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2018 NFC North preview: Ranking the special teams

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The Lions have the best special teams unit and it’s not really close.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Special teams isn’t exactly one-third of the game, like some claim it to be, but it isn’t negligible, either. Often games are won on the foot of a kicker, and games can be dramatically shifted by a huge return.

But special teams can take on a more subtle, but important role. A good punt coverage team can insure that the defense is rarely put in a rough situation to start a drive. The field position battle isn’t exactly an exciting one to watch, but it can be crucial in setting the tempo of game or even deciding the eventual winner.

So while special teams ranking may not seem all that important when deciding the NFC North, it will certainly have an impact on the final standings. Here is how the division shakes out in terms of special teams talent.

(For simplicity sake, the punter, kicker, and returners are listed, but the entire special teams units were considered in the rankings)

1. Detroit Lions (Matt Prater, Sam Martin, Jamal Agnew)

The Lions have a Pro Bowl kicker in Matt Prater, an All-Pro punt returner in Jamal Agnew, and a punter, Sam Martin, who averaged 44.2 net yards per punt in 2016—a mark that set a Lions franchise record and has only been bested three times in NFL history.

Though there are a few questions remaining about this unit—like who will be the team’s kick returner, and can Martin rebound after a shaky 2017 season—the Lions have really established themselves as a top special teams unit ever since general manager Bob Quinn clearly made it a priority back in 2016. The Lions special team units have ranked fifth and sixth in Football Outsider rankings in the past two seasons.

2. Green Bay Packers (Mason Crosby, JK Scott, Trevor Davis)

The Packers special teams unit could be in for big changes this year. They’ve already cut their decent punter in favor of 2018 fifth-round pick JK Scott. But the return jobs could similarly be upgraded this offseason. Trevor Davis has had an understated two years in the NFL, averaging a solid 22.8 yards per kick return (eighth) and 12.0 per punt return (third) last year. However, Davis’ limited contributions on offense could see him getting cut in favor of guys like Ty Montgomery or Jaire Alexander who offer more outside of special teams.

In the kicking game, Mason Crosby had been one of the most consistent placekickers in the league, but 2017 was a down year for the 33 year old. He only converted 78.9 percent of his field goals, which was his lowest accuracy since 2010.

3. Chicago Bears (Cody Parker, Pat O’Donnell, Tarik Cohen)

The Bears, sick of having this happen:

... went out and signed former Dolphins kicker Cody Parkey to a big four-year, $15 million contract. Parkey has had an up-and-down career after suffering a groin injury in 2015, but he converted 91 percent of his kicks last year, including seven of nine from 40+ yards.

The real headline here is Tarik Cohen, who flashed some serious return skills last year, averaging 22.4 yards per kick return (10th) and taking one punt to the house his rookie season.

4. Minnesota Vikings (Daniel Carlson, Ryan Quigley, Mike Hughes)

The Vikings, too, were sick of the kicking woes that have plagued them over the past few seasons, so they went out and drafted the first kicker off the board in the 2018 NFL Draft. At Auburn, Daniel Carlson made 80.7 percent of his kicks, but he only made 74.2 percent in his senior season. And as Lions fans are well aware of, rookie kickers don’t always work out.

At punter, the Vikings return Ryan Quigley, who averaged just 42.2 yards per punt (last) and 39.2 net yards (27th).

The best potential comes from first-round 2018 draft pick Mike Hughes, who is expected to compete for the return jobs this year. Hughes was fantastic as a punt returner in college. He averaged a whopping 31.7 yards per kick return and 16.6 per punt return over a two year college career. He could make the transition away from Cordarrelle Patterson easy for the Vikings.