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Myth busting: Cody Latimer is a great special teams player(?)

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NFL: Oakland Raiders at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

I will note that Latimer was our special teams captain when he was active last season (if I remember correctly), but I keep hearing these lines repeated about Cody Latimer.

He’s an integral part of our special teams

and

He’s one of the best gunners in the league

Is he really that good? How do we go about verifying this? To do this we need to look at the role of gunner on the punt team and we also have to look at his role on kickoff coverage. So let’s start with the punt team.

The gunner is one of the two players lined up wide of the formation in most punt formations (you can pack 10 guys in together and have no gunners if you are worried about a concerted block attempt). Generally each gunner will be “covered” by one player on the punt return team. The job of the gunner is to get down the field as quickly as possible while avoiding the blocker(s) who is (are) doing everything in his (their) power to impede his progress down field. If the gunner manages to elude the blocks and times it right, it can lead to spectacular bone-jarring tackles of the punt returner (should the returner choose to field the punt and not call for a fair catch). In the instances when the returner decides to let the punt go, it is usually the gunner who is the man responsible for downing a punt inside the 10, since they are allowed by rule to be down the field before the rest of the punt coverage team. To get a punt downed inside the 5 (or the 10) requires a combination of skill, luck and great gunners.

We had only three punts downed inside the 5 in 2016. With access to NFL rewind, I can go back and look at the actual punts that we had downed inside the 10 (and the 5) to see who was the first Bronco to get to the ball. We had 7 more punts downed between the 5 and the 10. For the interest of time, I’m just going focus on the three that were downed inside the 5. Two happened in the Jacksonville game. Kayvon Webster was caught the first at the three. The punt was directed towards his side of the field. So we can’t fault Latimer for not getting to/catching/downing this one. The second one was almost a replay of the first with Dixon kicking it towards the left front pylon and Kayvon Webster catching the ball out of the air at the 5. The third and final punt that we downed inside the five in 2016 was against Tennessee. Latimer was down to cover it but not soon enough; it would have gone into the endzone for a touchback if Dixon hadn’t put spin on it to get it to hit at the one and back back towards the field of play.

Webster actually ends up downing it, but I’ll give Latimer credit for being the first of the two gunners down on this punt. So we weren’t very good at pinning teams inside the 5 last season (we were 24th in % of punts downed inside the 5). While we can’t blame that on Cody Latimer, if he were one of the best gunners in the league, it would stand to reason that we would have had more of these (unless we have a punter who isn’t very good at precision kicking - you can read about that in my Riley Dixon review from a few month back).

So what other way might we measure the effectiveness of gunners on punt coverage? Tackles is the easiest. Here are the punt coverage tackles for the whole team for 2016

2016 punt coverage tackles
Corey Nelson 5
Bennie Fowler 5
Dekoda Watson 4
Justin Simmons 4
Zaire Anderson 3
Quentin Gause 2
Kayvon Webster 2
Andy Janovich 2
Will Parks 2
Shaquil Barrett 2
Cody Latimer 2
Casey Kreiter 1
Jordan Taylor 1
Shiloh Keo 1
Thomas Gafford 1

Despite being the gunner for the 12 games where he played in 2016, Latimer was only credited with two punt coverage tackles. Bennie Fowler and Corey Nelson both had five. I think that Fowler was the other gunner opposite Kayvon Webster when Latimer was not playing (Latimer was inactive for games 7-9 and game 11 last season). We could give Latimer the benefit of the doubt and assume that he was the focus of the punt returns double teams (if they chose to double one of our gunners), but he didn’t account for very many punt coverage tackles (neither did Kayvon though). The league doesn’t keep track of times a coverage guy was down in the returners face so quickly that he “forced” a fair catch. Maybe this is where Cody Latimer is elite, but nobody outside of Dove Valley keeps track of that?

So maybe he was an ace on kickoff coverage? No, not really. Here are the kickoff coverage tackles from last season (keeping in mind that we didn’t have that many kickoffs returned against us because our kicker has a leg capable of knocking kickoffs into the stands, even at sea level).

2016 Denver KO Coverage Tackles
Dekoda Watson 5
Will Parks 3
Brandon McManus 2
Kayvon Webster 2
Kapri Bibbs 2
Cody Latimer 1
Juwan Thompson 1
Jordan Taylor 1
Zaire Anderson 1
Corey Nelson 1
Justin Simmons 1
Shaquil Barrett 1

So Latimer was credited with one tackle on kickoff coverage. That doesn’t sound like an ace to me. For comparison, Dekoda Watson, who is now trying to make the 49ers team as a special teams ace, had five. Brandon McManus had two. The pushback here is that if Latimer is outside man on kickoff coverage (and I can’t remember if he was an outside guy or one of the middle of the field guys), his job is to funnel the returner to the inside where the tackle should be made. He can be doing a really good job on kickoff coverage AND not make many tackles. So I picked a game where Latimer was active (game 1) and watched the kickoffs to see where he was. It appeared that he was on the edge. Interestingly, Latimer made his lone kickoff coverage tackle on the opening play of the season - the opening kickoff against Carolina.

Later in that same game, Latimer is NOT the outside guy (Parks is)

But Latimer does end up as the outside man (contain guy) in this shot after the ball has travelled into the stands

So you’ve seen the evidence? Do you think that Cody Latimer is a special teams’ ace? If so, is that enough to keep him on the roster this year?

Poll

What are your thoughts?

This poll is closed

  • 46%
    Latimer is not a special teams ace and he won’t make the roster
    (284 votes)
  • 32%
    He is not really an ace on special teams, but he will still make the roster
    (197 votes)
  • 8%
    He is an ace on special teams, but that is not enough to get him a roster spot this year
    (50 votes)
  • 13%
    He is an ace on special teams and that along with his growing usage in the offense will get him on the roster
    (84 votes)
615 votes total Vote Now