Assessing Colts' Offseason Needs: Special Teams

Nyheim Hines provided a thrill with two punt-return TDs in Week 16, but Colts need to improve dramatically in other areas, specifically in the kicking game.
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INDIANAPOLIS — If accentuating positives when reviewing the Colts’ special teams efforts in 2019, Nyheim Hines first comes to mind.

The second-year running back who lost punt-return duties because of his lack of assuredness as a rookie set a franchise record with punt-return touchdowns of 84 and 71 yards in a 38-6 home win over Carolina in Week 16. His 195 punt-return yards were the most in an NFL game since 2004, he became the fifth player with two punt-return TDs of 70-plus yards in NFL history and earned AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors.

But that special day didn’t stand out the most in special teams.

High on the list of Colts shortcomings was placekicking, where all-time leading scorer Adam Vinatieri had a career-worst 14 of the team’s 15 missed kicks, including six extra points. Those misses provided costly in several losses as the Colts faded to a 7-9 season.

Vinatieri ending up on injured reserve provided an opportunity for rookie Chase McLaughlin, who made five of six field goals including a pair from 50-plus yards as well as all 11 extra points in four games. When the season ended, general manager Chris Ballard gave McLaughlin a one-year contract for 2020, meaning it’s his job to lose entering next season.

Vinatieri, the NFL’s oldest player who turned 47 in December, underwent surgery on his left leg and is mulling retirement. He lamented not having the procedure in the offseason and missing the start of the year. The NFL’s all-time leader in field goals (599) and points (2,673), among other accolades, will one day have his bust enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. As much as he doesn’t want to accept a lousy end to an illustrious career, this might be it.

Punter Rigoberto Sanchez averaged 44.4 yards per punt, with averaged 26th. His net average of 41.2 yards per attempt tied for 18th. He was better than the numbers indicate — one of his punts was partially blocked — but the Colts will expect better from him. He excelled again on kickoffs with with a league-best 64.6-yard average as 60 of 79 were touchbacks. The latter statistic ranked sixth.

Hines’ late-season heroics boosted the Colts’ punt-return average to a league-best 17.4 yards. If nothing else, the reserve running back often utilized in the passing game as a shifty receiver proved he’s deserving of bringing back kicks. It just took nearly two seasons to see it.

The Colts were 12th in kickoff return average at 22.8 yards with wide receiver Zach Pascal handling a team-high 10 of the team’s 31 returns for a 26.3-yard average. Expect Hines to get more of those with Pascal becoming an offensive regular.

In terms of covering kicks, the Colts allowed just 5.9 yards per punt return but 24.7 yards per kickoff return. The fact that Sanchez booted most of his kickoffs for touchbacks decreases the impact of the latter stat, but it still needs to improve.