Draft Series: Special teams

Draft Series: Special teams

Kevin Spencer was named NFL Special Teams Coach of the Year in a vote of his peers, and his boss is pleased.<br><br> Steelers coach Bill Cowher said he's not considering a new kicker, even though Jeff Reed struggled last season and is coming off hip surgery.<br><br> "I don't foresee it," Cowher said. "We have not talked about kickers yet and I don't know what the situation is there. I'm not going to say we wouldn't, but we are not dissatisfied with Jeff."

If Cowher's happy with Reed, he's happy with the special teams because Reed was the weak link last season.

After making 17 of 19 field goals as a rookie, Reed went through a sophomore slump. He made 23 of 32 field goals last season and will miss minicamp after undergoing surgery.

When Reed returns, he'll be joined by a new punter. Cowher upgraded the position by giving a $1.1 million bonus to Chris Gardocki. The Steelers also re-signed long-snapper Mike Schneck with a $100,000 signing bonus.

With punt returner Antwaan Randle El coming off a strong finish in 2003, all but one of the special-teams principals are in place. The Steelers will wait until after the draft to decide whether coverage ace Chidi Iwuoma, a free agent, still has a place on the team.

Iwuoma was one of the main reasons the Steelers were third in the NFL in punt coverage (6.4 yards per return), seventh in net punting (36.0 yards) and eighth in kickoff coverage (20.6 yards per return).

One area the Steelers could improve upon is kickoff returns. With Ike Taylor and Randle El handling the bulk of the duty, the Steelers averaged 20.7 yards and ranked 25th in the league.

RIGHT GUY, RIGHT ROUND
Second round - Would Devery Henderson (5-11 ½, 198, 4.37) of LSU be a too big of a luxury as a kickoff returner at this point? But wouldn't this jitterbug be the ideal receiver for a first-round pick such as Phillip Rivers? And couldn't a cornerback be found in the third round? And one last question: Would you like to see Cowher's head explode on live TV?

Fifth round - Kendrick Starling (6-0 5/8, 193, 4.39) of San Jose State is the same size as Lee Mays of the Steelers, but recently ran a pair of sub-4.4 40s on grass in football shoes. Starling doesn't play as fast as he times, but averaged 28.1 yards per kickoff return and could upgrade the spot while developing as a receiver.

Fifth round - Dexter Wynn (5-9 ¼, 175, 4.55) was a two-time all-conference kickoff returner and one-time all-conference cornerback at Colorado State.

Sixth round - J.R. Reed (5-10 ½, 203, 4.56) of South Florida led the nation with a 32.2 kickoff return average and also made 100 tackles as South Florida's free safety. This three-year starter has great instincts and would be an ideal ball hawk-in-waiting.

Sixth round - Tony Bua (5-11 ¼, 209, 4.67) was moved from outside linebacker to strong safety at Arkansas last year and made 126 tackles to make first-team All-SEC and break Ken Hamlin's school career tackles record. Bua would be a liability in coverage, but not in kick coverage, where he's been compared to former Dallas coverage ace Bill Bates.

Free agent - Luke Lawton (5-11 ½, 237, 4.55) played fullback at McNeese State and has above average running and receiving skills. He needs help with his blocking, but could be useful as a long-snapper. The Steelers would eventually like to find a long-snapper who can play another position, and the back-up fullback job is wide open.

THE LOCALS
David Kimball of Penn State was a Parade All-American at State College High School, but didn't live up to his potential in college. He made only 2-of-8 career attempts, but opened eyes at the combine with his leg strength. He'll be invited to a camp as a kickoff specialist.

Andy Lee of Pitt is a two-time all-Big East punter and averaged a career-high 44.1 yards on 77 punts last season. A two-step punter, Lee will also find his way into an NFL camp, and could be a late draft pick.

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