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The diminishing role of Special Teams should alter the Ravens roster composition

Baltimore Ravens v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Baltimore has earned their reputation as a franchise that fields excellent special teams units. The tradition established by Ring of Honor kicker Matt Stover and All-Pro returner Jermaine Lewis continued when former Eagles special teams coordinator John Harbaugh became the Ravens head coach in 2008.

Led by the greatest placekicker in the history of the sport, Justin Tucker, and a procession of core special teamers, Harbaugh’s special teams units have consistently ranked near the top of the league. However, NFL rule makers, in an effort to improve player safety, have reduced the importance of kick and punt coverage and blocking units.

In 2010, the competition committee moved kickoffs five yards closer to the opposing end zone, increasing the percentage of touchbacks. In 2016, they incentivized return men to take a knee by placing touchbacks five yards closer to midfield. And this offseason, aiming to eliminate the potentially dangerous squib kick, a rule was passed that will spot the ball at the 25-yard line after completion of a fair catch on kickoffs.

NFL kickoff returns are fading away. More than 90-percent of kickoffs were returned in 2005. The percentage fell to 60-percent in 2011, before hovering around 40-percent since 2016. Less than 38-percent of kickoffs were returned last season and the newest rule tweak should result in less than 30-percent of all kickoffs being returned in the 2023 season.

Punting has also declined in recent seasons. Analytically driven coaches have become more aggressive on fourth down on what were previously considered punting situations. From the mid-80’s until 2017, teams averaged almost five punts per game. Yet during the last five seasons, teams have punted about 3.5 times per game.

Harbaugh himself averaged 5.5 punts per game in his initial season with the Ravens, compared to 3.3 punts per game during the 2022 season. Defending Super Bowl champion Andy Reid has averaged roughly 2.5 punts per game during the Chiefs AFC dynasty. The game has changed during Harbaugh’s tenure in Baltimore.

Touchdowns scored on kickoff and punt returns have regressed accordingly. From 2008 through 2010, Harbaugh’s first three seasons in Baltimore, an average of 18 kickoffs and 13 punts were returned for scores per season. Over the last three NFL seasons, 7.3 kickoffs and 4.3 punts were returned for touchdowns per season.

Of course, special teams are still important. Kickers, punters and even long snappers can determine the winner when contenders matchup to battle. Nonetheless, the value of core special teamers who do not contribute significantly on offense or defense has never been lower. There are now fewer plays where blocking for or covering a return is necessary.

These factors should put the roster spots dedicated to special teams only contributors in the crosshairs. For the Ravens, there are better uses of roster space and gameday activation than dedicating them to career special teamers Del’Shawn Phillips and Kristian Welsh. Players such as Tylan Wallace and Kevon Seymour should not receive much of an advantage against their competition at their positions due to their special teams ability. Geno Stone, Malik Harrison, Trenton Simpson, Brandon Stephens, Justice Hill, Patrick Ricard, Devin Duvernay, Isaiah Likely and Charlie Kolar offer special teams coordinator Chris Horton enough options to field top-notch kick coverage and return blocking units without additional core special teams only contributors.

Every roster spot saved on special teams will allow Baltimore to carry an additional rotational role player, depth veteran or developmental prospect at running back, offensive line, defensive line and defensive back.

Harbaugh’s Ravens have won many games on the strength of their special teams, but the value of rostering special teams aces continues to diminish. In a hyper competitive league where every advantage is magnified, altering the traditional roster composition to better reflect the reduction of kick and punt returns would be beneficial for Baltimore’s Super Bowl aspirations.