Visualizing the Special Teams Gunner
NFL special teams players may not be household names, but they play a valuable role in their team’s success. One key special teams player is the punt-team “gunner” – a player who lines up near the sideline, with the goal of moving downfield as fast as possible to eventually tackle the punt returner. The main challenge of being a gunner – there’s usually at least one defender in your way.
"You're trying to beat two guys in what amounts to a running street fight at a sprint,” said Steve Tasker, to Esquire Magazine. Tasker would know – as a seven-time Pro Bowler and five-time first-team All-Pro, he’s considered one of the best gunners in NFL history.
Though it’s difficult to highlight Tasker’s effectiveness today without the help of video, we can use Next Gen Stats to compare and contrast how today’s gunners operate.
For example, we took the player from each team who has played the gunner role most often for his team in 2019 (Weeks 1 to 7). Below is each player's path, standardized so that they are starting at the same line of scrimmage (moving from the bottom of the image to the top), and using only punts in which each gunner was defended by one player only. Players are arranged in order by who covered the most vertical distance on their coverages in the first 4.5 seconds after the punt, with Justin Bethel (formerly with the Baltimore Ravens, now with the New England Patriots) traveling the furthest in the top left, and George Odom (Indianapolis Colts) traveling the shortest in the bottom right.
One aspect that stands out is how while some gunners only line up on certain sides (Ameer Abdullah on the Minnesota Vikings favors the offense’s left side, while the Cleveland Browns’ KhaDarel Hodge lines up on the right, for example), others like New England’s Matthew Slater are equally likely to line up on either side. In the chart, the typical gunner appears on about 25 punt plays.
Although tough to determine in the chart, the effectiveness of certain gunners in moving downfield is interesting. Players in the top row, for example, are about 28 yards downfield, roughly six yards further ahead than players in the bottom row.
Finally, with Bethel recently signing with the Patriots, New England now boasts two of the league’s fastest gunners (Slater is a seven-time Pro Bowler).
Other interesting gunner tidbits?
- Matthew Slater, Josh Bellamy (New York Jets) and Brandon Wilson (Cincinnati Bengals) each have been double teamed by defenders 15 times, leading the league.
- Against single defenders, no one travels quicker in the play's first two seconds than Johnny Holton Jr. of the Pittsburgh Steelers. At that point, Holton is an average of 7.7 yards downfield, typically about 0.4 yards in front of the next fastest gunner at that point (Slater).
- When facing two defenders, Dee Virgin (Detroit Lions) and Trenton Cannon (New York Jets) are the only two gunners to average being at least 20 yards downfield at the 4.5-second mark after a snap.
- The Miami Dolphins lead the league in the rate with which they double team at least one gunner, doing so on 62 percent of punts. Alternatively, the New Orleans Saints put two defenders on a gunner on only 20 percent of opponent punts.