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An In-Depth Look at Long Snappers

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And why so many teams reserve a roster spot for them

The man, the myth, the legend....
The man, the myth, the legend....
USA TODAY Sports

It's now the part of the offseason when more attention is paid to depth charts as the NFL's 32 teams begin to trim down their rosters from the offseason maximum of 90 players to the regular season maximum of 53 players. However, around the NFL, each team's long snapper is considered to have a safe roster spot, despite filling a role that would appear to not necessarily require a specialist. With the first round of roster cuts coming up, I figured now would be as good a time as any to take a closer look at an often overlooked position.

Who are the NFL's Long Snappers?

List of the 2013 Long Snappers

Team Name Player Other Position Height Weight
Buffalo Bills Garrison Sanborn Center 6' 1" 240 lbs
Miami Dolphins
John Denney Defensive End 6' 5" 255 lbs
New England Patriots Danny Aiken Tight End 6' 4" 250 lbs
New York Jets
Tanner Purdum
Center/Tight End
6' 3"
270 lbs
Baltimore Ravens
Morgan Cox
None
6' 4"
241 lbs
Cincinnati Bengals
Clark Harris
Tight End
6' 5"
256 lbs
Cleveland Browns
Christian Yount None
6' 1"
256 lbs
Pittsburgh Steelers
Greg Warren
Center
6' 3"
252 lbs
Houston Texans
Jon Weeks
None
5' 10"
248 lbs
Indianapolis Colts
Matt Overton
None
6' 1"
242 lbs
Jacksonville Jaguars
Carson Tinker
None
6' 0"
233 lbs
Tennessee Titans
Beau Brinkley
Tight End
6' 4"
237 lbs
Denver Broncos
Aaron Brewer
Middle Linebacker
6' 5"
240 lbs
Kansas City Chiefs
Thomas Gafford
None
6' 2"
250 lbs
Oakland Raiders
Jon Condo
Defensive End
6' 3"
245 lbs
San Diego Chargers
Mike Windt
None
6' 1"
237 lbs
Dallas Cowboys
L. P. Ladouceur
Defensive End
6' 5"
255 lbs
New York Giants
Zak DeOssie
Linebacker
6' 4"
249 lbs
Philadelphia Eagles
Jon Dorenbos
Linebacker
6' 0"
250 lbs
Washington Redskins
Kyle Nelson
Tight End
6' 2"
235 lbs
Chicago Bears
Patrick Mannelly
Center
6' 5"
265 lbs
Detroit Lions
Don Muhlbach
Tight End
6' 4"
265 lbs
Green Bay Packers
Brett Goode
None
6' 1"
255 lbs
Minnesota Vikings
Cullen Loeffler
None
6' 5"
241 lbs
Atlanta Falcons
Josh Harris
None
6' 1"
224 lbs
Carolina Panthers
J. J. Jansen
Center
6' 2"
245 lbs
New Orleans Saints
Justin Drescher
Linebacker
6' 1"
235 lbs
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Jeremy Cain
None
6' 1"
245 lbs
Arizona Cardinals
Mike Leach
None
6' 2"
235 lbs
St. Louis Rams
Jacob McQuaide
Tight End
6' 2"
247 lbs
San Francisco 49'ers
Kevin McDermott
None
6' 4"
234 lbs
Seattle Seahawks
Clint Gresham
Defensive End
6' 3"
240 lbs

What is the Prototype Size?

The average average height and weight is about 6' 3", 246 lbs.

Are They All Specialists?

Basically, yes. According to Pro Football Focus data, the combined number of snaps those 32 players spent either on offense or defense last year was just two in total.

Christian Yount of the Browns and Jon Dorenbos of the Eagles each lined up for 1 snap on offense as a tight end.

The other 30 long snappers spent a combined zero snaps on the field on offense and defense. Therefore, virtually all long snappers in the NFL were long-snapping specialists last year, even if they were listed as being able to play a different position.

Did Teams Always Treat Long Snapper as a Specialist Position?

No - in the past, they were usually backup centers, which makes sense.

The first and most obvious duty of a long snapper is being able to snap the ball and block the man in front of him. So if you wanted to avoid using a long snapping-specialist, you would use a center, right?

However, it's not as easy as it sounds to use a center as a long snapper. A long snapper needs to be able to snap the ball to different players lining up at a variety of spots relative to the snapper. The list includes a punter lined up 10 yards or so directly behind the snapper, a punt protector (on a fake punt) standing up a few yards behind the snapper and off to one side, and a field goal holder (usually the backup QB) who is kneeling on the ground several yards behind and to the side.

So while most centers are comfortable with snapping the ball to a QB lined up either directly behind him ("under center") or about 4-5 yards away in the shotgun formation, a center replacing a long snapper would require additional reps to practice snapping the ball to punters, punt protectors, and holders on field goal kicks.

Still, despite the added difficulty of long snapping duties, NFL teams chose for decades to cross-train backup centers to snap the ball to anybody lining up anywhere behind them - QB under center, QB in shotgun, punter, punt protector, and holder on field goals.

Then What Makes the Role Worthy of a Specialist These Days?

