The Baltimore Ravens made a strong push this off-season to boost their special teams production with the signing of Corey Graham, Sean Considine, and Brendon Ayanbadejo. Although the Ravens should be much improved next season on kick coverages, the team has yet to upgrade arguably the two most important positions on special teams: kicker and kick returner.
Although Billy Cundiff looks to be the team’s starting kicker next season, the future at the kick return position is a bit fuzzy. Starting kick returner David Reed went down late last season with a torn ACL. At this time, Reed’s injury is status is a bit of an unknown; only time will tell whether or not he will be ready for the upcoming season.
Though both of these positions certainly aren’t the biggest concerns for the Ravens as they look forward to the new season, last year’s special teams unit left much to be desired, due in large part to the lack of a return threat and inconsistent kicking. After coming so close to a Super Bowl berth, the Ravens don’t need any major upgrading, just minor tweaks here and there; exactly what these positions need.
(More on this debate after the "Jump".)
Not long after kicker Billy Cundiff’s "go-ahead" missed field goal to tie the score in the AFC Championship Game, last month, Head Coach John Harbaugh stood behind Cundiff but didn’t rule out the possibility, or likelihood, that he will face competition this off-season and will have to earn his starting role, saying:
"If we can get a kicker that is capable of competing with Billy, we’ll do it. We want competition for pretty much every position. I say that so I’m not ruling anything out, but Billy is our kicker, and I would anticipate Billy will be our kicker for the opening game of the season."
Harbaugh then went on to say:
"I think he’ll have a great season next year, but everybody gets competition and he’s no exception."
After Cundiff’s stellar 2010 campaign in which he tied the single season record for touchbacks (40) and successfully converted 26 field goals out of 29 attempts for a solid completion rating of 89.7% on his way to earning Pro-Bowl honors, he noticeably took a step back this past season in both kickoffs and field goal completions. Making a name for himself based off of his incredible leg strength in 2010, Cundiff struggled this past season at forcing touchbacks even with kickoffs moved up to the 35 yard-line, one of his best and most useful qualities. Though his lack of leg strength (perhaps due to a calf injury suffered last season) was worrisome, it wasn’t as nearly as concerning as his struggles at converting field goals. During the 2011 regular season Cundiff converted 28 field goals out of 37 attempts for a 75.7% completion rating, not far off of his total career mark of a 76.7% completion rating on field goal attempts.
With those numbers, some are now wondering whether or not last year’s version of Cundiff was the real kicker and if his outstanding 2010 campaign was the anomaly.
At kick returner, the Ravens are currently in a bind. With David Reed sidelined until his ACL is fully healed, the team doesn’t have one steady starter to rely upon. After Reed went don’t last season, the Ravens deployed a combination of return men at various times throughout the season, using the recently departed safety Tom Zbikowski and 2011 undrafted free agent receiver LaQuan Williams.
Even if David Reed is able to get healthy for the start of the season, the Ravens could choose to go in another direction as Reed has proven somewhat unreliable as a return man struggling with ball security fumbling 3 times on kick returns in 2011. Although he has shown flashes of his ability and posted a very solid 29.5 yards-per-return average through two years as the Ravens starting return man, Reed’s fumbling woes, injuries, and off-field problems could prove to be the end of his time in Baltimore.
For punt returns, the Ravens may or may not have a need depending on how the team feels about having their recently signed star, starting cornerback and incumbent punt returner Lardarius Webb in the backfield maintaining his duties of returning punts next season. It seems as though coach Harbaugh has an answer (albeit a round-about one) for those who are wondering if Webb will be the Ravens’ primary punt returner next season:
"You can’t sit there and play scared, so I don’t have a problem with (Webb returning). But I would rather have a backup doing it, yes. If there is another option that is a better player or takes your starting corner and takes him off the punt return, that’s even better. We tried to do something with a free agent or two, and it didn’t work out, but that’s OK. We’ll move on to the next opportunity."
Harbaugh didn’t name names of who the Ravens specifically targeted in free agency this year to take over return duties, but one of the next opportunities that the Ravens will move on to will most likely be in the draft this month where there will be several late-mid round choices to pick from that can come in and take over as a returner for the Ravens.
So, which position do you feel is a more pressing need for the Ravens to upgrade: kicker or kick returner? Even if the Ravens stick with their current starters at both positions, one things seems sure: the team will bring in competition at both kicker and returner in order to put the right pieces in place for next season to improve upon a special teams unit that desperately needs a spark.