Can the Bills afford to keep a kickoff specialist on the 53-man roster?
The debate continues after Potter’s pair of touchbacks during the Bills’ loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Saturday night.
Potter, a Grand Haven native, is 8 for 8 so far this summer in kicking off out of the end zone for a touchback.
“Going from college where you’re kicking from the 30 to kicking from the 35, I definitely expected to consistently hit touchbacks,” Potter said. “Especially this time of year is the best time of year to be kicking. The weather’s always good. In preseason you’re kicking at night, and that helps a lot. There’s usually no wind at night, and warmer weather helps.”
Expecting Potter to be perfect over an entire regular season is not realistic. The top touchback kicker in the NFL last season, Denver’s Matt Prater, booted them at a 70 percent rate. About half of those came in Denver’s thinner air. The next three best kickers were between 66 and 69 percent.
Let’s say Potter can be at the top of the league, at about 70 percent touchbacks. That would mean the Bills would have to cover about 32 fewer kickoffs than last season.
The Bills had to cover 56 of 79 kickoffs last year. At a 70 percent touchback rate and given the league average of 78 kickoffs per team, that would mean they would cover only 24 returns this year. That’s a lot fewer.
However, it would not mean a net gain of many yards. Buffalo had the best kickoff coverage in the league last year, holding foes to 20.4 yards per return. The coverage compensated for the fact the Bills had the fourth-lowest touchback rate (26 percent) in the league.
How about limiting scoring chances? If a team takes possession on its own 35-yard line or beyond, that creates an improved chance of turning the drive into points.
Only four times last season did the Bills allow opponents to start at the 35 or beyond after a kickoff (not counting onside or squib kickoffs).
Here’s another factor to consider: The Bills face a strong cast of kickoff return men this season. Joe McKnight of the Jets, who the Bills meet in the season opener, led the NFL last season with a return average of 31.6 yards. McKnight had a 59-yard return against the Bills on Nov. 27. It cost the Bills a field goal and tipped the field position for five minutes of the game.
Amazingly, that was the only kickoff return the Bills allowed all season that crossed the opposition’s 40-yard line.
Would the Bills want to keep Potter on the roster just for the opener?
In Week Three, the Bills face Cleveland’s Josh Cribbs, whose eight return TDs are the NFL career record. They also face San Francisco’s Ted Ginn, who ranked third in the NFL last season, Miami’s dangerous Clyde Gates (twice) and Seattle’s Leon Washington, who has seven career KO return TDs.
Are these considerations enough to keep Potter?
It’s a question for coach Chan Gailey, not the 22-year-old from Western Michigan.
“That is why we brought him in here, to see if he could make a difference in our football team, and so far he has done what has been expected of him,” Gailey said prior to Saturday’s contest. “He has two more games to keep proving it; one indoor and one outdoor, so we will see.”
“You can’t think about things that aren’t in your control,” Potter said. “You just have to go out there, and my goal is to kick every kick a touchback.