INDIANAPOLIS — You don't earn a nickname like "4th Down Army" without being pretty darn good.
Pat McAfee, Matt Overton and Adam Vinatieri were a pretty darn good trio for the Indianapolis Colts for five seasons.
With McAfee handling the punting, kickoff and holding duties, Overton delivering crisp, accurate snaps and Vinatieri continuing to be one of the league's top kickers into his 40s, the Colts knew that of all the various questions and issues that arise on their roster throughout each year, they were rock solid when it came to their core special teamers.
This was certainly the case in 2016, in what would end up being the final season on the field for this particular 4th Down Army lineup.
And, in what has become pretty much become an annual tradition by now, those efforts didn't go unnoticed by Pro Football Focus, which recently ranked the top special teams units in the league in the 2016 season.
Led by McAfee, Overton and Vinatieri, the Colts came in at No. 5.
Here's what PFF analyst Eric Eager wrote about why Indy's special teamers were so good last season:
5. Indianapolis Colts
"Pat McAfee put together arguably the best career of any punter in the PFF era (since the 2006 season), finishing with a bang in 2016 by earning the top grade at the position and allowing an average starting field position of 23.7 yards on kickoffs. He's been among the top-three punters in overall grades each season since 2012, and his retirement leaves a huge hole on the Colts' roster. Replacing him with former Vikings punter Jeff Locke represents a major downgrade, as Locke has never finished above 26th in PFF's punter grades, and has only kicked off six times his entire career. Luckily for Indianapolis, the venerable Adam Vinatieri keeps on ticking, and in 2016, he finished third in PFF's grading on field goals and extra points, hitting 27 of 31 attempts. Vinatieri missed just nine kicks the last three seasons combined, and in all likelihood, will be a Hall of Famer once he finally decides to follow McAfee's (15 years Vinatieri's junior) path out of football."
Yes, of course, one of the major storylines this offseason for the Colts so far has been the retirement of McAfee, who leaves the NFL at 29 years old to pursue his career as a comedian and content creator for Barstool Sports.
McAfee's final NFL season was perhaps his finest: his 49.3 yards-per-punt average not only led the NFL in 2016, but it established a new team record for a single season, breaking his own mark of 48.2 yards per punt that he set in 2012. Also, by averaging 50.8 yards per punt Week 17 in a win against the Jacksonville Jaguars, McAfee tied another one of his team records (one he also accomplished in 2011 and 2015) by averaging 40.0 yards per kick in all 16 games of the season.
McAfee's five 50.0-yard average games in a single season also tied his own team record that he accomplished back in 2012.
As a result, he was named to his second Pro Bowl, and named All-Pro by The Sporting News.
And, as Eager alluded to, McAfee will be replaced in 2017 by Jeff Locke. But to compare McAfee to Locke might not be too fair, considering their punting styles tend to be completely different (Locke is a left-footed punter, generating a different-looking spin for returners). Also, it's yet to be seen if Locke, Vinatieri or somebody else will be relied upon for kickoff duties.
As Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said prior to Locke's signing, "Tom McMahon and Mo (Maurice) Drayton, the special teams coaches, will do a great job. The scouting staff will do a great job and we'll find somebody, but really, really hard to replace a guy that I think in my time in the National Football League, I haven't seen somebody as talented at doing their job as Pat McAfee did for the last eight years.
"He's a special talent, like I said," Pagano continued, "and I'm grateful to have had the time with Pat."
The good news for the Colts in 2017 is that they know exactly what they have at kicker and long snapper, and they have an established veteran coming in to try to do what he can to keep the momentum going at punter.
And don't overlook the team's talent at its returner spots. In 2015, Quan Bray was considered one of the best kick and punt returners in the entire league as a rookie, but his 2016 season was cut short and he was placed on IR after an ankle injury.
The Colts tried a variety of options at both kick and punt returners to replace Bray, but ultimately, guys like Jordan Todman (at kick returner) and Chester Rogers (at punt returner) emerged at those roles.
Todman's 99-yard kick return for a touchdown to open the game against the Green Bay Packers led to a big road win for Indianapolis in Week 9, and his contributions helped the Colts rank tied for fourth in the league by averaging 25.1 yards per kick return.
Rogers, meanwhile, shook off some early cobwebs to end up averaging a very respectable 9.2 yards per punt return. Had he logged a few more returns throughout the season, he would've ranked in the Top 10 in the league with that average.
Bray will return to the Colts in 2017, so they enter the offseason workouts with plenty of solid options at returner — and perhaps help form a new version of the 4th Down Army.
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