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Pro Football Weekly’s 2018 Specialist rankings

July 8, 2018

Pro Football Weekly’s player rankings are compiled with the help of NFL evaluators and coaches, with input from the entire PFW staff. Players are ranked on their performances to date at positions they’ve played and are not projected at new positions which they might move. Rookies are not included in the rankings. NFL personnel participated on condition of anonymity.

We continue our player ratings with PFW’s top 10 specialists. For the full rankings (1-28) and player ratings for every position, along with team-by-team season previews, get our Pro Football Weekly NFL Preview Magazine on newsstands now and online.

PLACEKICKERS

1. Stephen Gostkowski, Patriots

At a position where the rankings are jumbled almost every season, Gostkowski has been the NFL’s best placekicker for some time now. Following the 2016 season, one of his shakiest, Gostkowski bounced back with a big year in ’17. He finised second in the NFL in scoring — with 156 points, just two behind Greg Zuerlein — by nailing 37-of-40 field goals, including 4-of-4 from 50 or beyond, and a long of 62, plus 45-of-47 PATs. It will be interesting to see how the Pats handle him when his contract expires after this season. Gostkowski is 34 and will earn $3.5 million this year, and remember, 12 years ago, the Patriots cut Adam Vinatieri at 33, rather than pay him, and they replaced him with Gostkowski. Of course, Vinatieri has been in Indianapolis ever since and is still going strong.

2. Justin Tucker, Ravens

Tucker is an easy choice here, as he was sixth in scoring last season — with exactly 141 points for the second season in a row — just one point behind Chris Boswell and Harrison Butker for fourth in the league, after he led the league in 2016. But more importantly, Tucker is the most accurate long-distance kicker in the game by far, having hit 33-of-47 from the 50 or beyond in his career and 15-of-17 over just the past two seasons, including a perfect 10-of-10 in 2016. Last season Tucker was 34-of-37 on FGs and perfect on 39 PATs. Tucker is also known as one of the best clutch kickers in the game.

3. Greg Zuerlein, Rams

“Greg The Leg” was a sensation his first two years in the league with the Rams in St. Louis, but then threw in a real clunker in 2015, his fourth NFL season. He bounced back nicely in ’16, before putting up a monster campaign a year ago. His 158 points in 2017 led the NFL, as he hit 38-of-40 field goals and 44-of-46 PATs. Zuerlein was 6-of-7 from the 50 or beyond on field goals and 18-of-19 from the 40 or beyond.

4. Robbie Gould, 49ers

The history of the NFL is full of placekickers who were outstanding in one place for a long time, had one off year and were released, only to rebound in another city and return to excellence. The 49ers’ Robbie Gould — who left Chicago after 11 seasons as the Bears’ all-time leading scorer — was that guy in 2017. Gould finished third in the league in scoring with 145 points, hitting 39-of-41 FG attempts and 28-of-30 PAT attempts.

5. Harrison Butker, Chiefs

The “ButtKicker.com,” as he is affectionately known now in Kansas City, was another great feel- good story last season. As a rookie, Butker tied the Steelers’ Chris Boswell for fourth in the league in scoring last year with 142 points, after he was signed off the Panthers’ practice squad following the third week of the season, when Cairo Santos went down with a groin problem. Butker hit on 38-of-42 field-goal attempts on the season — his 38 field goals established an NFL rookie record — and he was 28-of-28 on extra points.

PUNTERS

1. Johnny Hekker, Rams

Punter is the one position in the game where one stat clearly separates the best from the rest. At the end of the day, net average is a clear indication of which punter did the best work changing the field position for his team — and Hekker has led the league two of the past three seasons. His net averages of 43.7 in 2015 and an amazing 46.0 in 2016 paced the game, before finishing second last year at 44.3 — three-tenths of a yard off Tennessee P Brett Kern’s lead. Hekker also led the league with a stunning 51 punts downed inside the 20, with only only one touchback in 2016, after leading the league in 2015 by pinning 41 punts inside the 20. Hekker’s yield of 152 return yards last year on 65 punts was also among the league’s best.

