KR Darren Sproles (Harry How/Getty)
With training camp around the corner, there are a number of interesting matchups to look out for on special teams. Can Tim Dobbins earn a roster spot based on kick-coverage alone? Will Buster Davis take over on punt returns? Will Billy Vinnedge hang around longer than expected? Samantha Fillerup lays out all the story lines worth watching.
The Chargers are stuffed to the gills with linebackers, with 11 players boasting a legitimate shot at making the roster. The two to watch are Carlos Polk and Tim Dobbins, who are attempting to show their indispensability on special teams.
Polk is a two-time Special Teams Player of the Year and hunts down kick returners relentlessly. In 2007, Polk recorded seven tackles on special teams before landing on the injured-reserve list after Week 11 due to a shoulder injury. Durability has been an ongoing concern for Polk, who has missed 37 games over the last four seasons.
Dobbins emerged as a force on special teams last season with 15 tackles. However, he struggled on defense when filling in for Matt Wilhelm in Weeks 2 and 3. If he continues to be a one-trick pony, his roster spot will be in jeopardy.
The battle for punt-return responsibilities is a three-headed affair featuring Darren Sproles, Buster Davis and Mark Jones.
Sproles showed marked improvement last season, as he handled his punts more smoothly and even brought one back 45 yards for a score. However, his punt return average of 9.5 yards only ranked No. 13 in the NFL amongst players with at least 10 returns. Additionally, Sproles' focus may be elsewhere as he's needed more on offense in the absence of Michael Turner.
Davis was the Chargers' first-round pick in 2007 and racked up six returns for 52 yards (8.7 avg) last season. While his playing time was less than he may have hoped, he showed smooth yet explosive qualities in limited opportunities.
Mark Jones signed on as a late addition after spending most of his career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In four seasons, he's returned 117 punts for 1,017 yards (8.7 avg). He'll likely have to handle punts and kickoffs to merit a roster spot.
A Kicking Companion?
Nate Kaeding is known as one of the best and most consistent kickers in the NFL, going 24 for 27 last season. He took a lot of heat for his lack of clutch conversions, but silenced critics when he hit all four field goal attempts against the New England Patriots in 23-degree weather with a broken leg.
That doesn't mean the Chargers won't keep a second place kicker, if not on the active roster, then on the practice squad. The Chargers picked up Billy Vinnedge as an undrafted free agent out of Wyoming because of his ability to back up both Kaeding and Mike Scifres.
The team could stash Vinnedge on the practice squad, if for no other reason than to lighten the workloads of Kaeding and Scifres during in-season practices. Vinnedge could also compete for a roster spot as a kickoff specialist if Kaeding doesn't show more consistency in that role.