Camp Countdown, presented by Connors & Ferris, will examine some of the more pressing questions facing the team on the field, and players who could make a difference as the team makes its final preparations for the 2020 regular season. We also focus on a few different areas that impact the team off the field. We'll examine these issues one at a time until training camp begins. Here now is the latest daily installment as we carefully seek some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 29th and the opener on Sept. 13th.
It was a year of improvement in many areas for Buffalo's special teams in 2019. Under new coordinator Heath Farwell, the Bills raised their collective play on special teams. Most notably in kick return average (5th), punts downed inside the 20 (4th), kickoff starting point (2nd) and fewest penalties (1st) with half (10) of what they had a season prior (20).
But as GM Brandon Beane said at the team's season-ending press conference last January, though there were improvements, there are still more strides to be made in the special teams phase of the game.
Here are three reasons why Buffalo's special teams should continue to raise their level of play in 2020 and become a more complete unit.
Scroll through to get a look at Buffalo's roster in numerical order as it currently stands. After making the playoffs in 2019, the Bills had some roster turnover with free agency and the NFL Draft prior to the 2020 season.
Second year in scheme
After six seasons of playing under the same special teams scheme of former coordinator Danny Crossman, it took Buffalo's specialists some time to adjust to the new system under Farwell. Even for Farwell, who was a first-time play caller in his new role with the Bills, there was a period in which he had to find his groove.
"I think it was gradual, where I just realized I can do this," Farwell said. "It wasn't overwhelming for me. I was just kind of working through the process of calling a game. And (assistant special teams coach) Matthew Smiley, has just done an unbelievable job. He's right there with me and really has kind of progressed and our units in general just came along as we went."
Now Farwell and Smiley know whom they can trust on the field with a firm working knowledge of most of their personnel.
"I feel like there was a lot of improvement and I realize there's a lot to go," Farwell said. "I've just got a year under my belt, but I feel like I definitely have a lot different mindset going into year two."
That confidence combined with the players' familiarity of the schemes should serve the unit well when it comes to addressing some of the areas still in need of improvement.
"I think I learned to just be more aggressive," he said. "To sit back and let things happen to us… and that's part of my progression. To be more aggressive. To kind of figure out a way to not be on my heels as a young coordinator and make sure we're aggressive and taking advantage when we see situations."
Every NFL special teams unit relies largely on younger players. They're usually the up and coming players on offense and defense, who aren't quite ready for a starting role in the game's other two phases, so their athleticism is put to good use on special teams. But there is also a core of veteran players who not only lead the special teams unit but are consistent playmakers.
The Bills have leaned on vets like Pat DiMarco and Andre Roberts, but with the retirement of Lorenzo Alexander, Buffalo made a point of fortifying Farwell's group with playmaking experience.
Buffalo signed Taiwan Jones for a second stint with the club after he spent last season in Houston as a major special teams contributor. And they added the most productive special teams cover player in the entire league the last four seasons in LB Tyler Matakevich.
No player has more tackles on special teams than Matakevich, whom the Bills signed away from Pittsburgh in free agency.
"I've just got a nose for the ball," he said. "Wherever the ball is as soon as you see ball, go get ball. People always ask me, 'What do you do?' I really just tell them, 'Man I'm just running down there as fast as I can. I'm not going to let anybody block me and I'm going to beat you to the ball.' That's what I love about special teams. You don't have 70 snaps out there to run down there on kick off. You've only got maybe like three or four, so you got to make them count."
"He is a guy every time you put the tape on, he is an animal, he flies," said Farwell. "It jumps off the screen. He plays with passion and toughness. Last season we played against them and I remember, we have these pre week meetings, a Tuesday and I meet with Coach McDermott and I used to give him the early evaluation of who we got to block and the tough players and he's the guy I identified. This guy is tough. He is a matchup problem.
Buffalo was a pedestrian 18th in kick coverage and 23rd in punt coverage. With Jones and Matakevich added to the Bills coverage units, there figures to be a lot less room to exploit for opposing returners.
Competition in the kicking game
Over the last two seasons the Bills have ranked 26th and 20th in field goal percentage, and they've ranked near the bottom of the league in net punting average. The coaching staff has faith in veteran kicker Stephen Hauschka, who finished the season strong, and in Corey Bojorquez, who has NFL ability, but has yet to develop consistency in his game.
That's why Buffalo drafted Tyler Bass and signed Kaare Vedvik.
Farwell has stated that both the kicking job and punting job will be open competitions, though he also mentioned that it's Hauschka's job to lose on the kicking side.
But the Bills see competition as a way to raise all boats. It pushes everyone to be their best every time they step out on the practice or game field.
"We definitely wanted to have going to camp with two punters and two kickers," said Beane.
The kickoff abilities of both Bass and Vedvik could play a role in the way the coaching staff ultimately leans in choosing a kicker and punter this summer for their regular season roster if all other part of the competition are largely even.
Buffalo's touchback percentage ranked 18th last season, and it is something they wish to improve.