2. Brett Kern, Titans

Kern, while always possessing a big leg, had never been a special punter until he led the NFL last season in net average at 44.6 on 75 punts, and his gross average was a stunning 49.7. Kern has always had the talent, averaging 47.4 (gross) in 2015, 47.6 in 2012 and 46.7 in 2008, his rookie year in Denver. The Broncos traded him to the Titans in 2009, and he has been there ever since.

3. Marquette King, Broncos

King is one of the more flamboyant punters in the NFL, possessing one of the game’s biggest legs, as witnessed by his 47.4-yard gross average last season, just a notch below the 48.6-yard gross he hung up in 2016. What was equally impressive by King last season is he was third in the league in net average (42.7), while dropping 40.6 percent of his punts inside the 20. What is unknown is why Jon Gruden suddenly released the very popular punter last spring with no explanation — though King’s flamboyance and bad habit of accruing personal fouls surely played a part — and how much better he will now be kicking eight times a year in the Denver altitude.

4. Sam Koch, Ravens

Koch does not possess the big leg of our other top punters, as evidenced by his 44.8-yard gross average and 40.3 net last season, but he has been one of the NFL’s best at pinning opponents deep in their own end of the field for some time. Last season Koch dropped a league-best 40 punts inside the 20, accounting for 47.6 percent of his total punts, second only to Dallas’ Chris Jones. With just three touchbacks, Kock’s inside-the-20-to-touchback ratio was also the NFL’s best.

5. Rigoberto Sanchez, Colts

There wasn’t a lot to celebrate in Indianapolis last season, but the arrival of Sanchez, the rookie Hawaii product, marked a rare bright spot. Sanchez’s 42.6-yard net average was fourth in the league, and he appears to be one of the more promising directional punters to come along in a while.

KICK/PUNT RETURNERS

1. Pharoh Cooper, Rams

With all of the focus on Sean McVay’s explosive new offense in Los Angeles last year, not nearly enough credit was paid to WR-RS Pharoh Cooper, an easy choice as the game’s top returner, and all of the excellent field position he generates for Jared Goff and Co. Cooper led the NFL in kickoff returns, bringing back 34 kicks for a 27.4-yard average, including a 103-yard house call. Cooper also finished second in the league in punt returns, handling 32 for a 12.5-yard average, with a long of 53, and fair catching just eight. Cooper is also a promising wide receiver, but right now, the Rams believe he is returning more than enough value in the kick-return games.

2. Jamal Agnew, Lions

Agnew was more of a one-trick pony than Cooper, specializing in punt returns, but he was the NFL’s best in that department in 2017, when the sixth-round rookie brought back 29 punts for a 15.4-yard average, including a pair of touchdowns. Agnew had 16 fair catches — twice as many as Cooper — but given any kind of a seam, he is a threat to take one all the way on every punt he returns.

3. Trevor Davis, Packers

Like Cooper, Davis is a developing wideout, but he more than earns his keep returning kicks and punts, who ranked near the top of the league in both categories. Davis was third in the league last year returning punts, bringing back 24 for a 12.0-yard average, but he did have 22 fair catches. On kickoffs, Davis finished seventh, with 31 returns for a 22.8-yard average.

4. Tyreek Hill, Chiefs

Hill slowed a bit last season in this area, averaging 8.2 yards on 25 punt returns, fair catching only nine and not returning kickoffs at all. But he burst onto the NFL scene as a rookie in 2016 with two punt-return touchdowns and one kickoff-return score. He led the league with a 15.5-yard punt-return average and would have been third in kickoffs, at 27.2, if he had enough attempts to qualify. Most impressively, his special-teams coach is Dave Toub, who also coached the greatest returner of all time, Devin Hester, over his entire career in Chicago. Toub has said he thinks Hill can be as good or better than Hester.

5. Tyler Lockett, Seahawks

Lockett had a bit of an off year in 2017, when he relinquished his kickoff-return duties and managed just 6.6 yards on 36 punt returns, with 21 fair catches. But we’re not writing him off yet, as the dip followed two excellent seasons to begin his NFL career. Lockett was sixth in the league in kickoff returns in 2016, when he averaged 26.3 yards (long of 46), and he finished 10th returning punts, with an 8.2-yard average and a long of 62. Lockett had 22 fair catches to go with his 29 returns, and he was the most productive of the few two-way return men in both 2015 and 2016.

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