No, they aren’t hurting the team by “taking up a roster spot”
With roster cut downs looming large, one of the annual dilemmas for the Buffalo Bills and all NFL teams is who to keep on the back end. More specifically, quantifying the value of players on the bubble. Part of the debate always comes down to special teams value vs. depth on offense/defense. Sometimes, a player makes the cut solely off the back of their special teams play, sparking concerns that it comes at the cost of depth elsewhere. Don’t worry about it, here’s why.
The whole dang team plays STs already (almost)
According to pro-football-reference.com 69 players suited up for the Bills officially in 2020. All but 11 of them played at least a few snaps on special teams. At the bottom of this, there’s a table I created that we’ll reference for the rest of this piece. I label every player as either a starter (s), someone with good value as a depth player (d), or basically there just for special teams (st).
NOTE: This is cumbersome to make sense of via mobile. which is why it’s at the bottom.
Here are some key points:
- About a quarter of all special teams snaps are played by starters. That’s a huge chunk.
- 47 percent of special teams snaps I have attributed to players I consider to have value as depth. That’s guys like Dean Marlowe, Bam Johnson, and Siran Neal. There is some room for argument in who qualifies as solid depth, but again, this is a large play time percentage going to guys who offer more than just special teams value.
- That leaves about a quarter (27 percent) of special teams snaps going to guys who are there pretty much only for that role.
- Of that 27 percent, about 12 percent of that goes to the players there’s little argument against. Namely the long snapper, kicker, punter, and return specialist (though that last one does have some room for debate).
- If you’ve already done the math, great. If not, that leaves 15 percent of snaps going to non-specialist special teams players.
In other words, what we’re seeing is that there’s not a high need for a ton of guys to play special teams only. Players who start or provide good depth options are already doing most of the work as it is.
That’s great but how many roster spots do those guys take?
If you’re masochistic and looked at my whole chart you see I have 17 players in the “special teams value only” category. Let’s whittle that down. First off, we have the four specialists mentioned above so now we’re down to 13 players. You’ll also see players such as Jordan Devey and Brandin Bryant who were called up for offense/defense for a single game and didn’t actually play special teams. I didn’t know what value to call them so for the purposes of today’s argument I lumped them in with the players who don’t have much value and could be swiping the spot of a “more valuable” player. So we’re down to 11 spots.
The list also includes Bryan Cox Jr, Nate Becker, Daryl Worley, Mike Love, Del’Shawn Phillips, Josh Thomas, and Darron Lee. All of these players had less than 50 snaps on STs and fit the mold of Devey/Bryant. They’re better called experimental players who had a brief call-up (or a few) for various reasons.
That leaves us with Andre Smith, Taiwan Jones, Tyrel Dodson, and Deon Lacey as our non-specialist core special teams players. But hold on a second. Taiwan Jones leads the pack with 13 appearances in 2020. Even these guys bounced on and off the roster. All told they had 40 games collectively.
That’s essentially 2.5 roster spots going to guys who “only” offer value on special teams. You might be able to argue a player or two in my “depth” list, but overall those players offer some value, even if it’s just in a pinch.
Let’s take that 2.5 roster spots and add in another 0.5 for those reeeeeally back-end players like Devey/Bryant. And to be conservative say another roster spot for similar purposes and to argue that one of my depth players should be more special teams only. That gives us four roster spots for special teams only players.
Let’s take those guys (A. Smith, T. Jones, D. Lacey, and B. Johnson) and look at their special teams snap counts. It comes out to 892 snaps. That’s the equivalent to a full-time starter on offense or defense. It’s about the same number of snaps as:
- It’s slightly more snaps than the combination of Matt Barkley, Reggie Gilliam, Lee Smith, Isaiah McKenzie, and Tyler Kroft.
- It’s only six snaps less than Justin Zimmer, Harrison Phillips, and A.J. Epenesa combined for.
- It’s 289 snaps MORE than the combo of Tyler Bass, Corey Bojorquez, Reid Ferguson, and Andre Roberts had on special teams.
Put simply, the 3-4 guys that really form that true core of players who don’t have value much beyond special teams see a ton of playing time. Is it possible they take a roster spot away from a player who provides significant upside? Sure. A big “what if” would be developmental players. But as noted above, the Bills are already swapping those kinds of players in and out of the lineup to see what they have.
One final thought: I’m willing to argue some of my ratings. Is Tyrel Dodson more depth than special teams since he played more snaps on defense? I’m willing to listen. Should Siran Neal be more special teams than depth as he played more than twice as often on special teams? Could be. Would a few of these players drastically alter my stance? I’m not so sure.
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