A pair of kicking competitions will highlight the Buffalo Bills’ special teams battles in training camp.
Both incumbents, kicker Rian Lindell and punter Shawn Powell, will face serious pushes for their roster spots by sixth-round draft pick Dustin Hopkins and free agent Brian Stahovich, respectively.
“The new coaching staff made it clear there’s competition for all positions for everybody,” Lindell said in an interview with The Buffalo News this spring. “They don’t have any track record with me, and they want at all positions to create competition, and I’m no different. I’m ready to compete.”
Lindell, 36, is the longest-tenured player on the Bills’ roster, having joined the team in 2003. He’s the most accurate kicker in franchise history, hitting on 83.3 percent of his attempts. That includes an 87.5 percent success rate last year, when he was good on 21 of 24 attempts.
Inside 50 yards, Lindell has a career success rate of 84.3 percent. That number improves to 92.8 percent inside 40 yards, so accuracy is not a concern with Lindell. It’s his ability to hit from 50-plus yards that new special teams coordinator Danny Crossman and coach Doug Marrone will have to judge.
Under former coach Chan Gailey, Lindell tried just two field goals from 50-plus yards in the last two seasons (he missed the second half of 2011 because of injury).
“I think it all depends on how and where we’re evolving and where we’re moving and what our plan is as a team, on finding the best way to win football games,” Crossman said. “I’ve been around a lot of veteran kickers and it can change year to year on what the philosophy of that team is and how that team ends up being built.”
Hopkins excelled on long field goals as a senior at Florida State, going 5 for 6. He was 9 for 15 (60 percent) from 50-plus yards in his college career. He was also strong from 40 to 49 yards, hitting 12 of 16 attempts over the last two seasons.
Hopkins also finished seventh in the nation with 43 touchbacks last year, accounting for 41 percent of his kickoffs. The Bills originally kept a kickoff specialist (John Potter) on the roster last year, but they went back to keeping one kicker and having Lindell perform the job starting in Week Seven. Lindell’s touchback percentage of 14.5 was the lowest in the NFL last season.
Hopkins, 22, will be reunited with Powell – who held for him in college – provided the latter can hold off Stahovich.
Powell clearly has the bigger leg, but he struggled with consistency as a rookie. His net punting average of 38.1 was 23rd in the league. At 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds, the 24-year-old Powell is one of the biggest punters in the NFL. At 6-foot and 190 pounds, Stahovich doesn’t come close to matching Powell’s size, but he made a favorable impression during a voluntary three-day minicamp on a tryout basis and was subsequently signed to compete for the job.
Stahovich comes to training camp battle tested. He lost a competition for the Indianapolis Colts’ job to Pat McAfee last season. Stahovich was the first punter in San Diego State history to earn first-team honors in the Mountain West Conference. He averaged 42 yards on 246 career collegiate punts.
The kicking jobs won’t be the only ones up for grabs at camp. Given that special teams players usually come from the bottom half of the roster, it’s not unusual for that phase of the game to see substantial turnover in the offseason.
The Bills will have to replace special teams captain Corey McIntyre and gunner Ruvell Martin, both of whom the team opted not to re-sign.
Buffalo does return its top three special teams tacklers from last season in Brad Smith (12), Nigel Bradham (10) and Chris White (nine). Cornerback Ron Brooks finished tied for fourth with Martin with seven special teams tackles despite missing the first half of the season because of a foot injury.
Smith, who is part of a tight roster battle on offense at wide receiver, had a healthy 27.6-yard average on 18 kick returns last season, including a touchdown. He could replace Martin as the primary gunner, and his versatility is his best hope to earn a roster spot.
Smith, though, isn’t the only option as a kick returner. Speedy wideouts Marquise Goodwin and T.J. Graham handled the job in college, with Graham setting an Atlantic Coast Conference record with 3,153 yards on 137 returns (23 yards per return).
Leodis McKelvin is in line to start defensively at the No. 2 cornerback position, as well as resume his job as the team’s punt returner. McKelvin has flourished in that role over the past two seasons, returning 31 punts for 587 yards (18.9-yard average) and three touchdowns. He also had the best kick return average on the team in 2012, as his 28.3-yard average on 18 attempts was slightly better than Smith’s number. It would be a surprise, however, to see McKelvin start the season doing both jobs, especially given his defensive role.
Elsewhere, long snapper Garrison Sanborn is one of the best in the league and, barring injury, his job is safe. The Bills also have a weapon in the middle of the line in defensive tackle Alex Carrington, who blocked four kicks last season.