INDIANAPOLIS — With the Indianapolis Colts set to report to training camp in a few weeks, let's take a quick look at some building points for the team's special teams units heading into the 2020 season.
WHAT WENT RIGHT:
» The Colts' punt return game in 2019 wasn't just good — it was close to historically good. Chester Rogers carried the load as the returner for the first 12 games of the season, and at the time he suffered a season-ending knee injury Week 13 against the Tennessee Titans, he had the NFL's second best punt return average. But when Nyheim Hines took over from there, the Colts really found a spark. Hines returned nine punts in all for 281 yards — for an insane average of 31.2 yards per return — and had a day for the ages Week 16 against the Carolina Panthers, when he set new franchise records with two punt return touchdowns and 195 total punt return yards; Hines was appropriately named the AFC's Special Teams Player of the Week. The Colts in 2019 not only led the league with a 17.4 yards-per-punt-return average — an astounding six yards better per return than the second-place New York Jets — but that 17.4 figure was the fifth-best punt return average in NFL history, and the best mark since 1961, when the Green Bay Packers averaged 17.8 yards per return.
» The punting operation was solid all-around for the Colts in 2019. There was the aforementioned return game, but Indy's punt coverage unit was once again one of the best in football. The Colts allowed just 5.93 yards per punt return, ranking eighth in the league; Indy led the league in punt return average allowed in 2018 (4.43), so Rigoberto Sanchez and the coverage units have been solid in every aspect of the punting operation, from Luke Rhodes' snap, to Sanchez's kicks and to the guys sprinting down the field and ensuring the returner has little to no space to operate.
ITEMS TO BUILD UPON:
» The Colts' kicking game had its struggles throughout the 2020 season. Overall, the Colts ranked 29th in the league in field goal average (70.97 percent) and last in extra-point conversion percentage (84.62). Indy also had two field goal attempts blocked, tied with four other teams for the most in the league. Accordingly, veteran kicker Adam Vinatieri had a roller-coaster season. He did have a strong stretch from Weeks 3-7, converting 10-of-12 field goal attempts and 11-of-12 extra point tries, including Week 7, when he hit 3-of-4 field goal attempts, including the game-winner from 51 yards out, to earn AFC Special Teams Player of the Week Honors. But he also missed some crucial kicks, and would go on injured reserve and undergo knee surgery after the Colts' Week 13 last-minute loss to the Titans. Rookie Chase McLaughlin was brought on from that point and had a solid finish to the season, converting 5-of-6 field goals and all 11 extra-point attempts over the final four games of the year. As it stands now, McLaughlin and undrafted rookie Rodrigo Blankenship will battle it out for the Colts' kicking job heading into training camp, while Vinatieri remains a free agent should he want to return for a 25th NFL season in 2020.
» While the Colts' punt coverage units were solid once again in 2019, the kickoff return units will need some work to get back to the top-10 form they showed in 2018. That year, Indy ranked eighth in the league by allowing just 22.04 yards per kickoff return. In 2019, however, the Colts allowed 24.74 yards per kickoff return, ranking 25th in the NFL. While Sanchez was among the league's best at getting touchbacks on kickoffs — his 75.9-percent kickoff touchback percentage and 60 total kickoff touchbacks ranked sixth and tied for sixth in the NFL, respectively — special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone will assuredly want to get better results from his coverage units when Indy's kickoffs are taken out of the end zone.