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AFC East preview: Will a new punter, returner jumpstart the Dolphins’ special teams?

In the past few years, the NFL has implemented rule changes on special teams with the intention of making the game safer but the efforts have increasingly phased out the impact of kick returns and punt returns. And the league went one step further this offseason.

The NFL approved a new rule that will place the ball at the 25-yard line for any fair catch called inside a team’s own 25. The league is seeking to limit the number of concussions and other injuries on special teams but the rule change is expected to once again decrease the number of returns.

While there are fewer returns in today’s game, the Dolphins’ regular-season finale, an 11-6 win over the New York Jets that clinched a playoff berth, was a reminder of how much of an impact special teams can have.

On an afternoon when then-rookie Skylar Thompson was starting and Miami’s offense struggled to move the ball, kicker Jason Sanders made all three of his field-goal attempts, including a go-ahead 50-yard field goal with 18 seconds left.

During an eight-part series leading into the start of training camp, the Miami Herald will rank and preview different positions for each team in the AFC East, from strongest to weakest. Part 8 is special teams.

1. Buffalo Bills

Projected depth chart: Tyler Bass (kicker), Sam Martin (punter), Reid Ferguson (long snapper)

Skinny: The Bills’ special teams unit ranked first in Football Outsiders’ efficiency rankings last season. Buffalo’s kick return average (25.2) was a bit inflated by a pair of return touchdowns from Nyheim Hines in Week 18 but the team ranked in the top half of the league in punt return average, as well as kickoff and punt return coverage. The unit was also the least penalized in the NFL, drawing only seven flags. And the Bills got reliable kicking from Bass, who made 27 of 31 field-goal attempts, including two of three from 50-plus yards. All three members of the Bills’ kicking battery return in 2023.

Buffalo Bills place kicker Tyler Bass (2) celebrate with teammates Nyheim Hines (20) and Bobby Hart (68) after kicking 25 yard field goal to win the game during fourth quarter of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins at Highmark Stadium on Saturday, December 17, 2022 in Orchard Park, New York.
Buffalo Bills place kicker Tyler Bass (2) celebrate with teammates Nyheim Hines (20) and Bobby Hart (68) after kicking 25 yard field goal to win the game during fourth quarter of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins at Highmark Stadium on Saturday, December 17, 2022 in Orchard Park, New York.

2. New York Jets

Projected depth chart: Greg Zuerlein (kicker), Thomas Morstead (punter), Thomas Hennessy (long snapper)

Skinny: The Jets were one of two teams to record two blocks this past season and were one of the better coverage units in the NFL. Zuerlein, in his first season as a Jet, maintained his reputation for having one of the strongest legs in the NFL but was a bit inconsistent from long range, making six of 11 attempts from 50-plus yards. New York signed Morstead in free agency, who should be an upgrade over Braden Mann, particularly with pinning the ball inside the 20-yard line. The Jets will have to find a new returner though, as Braxton Berrios, a one-time All-Pro, signed with the Dolphins.

Jan 1, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Matthew Slater (18) talks with Miami Dolphins punter Thomas Morstead (4) before a game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 1, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Matthew Slater (18) talks with Miami Dolphins punter Thomas Morstead (4) before a game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

3. New England Patriots

Projected depth chart: Chad Ryland (kicker), Bryce Baringer (punter), Joe Cardona (long snapper)

Skinny: The Patriots’ kicking battery will look a lot different in 2023. New England used two of its 12 picks in the 2023 Draft on specialists, selecting Ryland in the fourth round and then Baringer in the sixth round. Ryland, a second-team All-Big Ten selection at Maryland, likely replaces Nick Folk. Baringer, a consensus first-team All-American at Michigan, is expected to bring stability after the Patriots ranked last in punt average between Bailey and Michael Palardy. New England usually has strong coverage units led by 10-time Pro Bowler Matthew Slater and that should be no different this upcoming season.

Jun 12, 2023; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots place kicker Chad Ryland (62) warms up at the Patriots minicamp at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 12, 2023; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots place kicker Chad Ryland (62) warms up at the Patriots minicamp at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

4. Miami Dolphins

Projected depth chart: Jason Sanders (kicker), Jake Bailey (punter), Blake Ferguson (long snapper)

Skinny: For the second consecutive season, the Dolphins ranked among the league’s worst special teams units. Football Outsiders efficiency rated the group 28th in the NFL. Head coach Mike McDaniel opted to retain Danny Crossman, though, saying “it never really crossed my mind” to dismiss the longtime coordinator.

While Sanders finished the season on a high note, he again struggled on long-range kicks, making just two of six attempts from 50-plus yards. The Dolphins replaced Morstead with Bailey, the former Patriot who had the worst season of his career in 2022 and dealt with a back injury. Bailey was an All-Pro in 2020 but will have to show he can get back to that form.

The addition of Berrios should give Miami a boost in the return game —the Dolphins ranked last in kick return average and 31st in punt return average — but it’s fair to question how much of an impact he will have given the new fair catch rules. Miami will also need to improve its coverage units; the Dolphins allowed a league-worst 27.8 yards per kick return.

Con 18 segundos restantes y la campaña de los Dolphins en juego, Sanders anotó un field goal de 50 yardas que sirvió para derrotar 11-6 a los Jets de New York el domingo en Miami Gardens y enviar a los Dolphins a los playoffs.
Con 18 segundos restantes y la campaña de los Dolphins en juego, Sanders anotó un field goal de 50 yardas que sirvió para derrotar 11-6 a los Jets de New York el domingo en Miami Gardens y enviar a los Dolphins a los playoffs.