth in the league as Lockett averaged 25.6 yards and scored once. He and Penny could be a dynamic duo back there, especially as the league changes the rules to create more running room.

The proposed changes would (1) ban the kicking team from getting a running start, (2) eliminate “wedge” blocking by the receiving team, (3) require eight of the receiving team’s players to line up within 15 yards of the kicking line, (4) prohibit hitting within those 15 yards and (5) eliminate any pre-kick motion.

Special teams coaches around the league reportedly think this will open up the field for returners when the kickoff stays in play, and some coaches apparently are considering using multiple return men. Schneider is among them.

Penny returned seven kickoffs for touchdowns the past three years at San Diego State, averaging over 30 yards per return. Lockett has a career 25.9 average and two TDs with the Seahawks. Schneider must be licking his chops as he considers the possibilities.

“Penny obviously can do some return stuff, and with the new rules I think they’re gonna incorporate, (it will) kinda force you to put two or three returners back there,” Schneider said.

If the rule changes pass, Schneider said they will test the difference in timing from the old running start to no running start and he would expect kick returns to become a little more like punt returns, with smaller blockers and more space for return men.

“I think this is a good step (for safety), and I think it will still be exciting,” Schneider said. “I think there’s a lot of cool things that can happen on a kickoff.”

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