With the offense and defense in a good position to play pretty well, just like last year, the season once again comes down to the Los Angeles Chargers’ ability to produce in all aspects of special teams play.
The 2017 Chargers’ special teams unit was an absolute train wreck to say the least. Keeping Younghoe Koo over Josh Lambo proved to be an awful decision. Nick Novak was brought in and got hurt to the point where Drew Kaser had to kick field goals and extra points against the Dallas Cowboys. Nick Rose… woof. Absolute shanks.
Getting past kicking, the Chargers return unit wasn’t honestly much better. Travis Benjamin struggled until the second half of the season returning punts, and Austin Ekeler, Desmond King, and Travis Benjamin shuffled through the role of kick returner throughout the year.
The one bright spot in special teams play was Kaser. The Chargers averaged 48.1 yards per punt last year, third highest in the league. With Kaser’s punting, there was at least some good play on special teams. But it’s going to have to be all three parts of special teams coming together in 2018. Kicking, returning and punting.
The biggest issue is kicking. As I said before, the kicking game was terrible last year. But if you watched the Chargers at any time last year, you already know that. The team has basically restarted the entire kicking game. Koo was cut last year, Novak no longer plays in the NFL, and Rose was cut earlier this spring. So, who are the main candidates for the Chargers’ main kicking job?
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The two candidates are really Roberto Aguayo and Caleb Sturgis. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot to go off with either this preseason. Sturgis has gone 1-for-2 on field goals, Aguayo has gone 1-fpr-1. In reported practices, they’ve been about even. Anthony Lynn has been quoted as saying that there’s not much separating them and it’s a close competition.
Unless something dramatic happens in these last two preseason games, I don’t think there will honestly be a lot to separate Aguayo and Sturgis from one another. I don’t think there’s a great option for the Chargers unfortunately. Lynn just has to go with his gut here, which unfortunately didn’t go so well last time. But we should trust him with the kicker with how he’s turned around the rest of the team.
Kick and punt returning may get more interesting this year. Last week against Seattle, we saw an incredible burst of speed from J.J. Jones in a great punt return to the end zone. It’s worth pointing out that it’s only one play, but he certainly has made an impression with his time in the preseason. The Chargers could definitely end up keeping him as their main punt returner if he continues to show his speed.
If the Chargers decide to keep Jones on punt returns, they may just well use him on kick returns as well. But, it’s likely they’ll stay with some kind of mixture of Benjamin, Keenan Allen and King there, which wasn’t too bad last year. Benjamin showed some speed on kick returns later in the year.
Punting is the least complicated area of special teams as I stated before. Kaser was terrific last year for what he had to do. He had the third highest average in terms of punting yards. It’s his job to lose, and I don’t think he intends to do so. He’s had good outings against Seattle and Arizona. If you’ve forgotten how great he was last year, here you go.
Drew Kaser of the LA Chargers may have just kicked the Greatest Punt of All-Time. pic.twitter.com/d7R9zxy9P8
— TheRenderNFL (@TheRenderNFL) October 23, 2017
Overall, the Chargers’ special teams is really one of the most important areas of the team, arguably the most important. The Chargers were a 9-win team that lost multiple games on special teams. We know the offense and defense will be solid. We know they’ll be in every game they play. Returning, punting, and especially kicking, will determine whether they win the division and make the playoffs, or just miss out on the Wild Card again.