In 2012 nothing was more maligned on the Houston Texans than their special teams unit. They blocked zero punts last year, had just 28 punts land within 20 yards of the opponent’s end zone, tied for 19th in the league with just five touchbacks, allowed the second-most kick return yards in the NFL (1,595), tied for the most returned punts and kicks for a touchdown (3) and made just 81.6 percent of their field goals.
Thankfully, two of the players that contributed to these statistics are no longer with the team. Shayne Graham (the 2012 kicker) and Donnie Jones (the 2012 punter) have been let go, and the Texans have made significant additions in those positions.
In what I think should be in the running for the best move of the offseason made by the Texans, Shane Lechler was quietly signed from the free agent market after playing for the Oakland Raiders for 13 seasons. In that time he’s made nine Pro Bowls, punted over 1,000 times, never missed a game, had a punt that traveled 80 yards, and averaged over 50 yards per punt twice. If that’s not impressive to you, then I don’t know what is. Even last year at the age of 36 he punted 81 times with an average of 47.2 yards per punt and 3826 total yards punted.
Lechler is extremely respected around the league and is a native Texan that went to college at Texas A&M. Special teams coach Joe Marciano is entering his 12th year with the Texans and has never had a punter like this on his team.
“I’m excited to have Shane with us. I’ve coached against him a long time, watched him punt a long time and there’s no doubt he’s one of the top five punters in the league for the last five years.”
Lechler will also serve as the holder for Randy Bullock, the “sort-of” rookie kicker for the Texans this season. Lechler has previously performed this duty for Sebastian Janikowski (who has been one of the best kickers in the league for the past decade).
I say that Bullock is a “sort-of” rookie for the Texans because he was drafted in 2012 but then missed the entire 2012 season with a torn groin (ouch). Bullock is also a former Aggie (I see a theme developing here, sort of like the Wisconsin tight end theme) and won the Lou Groza Award in 2011 while making 29 of his 33 kicks, including 12-of-14 from 40-49 yards.
Long-snapping for Bullock and Lechler will be veteran Jon Weeks. Weeks is an interesting character, as he was out of football from 2008-2010 before accepting an invite to the 2010 training camp. He turned that into a roster spot and now has 48 career games with the Texans. Marciano is perhaps his biggest fan, as good long snappers usually aren’t well-known in the NFL.
“You take it for granted that Jon’s gonna put that ball there so we can get a punt off, a field goal off where there’s no NFL bloopers on the snap, hold, or kick. That’s not Jon,” Marciano said. “It seems like when the snapper does do something where the ball doesn’t get off, that’s when they know who he is. Jon’s been under the radar and we like it that way.”
Michigan State alum Keshawn Martin is penciled in as the starter at kick and punt return, and he has Shiloh Keo and Daniel Manning backing him up. Martin showed true potential in 2012, averaging 23.8 yards per kick returned and 12.1 yards per punt returned.
Martin should be good enough, but he’s no Jacoby Jones, who the Texans let go in the 2011-2012 offseason because he had not become the No. 2 receiver that they’d drafted him to be. He went on to return a punt in the Super Bowl and be named the 2012 All-Pro Kick Returner. The other player that the Texans let go at returner in 2012? That was Trindon Holiday, who was signed by the Denver Broncos the next day and became the first player in NFL history to return both a punt and a kickoff in a playoff game.
Lechler and Bullock should both be a significant addition to the 2013 Texans, but there are still problems with this unit. Both the coverage and return teams have a tendency to get penalized, and Houston consistently struggles to not give up the big play on special teams. If these two areas improve, the Texans will be extremely hard to beat.