Part of the reason for the Chargers 7-9 record last season, besides the blown leads, was the lack of special teams play. It seemed like the team couldn't get out of its own way at times, and it cost them momentum along with games.
The Chargers brass had two weak links in 2020, which was the offensive line, which they have fixed, and special teams, which are still under construction. There is work to be done, but it seems like general manager Tom Telesco has added some players to compete and help.
"Obviously, on special teams, we need to get better," said Telesco. "You can't really look at one spot and say, 'Hey, if we just fix this one thing, we'll be playing for a championship.' It doesn't work like that. We're looking to build the best, balanced football team that we can. Saying all that, I kind of forget what you asked at this point. It has to be a wide focus. It can't just be a narrow focus at one player or one specific spot."
Here is how each phase of special teams stands.
This was a weak point for the Chargers last season. Michael Badgley has been the kicker for the team since late in 2018. Last season was the worst for the kicker during his tenure.
Badgley missed a potential game-winner against the New Orleans Saints in week five, which could have turned around the season for the team, but that also could be said about numerous other plays. He also missed 12 total kicks in 2020. He missed nine field goals along with three extra points. Former head coach Anthony Lynn said he felt like Badgley would snap out of his cold streak, but he never did.
He did make two late-game field goals at the end of the season against the Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons, but between those games missed crucial kicks in Las Vegas against the Raiders.
Badgley also has a weakness when it comes to field goal kicking. He is 22 out of 35 field goals of 40 plus yards. That is a problem, especially if he will be kicking in a dome stadium. The Bolts even had a field goal blocked by New England, which Devin McCourty returned for a touchdown.
The Chargers have brought in much-needed competition. They brought in Tristan Vizcaino, who has been in the NFL for numerous seasons but actually got a shot with the San Francisco 49ers last season. He made all three of his field goals and two extra points.
The team also brought an undrafted free agent rookie Alex Kessman, who at Pittsburgh hit 12-18 from 50 plus, including a 58-yarder against Boston College. In that same game, the two teams went into overtime, with Boston scoring a touchdown, Pitt answered, but Kessman missed the extra point. He took it as a learning opportunity.
"Everything happens for a reason. I'm a big believer in that," Kessman said to the Pittsburgh Gazette. "That kick at Boston College taught me a lot, about having the mindset that every kick matters. Every kick's a game-winning kick. I was punished for it at Boston College. I was reflecting on the 58-yarder, and that's in the past. It was done and over with, and I needed to move forward. You live and learn. I could dwell on it. I could dwell on me costing us the win or the potential for a win. Or I could move forward and get better from it."
Kessman has a similar problem to Badgley, which is his mid-range game. In his career, he is 23-35 from the 40-49 range.
It will be an interesting battle from these three kickers. This won't be like last year when Badgley had zero competition in camp.
The Bolts faced numerous struggles in the punting game. According to Rick Gosselin's special teams rankings, the Chargers had the worst special teams unit plus the worst punting team in the NFL.
Ty Long is a former CFL kicker who made his way to the NFL. He has yet to make his mark on the team that still remembers the great Mike Scifres and how he pinned teams in deep. Long has yet to master that area. He had the worst 34.1 net average in the NFL. He was also at the bottom of the NFL of pitting teams inside their own 20-yard line.
He was ninth in the NFL in average yards per punt, with it traveling 46.8 yards in 57 punts.
The Chargers did have one punt returned for a touchdown by New England. They also had three punts blocked which was the highest in the NFL. Obviously, this area is going to be fixed in coverage units.
Bolts brass did bring in some competition for Long in Lachlan Edwards, who spent the last four years with the New York Jets. He has averaged 45.5 yards per punt in four seasons while hitting 108 of them inside of the 20-yard line. Last season, Long had no competition during training camp, but it seems like he will now.
Rest of S.T.
The Bolts need to be better in all other areas of special teams. It seems like, at times, they gave up significant returns in punts and kickoffs while not having many big returns. Their two biggest returns on kickoff returns were from Nasir Adderley (76 yards) and Joe Reed (46 yards). There wasn't much after them.
On punt return, they didn't really have many chances while also not having a return of more than 30-yards.
K.J. Hill and Reed were the returners during the season but, after a while, lost their way at certain times. They may need to show out again at both spots with the crowded receiving room.
The Chargers added some special teams help with their day three selections.
"All these players drafted on day three have to come in and earn a special teams role first, or else it's hard to make the team," said Telesco. "You come in, you have to contribute on special teams, and then start to work your way into a role on defense or offense. For these guys coming in, in this day three, we're trying to find the best players we can. We'll figure it out when they get here, but they have to have some special teams value."
Round six selections linebacker Nick Neimann, running back Larry Rountree, and round seven selection defensive back Mark Webb will all need to contribute on special teams to earn a roster spot. Expect third-round pick tight end Tre' McKitty to also contribute on special teams. They also added cornerback Ryan Smith, who is expected to be a gunner on the punt team and help in that area.
The Bolts will need a lot of help to improve all areas of special teams. It won't be easy, but with the additions the team made, they could possibly be a lot better in 2021.
"There's a lot that goes into it,” said Telesco on March 4th. “Obviously, scheme and players. It's not like we had not focused on special teams before. But, we have to take a better focus on it and make sure that our players that maybe aren't frontline starters can really play at a high level on special teams. But, again, it's not something that we had not focused on before. I think having a fresh voice will be nice. I think we have some guys here that can fit very well, as far as covering kicks and punts. We need some help at gunner, because we didn't have good enough guys on the outside that really kind of fit the way that needed to go. There are a lot of different ways to look at it, but, obviously, scheme and players, then developing what we have."