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Ranking the AFC North: Special teams

Is Justin Tucker the greatest NFL kicker of all time?

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers
Justin Tucker
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Outstanding special teams play has been a hallmark for AFC North teams for as long as most of us can remember, and at least some teams in the division will continue to be among the leaders in the NFL through the coming season. Picking the best of this group is not an easy job, but here it goes.

1. Baltimore Ravens

Jerry Rosburg, a 39-year coaching veteran, is beginning his 10th season at the Ravens’ special teams coordinator. Not to mention, John Harbaugh started as a special teams coach himself. During that span of time, the Ravens have produced the NFL’s top kickoff return average of 25.2 yards. Baltimore has posted eight total kick return touchdowns (four via punt return and four more from kickoff returns) and ranks as the NFL’s fourth best in that department.

During his tenure, six Ravens have earned Pro Bowl honors, including kicker Justin Tucker and long snapper Morgan Cox, who have two selections each. During the past five seasons, Ravens special teams units have consistently ranked among the league’s best. Baltimore is the only team in the NFL to have been ranked in the NFL’s Top 5 in the annual special teams report from The Dallas Morning News for the past five years in a row, including first in 2015.

Tucker, the man who NFL analyst Gil Brandt recently named as the greatest kicker of all time, is the individual leader for the Ravens. Tucker went 38 or 39 on field goal attempts last year, with his only miss coming on a blocked field goal. Tucker has a career long of 61, which he hit in 2013, but went 10-for-10 from 50 or more yards away last season to tie an NFL record.

And Tucker has certainly earned such lofty praise. He currently ranks first all-time in field goal percentage at 89.8% and has never missed an extra point kick, going 166-for-166 so far. Tucker won a Super Bowl with the Ravens in 2013, is a two-time Pro-Bowler and was named first-team All-Pro on two occasions, as well.

Sam Koch, who is in his 12th season with the Ravens, handles the punting duties. Koch has not had a punt blocked since 2013, and has only seen three punts blocked during his entire career. But Koch has struggled lately. His net punting average of 39.9 last year was down a full three yards from the previous year.

The Ravens will feature Chris Moore, Michael Campanaro and Lardarius Webb at kick and punt returner this year.

Baltimore’s top special teams tackler last year was linebacker Patrick Onwuasor, who finished with 11. No other Raven finished among the NFL’s top 80 special teams tacklers.

2. Cincinnati Bengals

Darrin Simmons is in his 15th season leading Cincinnati’s special teams. His units helped the Bengals reach the playoffs five times in the last six seasons and have three top-10 finishes in the last five years in the annual special teams rankings of the Dallas Morning News.

Randy Bullock, a sixth-year player out of Texas A&M, is the incumbent kicker for the Bengals, and last year had his highest field goal accuracy of any season in the NFL or in college, with just under 90%, although those numbers were based on only nine field goal attempts.

The Bengals picked Bullock up for the final three games of the 2016 season and he responded by making all six of his extra-point attempts. Bullock also went 5-for-6 on field goals, with his only miss coming on what would have been the game winner against Houston in Week 16.

Bullock won the kicking competition decisively this summer and the Bengals are keeping Jake Elliott around on the practice squad after drafting him early this year.

Kevin Huber has been one of the best punters in Bengals’ history. He was selected to the Pro Bowl after a stellar 2014 season in which he averaged 42.1 net yards per punt, put 37 percent of his punts within the 20 yard line, and only put up an eight percent touchback frequency. By 2016, though, Huber’s net average was down to 39.5, his percentage inside the 20 was down to 29.5, and his touchback percentage was up to 10.3.

Alex Erickson was the No. 1 kick returner in the AFC last year in terms of yards per return at 27.9. Only Minnesota’s Cordarrelle Patterson recorded more yards per return than Erickson, although he did not see as many return opportunities (25) as Erickson (29). Only Chicago’s Deonte Thompson, with 35, and Detroit’s Andre Roberts, with 33, returned more kickoffs than Erickson, although neither came close to his average yard per return.

As a whole, the Bengals’ special teams unit ranked No. 2 in total kick return yards (1,003), No. 3 in kick return average (25.7), and No. 3 in returns of 20 yards or more (26) in 2016.

Cornerback Josh Shaw had nine special teams tackles to lead the corps of returners into the 2017 season and looks to take on a leadership role this year on special teams.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers

Danny Smith became special teams coordinator for the Steelers in 2014. In 2016, kicker Chris Boswell tied the franchise’s regular-season record for the most field goals made in a single game with six in a game against Cincinnati. In that same game, Boswell set the franchise record for most field goals made from 40 yards or longer in a single game with five. That tied an NFL record set by Mason Crosby of the Green Bay Packers in 2015.

Boswell also holds Steeler franchise records for most field goals made by a rookie or first-year player with 29, most points scored in a season by a rookie/first-year kicker for points with 113 and best field goal percentage by a rookie/first-year kicker at 90.6. He also set an NFL record for the most field goals by a rookie/first-year player in a playoff game with four in the 2016 Wild Card game victory over the Bengals.

Boswell shares franchise records for the most consecutive games played while scoring at least 10 points and for field goals completed in the post-season.

During the 2016 season, Boswell, in a game against Cincinnati, became the first kicker in NFL history to convert at least six field goals in a game and have five of those connect from at least 40 yards. In the divisional playoff game against Kansas City last year, Boswell set a playoff record by kicking six field goals.

Punter Jordan Berry has shown continual improvement during his first two years in the league and has seen his yards per punt jump from 42.6 yards in 2015 to 45.6 yards last year.

The Steelers’ kick returners this year are JuJu Smith-Schuster, Artie Burns and Terrell Watson and at punt returner Antonio Brown and Eli Rogers.

Linebacker Tyler Matakevich led the Steelers in special teams tackles last year with 13, linebacker Vince Williams contributed 11 and fullback Roosevelt Nix finished with nine.

4. Cleveland Browns

Chris Tabor is in his seventh season as the Browns’ special teams coordinator. Since his arrival in 2011, the Browns rank second in the NFL in punt return average (10.6), fourth in kickoff return average against (21.7), eighth in total kick return yards (7,963), tied for eighth in punt return touchdowns (four) and ninth in total return yards allowed (6,674). That’s not too bad when you consider how bad the Browns have been in that span.

The Browns are the only team to have had at least one player earn the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week award each season since 2011. All told, Browns players have won seven such awards during Tabor’s tenure.

Highly-touted Zane Gonzalez was selected in the seventh round of the 2017 NFL Draft and beat out Cody Parkey for the job in Cleveland.

Gonzalez was a first-team All-American selection at Arizona State and won the 2016 Lou Groza Award as the nation’s top collegiate kicker after connecting on all but two of his 25 field goal attempts. He led the nation with 14 field goals of at least 40 yards and was seven-for-nine from 50 yards out. His longest kick came from 59 yards.

The Browns turned to punter Britton Colquitt last season after trading three-time Pro-Bowler Andy Lee to the Carolina Panthers. Colquitt, who set a Browns single-season record with a net punting average of 40.31 in 2016, also landed 22 punts inside the 20-yard line and had just two touchbacks on 83 punts.

At kick returner, the Browns are going with rookie Jabrill Peppers and new addition wide receiver Sammie Coates. At punt returner, it will be Peppers and Reggie Davis. Peppers, the former Michigan safety who the Browns selected in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft, had 18 kick returns for an average of 26.8 yards per return last year.

The top two players in special teams tackles for the Browns last year were linebacker Joe Schobert with 13 and wide receiver Ricardo Louis with seven.