Part 9, ST: The best specialists are Michigan-made
The No. 1 kicker and No. 1 punter were both coached by Jim Harbaugh's son. Also inside: Which returners can bust a game open? Bob McGinn's 39th Annual NFL Draft Series rounds out.
This is the 39th year that Bob McGinn has written an NFL Draft Series. Previously, it appeared in the Green Bay Press-Gazette (1985-’91), the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (1992-’17), BobMcGinnFootball (2018-’19), The Athletic (2020-’21) and, now, GoLongTD.com (2022-’23). Until 2014, personnel people were quoted by name. The series reluctantly adopted an all-anonymous format in 2015 at the request of most scouts.
Today, Part 9: Special Teams.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the leading kicking and punting prospects in the NFL draft hail from Michigan. The Wolverines’ return to Big Ten and national football prominence over the past two seasons has coincided with their excellence on special teams.
Under Jay Harbaugh, who was appointed coordinator of special teams in 2019 by his father, Jim, Michigan has ranked No. 13 in 2019, No. 52 in ’20, No. 1 in ’21 and No. 8 in ’22 among NCAA Division I teams in breakdowns of overall special-teams performance by Football Outsiders.
An overlooked element in the overall resurgence has been the kicking of Jake Moody and the punting of Brad Robbins.
Moody, 23, was a unanimous choice as the top kicker in my poll of seven NFL personnel men and special-teams coordinators.
Robbins, 24, received four of seven votes as top punter compared to two for Michigan State’s Bryce Baringer and one for Oklahoma’s Michael Turk.
Moody and Robbins would become the first kicker and punter drafted from the same school since Utah produced kicker Matt Gay and punter Mitch Wishnowsky in 2019. Gay, a fifth-round selection, has made one Pro Bowl for the Los Angeles Rams whereas Wishnowsky, a fourth-round pick, has posted a net average of 40.9 yards over four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers.
Chad Ryland, who punted seven miles away from the Michigan campus at Eastern Michigan from 2018-’21 before transferring to Maryland last season, also is regarded as an outstanding prospect. It wouldn’t be shocking if he went off before Moody.
The abundance of draft-worthy specialists from the Big Ten this spring is strange. In the past 20 years, just five kickers (Taylor Mehlhaff, Mike Nugent, Dave Rayner, Nate Kaeding, David Kimball) and five punters (Jordan Stout, Brad Nortman, Zoltan Mesko, Brandon Fields, B.J. Sander) have been selected from conference teams.
Michigan has had only two kickers and two punters drafted.
The kickers were Hayden Epstein, seventh round in 2002, and Ali Haji-Sheikh, ninth round in 1983. Epstein kicked in merely 15 games for two teams but Haji-Sheikh, as a rookie for the New York Giants, set an NFL record for most field goals made with 35. Jay Feely, a free agent who made 82.6% of his field goals in a 14-year career (2001-’14) for six teams, is Michigan’s most successful NFL kicker.
Zoltan Mesko, a fifth-round pick in 2010, and Monte Robbins, a fourth-round choice in 1988, were the Wolverines’ only drafted punters. Mesko punted in 55 games for three teams. Robbins was labeled a “mistake” by Tampa Bay coach Ray Perkins after the Buccaneers released him at the conclusion of his first training camp. That was the end of his pro career.
The late Don Bracken, a free agent from Thermopolis, Wyo., had the longest NFL tenure of any Michigan punter. His nine-year career (1985-’93) was spent largely in Green Bay.
Moody, at 82.1%, owns the best field-goal percentage of the six kickers at Michigan with 50 or more field-goal attempts. The others were Garrett Rivas (78%), Remy Hamilton (76.3%), Brendan Gibbons (75%), Quinn Nordin (72.4%) and Mike Gillette (70.4%).
Of the school’s 10 punters with at least 100 punts, Brad Robbins ranks third in career average at 43.0 behind Will Hart (44.3) and Monte Robbins (43.1).
The emphasis that Michigan has placed on the kicking game can be traced to the Harbaugh family.
Jay Harbaugh was 22 when he gained his first full-time coaching job as offensive quality control coach for the Baltimore Ravens, who were coached by his uncle, John. John Harbaugh cut his teeth in the NFL as the successful special teams coach of the Philadelphia Eagles from 1998-’06. Since Harbaugh became head coach of Baltimore in 2008, the Ravens probably have fielded the NFL’s best special teams. In the last 11 seasons, Baltimore has ranked among the top six teams 10 times in Rick Gosselin’s annual breakdowns of NFL performance in the kicking game.
Jay Harbaugh, 33, joined his father’s staff at Michigan in 2015. While his duties also have included coaching tight ends, running backs and safeties in various seasons, he served as the assistant on special teams for four years before taking over as coordinator in 2019.
John Harbaugh has always been a passionate advocate for the importance of special teams.
“I’m sure he has a major influence on what they do there and how they approach things,” an NFL special-teams coordinator said. “I’m sure there’s a ton of back and forth information that goes on there. I don’t know why there wouldn’t be. It would be foolish on Jim’s part not to tap into what John knows.”
That emphasis was reflected in Jim Harbaugh’s decision to include Tyler Brown on his staff at Michigan from 2016-’19. Brown, the son of kicking guru (and current Ravens’ assistant) Randy Brown, worked directly with Moody and Robbins early in their careers. Tyler Brown joined the Eagles’ staff as quality control coach for special teams in 2021 after spending 2020 with his father on the Ravens’ staff.
“I’m sure the son (Jay) talks to John and watches a lot of Baltimore tape,” an AFC executive in personnel said. “I’m sure the family tree with John passing it along is probably part of it (Michigan’s success on special teams).”
Full scouting reports on all top kickers, punters, returners and long-snappers — with analysis from personnel men across the NFL — are below. You can catch up on Bob McGinn’s entire draft series right here:
1. JAKE MOODY, Michigan (6-0 ½, 210, no 40, Rounds 4-5): Kicked six field goals in his first game (November 2018) before closing with a 59-yard make against Texas Christian in the CFP semifinals. “He’s been very solid throughout his career,” an NFL special-teams coach said. “I don’t think he did as good of a job at the combine as he wished he had but I still think he’s the best guy. He does have power. Been really good on longer field goals. Very good in clutch situations. One of the better kickoffs guys also.” Finished with 82.1% on field goals (69 of 84), including 4-10 from 50-plus. His 35-yard FG with 9 seconds left in windy, 25-degree weather enabled the Wolverines to beat Illinois, 19-17, in mid-November. “I know the best kicker by far was the Michigan kicker,” one scout said. “I like the weather part of that. He’s used to that.” In 2019, he connected from 43 to beat Army in double overtime. “Shows leg strength on field goals and kickoffs,” another scout said. “He can come in and compete for a starting job. Would like to have cleaner makes but a make is a make. Mid-Day 3.” Hit 222 of his 393 kickoffs for touchbacks (56.5%). Averaged 60.3. From Northville, Mich.