Transition to new long snapper plays key role for Chiefs special teams

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Chiefs kicker Cairo Santos connected on 6-of-7 (86 percent) field goal attempts between 30-39 yards in 2014.

The second-year pro appears comfortable from that distance, a good thing since the NFL implemented a rule change moving the point-after-touchdown attempt from the 2-yard line to the 15-yard line, which effectively makes the PAT a 33-yard attempt.

Kansas City Chiefs kicker Cairo Santos (5) boots a field goal out of the hold of punter Dustin Colquitt (2) during the first half of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

Kansas City Chiefs kicker Cairo Santos (5) boots a field goal out of the hold of punter Dustin Colquitt (2) during the first half of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

“We just have to adjust,” Santos said. “They’ll make the rules and we just have to keep kicking. And we went through it last preseason, so it’s not something completely strange or out of nowhere. We’ll just be out here practicing and getting comfortable with that feel of lining up.”

While the special teams unit has time to acclimate to the rule change before preseason and regular-season action, there is an important dynamic to consider for Santos and punter/holder Dustin Colquitt.

The Chiefs transition at long snapper for the first time in seven seasons with Thomas Gafford no longer on the team, leaving the battle for the starting job between James Winchester and rookie Andrew East.

“I like them both,” special teams coordinator Dave Toub said. “They’re both NFL guys and I think we’ll get the best guy after about two or three preseason games.”

Still, the long snapper position can’t be overlooked when considering what the Chiefs field goal unit experienced late in the 2014 regular season.

Santos entered Week 15 on a hot steak with 14 straight field goals, but then struggled by connecting on 1-of-3 attempts against the Oakland Raiders.

Chiefs coach Andy Reid made it a point on Dec. 15, the day after the game, to stress the importance of consistent mechanics between the Gafford, Colquitt and Santos.

“You’ve got three factors there,” Reid said then. “You’ve got the snapper, who you’ve got to stay accurate with that and you’ve got to be consistent with it. You’ve got the holding phase of it. That’s who you’re asking to place it and do that accurately and then you’ve got the kicker that’s got to work through a certain rhythm.

“As the snapper and the holder, you want to make sure you keep the kicker in rhythm and not allow that to be altered at all. And then that kicker knows that not everyone is going to be perfect and he’s got to still strike the ball if it gets off rhythm a bit.”

The Chiefs potentially signaled dissatisfaction with Gafford by signing long snapper Charley Hughlett to the practice squad on Dec. 17. Hughlett’s stay on the practice squad proved short, however, as the Cleveland Browns signed him to its active roster on Dec. 23.

Nevertheless, a sweeping change at the position occurred immediately when the regular season concluded.

The Chiefs signed long snappers Jorgen Hus and Brandon Hartson to reserve/future contracts in late December, Winchester signed a two-year contract on March 12 and Gafford wasn’t re-signed when the league’s calendar year began on March 11.

The Chiefs waived Hartson on April 16, signed East as an undrafted free agent out of Vanderbilt on May 3 at the conclusion of the NFL Draft, and then waived Hus on May 5.

June 2, 2015; Kansas City, MO; Chiefs long snapper James Winchester (41) working with punter Dustin Colquitt (2) on Day Four of OTAs. Photo used with permission from Chiefs PR. Credit: KCChiefs.com

June 2, 2015; Kansas City, MO; Chiefs long snapper James Winchester (41) working with punter Dustin Colquitt (2) on Day Four of OTAs. Photo used with permission from Chiefs PR. Credit: KCChiefs.com

While Santos is content with the rule change on PATs, he and Colquitt need to develop chemistry with the 6-3, 240-pound Winchester or the 6-2, 220-pound East.

So far, there hasn’t been a problem.

“We’ve been kicking together since we’ve been here in Kansas City, and so we’re in a good rhythm right now,” Santos said. “We’ve got to keep going and we’ll see. We don’t know when they’ll make a decision, but both guys are excellent and make me feel really comfortable.”

Winchester, who played collegiately at Oklahoma, said he has enjoyed the competition with East, whom Winchester complimented as the “best snapper coming out of college.”

But Winchester also understands what he needs to accomplish with his snaps.

“Really, it comes down to giving Dustin and Cairo what they want,” Winchester said, “and learning from coach Toub and (assistant special teams) coach (Brock) Olivo. That’s big just to get in, learn and absorb all the information, all the techniques, learn from them and get in and work hard.”

The Chiefs have alternated long snapper repetitions on special teams, but Winchester doesn’t believe that will affect his timing with Colquitt and Santos.

“The thing is, it sets you up like in a game because in a game you’re not going to be out there snapping on every play,” Winchester said. “You’re sitting on the sideline for maybe 30 minutes before getting in a snap. Alternating snaps, it’s more game-like. That’s the other thing being out here, getting in blocking work, reps with Dustin, snapping – both of us snappers – and basically taking it day-by-day.”

The competition between Winchester and East will only heat up leading to training camp.

Toub said he is comfortable with both long snappers, but emphasized it is too early to make a call on who is standing out when considering the team is in shorts and helmets with no contact.

“Right now, they’re neck-and-neck,” Toub said. “We’re really not going to know anything until we get to preseason games and seeing the live bullets coming at them. Once that happens, one guy, he’ll rise to the top and be our guy.”

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Herbie Teope is the lead beat writer and reporter for ChiefsDigest.com. Use the contact page to reach him or find him on Twitter: @HerbieTeope.

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