A long snapper's job isn't just to snap the ball and block. He also needs to be able to sprint downfield after a punt in order to help cover kicks and potentially make an open-field tackle on a shifty punt returner. Nowadays, virtually all NFL offensive linemen who play significant snaps on offense weigh at least 290 pounds, so it would be tough even for very athletic offensive linemen to make a good tackle attempt on an agile punt returner weighing 190 pounds. The vast majority of modern long snappers are around 245 pounds because that's "big enough" to block while "small enough" to still be able to sprint downfield and tackle returners in space.

It's important to remember that 25+ years ago, offensive linemen were a lot smaller than they are today. Hall of Fame offensive linemen like Miami Dolphins center Dwight Stephenson weighed "just" 255 lbs. Average offensive linemen weight didn't reach 300 pounds until the 1990's.

So the long snapper prototype has long been a player who weighs around 250 lbs. The "problem" with using a true center these days as a long snapper is that the prototype weight for offensive linemen has increased dramatically.

Teams simply can't use centers weighing 250 pounds against modern-day defensive tackles like Haloti Ngata and Vince Wilfork who can weigh up to 340 lbs. In response to the growing size of defensive linemen, teams now recruit centers weighing 295-320 pounds who can block huge defensive tackles but can't run well downfield.

Of course, most teams have plenty of backup players weighing around 250 lbs, but they generally play tight end or linebacker, not on the offensive line. Most backup tight ends like Dion Sims and backup linebackers like Jason Trusnik could be asked to block and then run downfield as long snappers, but they likely couldn't snap the ball well without a LOT of practice. Snapping the ball isn't as easy as it sounds, as Shelley Smith and other Dolphins players auditioning for playing time at center demonstrated throughout the first week of training camp practices before the blown snap attempts compelled the Dolphins to sign free agent center Samson Satele.

Remember, a long snapper needs to be able to snap the ball in more ways than a typical center, and most tight ends and linebackers have NO experience snapping the ball. The Dolphins' own backup linebacker Jordan Tripp was a long snapper in college, so he has some experience. However, he's only JUST started to receive reps as a long snapper in practice this week, with the regular season starting in 2 weeks, so the Dolphins seem to see him as their "emergency" long-snapper rather than a potential starter for this season. However, given that the incumbent long snapper is 35 years old, it is possible that Tripp is being groomed to take over that role next year, especially if he's unable to develop into a starting linebacker by that point.

How Bad Could It Get if a Team Didn't Have a Decent Long Snapper Available?

NFL history is filled with examples of games lost at least partly due to the lack of a quality long snapper, including playoff games significantly impacted by poor snap attempts on special teams.

The most recent illustration of the danger of relying on a subpar long-snapper comes courtesy of the Oakland Raiders, whose long-snapper was injured in a game 2 seasons ago. The Raiders' attempt to use a backup long snapper failed horribly, despite the Raiders' coach confirming that backup long snapper Travis Geothel had received practice reps as an emergency long snapper beforehand. The backup's lack of in-game experience doomed the Raiders in 2 ways. First, two of Geothel's snaps on 4th down were so bad that the Raiders' punter was unable to attempt a high-quality punt, which led to the Chargers recovering the ball with excellent field position twice and scoring 6 points off two field goals. Second, the Chargers smartly decided to be aggressive in trying to block punts after seeing a backup long snapper was being used, and the Chargers managed to block an additional punt attempt, which allowed them to score 3 more points after recovering the ball. That's 9 points scored by the Chargers in part due to 3 Raiders special teams miscues, and the Chargers ended up winning that game by 8 points total.

An elite long snapper definitely won't single-handedly win you games, but a bad long snapper can absolutely be a big reason why you lose games.

How Expensive is a Good Long Snapper?

Another reason why teams opt for specialists is that even the best are really cheap by NFL standards. The highest paid long snapper in the NFL is earning $1.1 million this year. The median NFL long snapper is getting paid $730,000. The Dolphins' long snapper John Denney is being paid $865,000 in salary this year, which is the 9th highest salary in the NFL.

So even a top-10 long snapper costs a team less than the average 5th wide receiver or cornerback.

How Good Is the Dolphins' Long Snapper?

John Denney is one of the longest tenured and most highly decorated Dolphins players on the roster. He will be entering his 10th season as a Miami Dolphin in 2014 after being signed as a rookie undrafted free agent in 2005. He's made 2 Pro Bowls in 2010 and 2012 and counts for about $975,000 against the salary cap (combined salary + pro-rated signing bonus).

In other words, keeping Denney costs the Dolphins about 0.7% of the $133 million salary cap and 1 out of 53 roster spots. In exchange, the Dolphins get peace of mind on special teams plays - at least when it comes to snapping the ball. However, Denney is 35 years old and will be 36 by the end of the season, so it's not a bad time for the coaches to begin grooming a successor like Tripp, whom many fans hope will develop into a starting linebacker but may have to settle for a core special teamer role his first couple of seasons in the NFL. If the goal was to replace Denney this season, the Dolphins coaches probably would have asked Tripp to begin work as a long snapper much earlier this offseason - though the coaches haven't been asked about Denney's roster status, so there's no "official comment" on their plans regarding Denney and Tripp to reference.

Conclusion

Every NFL team reserves a roster spot to a specialist long snapper. Teams prefer to have a player whose reps in practice are devoted to perfecting his long snapping abilities rather than run the risk that a part-time long snapper could make mistakes serious enough to compromise a potential victory. This suggests that teams feel the potential downside of using a part-time long snapper isn't outweighed by the benefit of an extra roster spot that could be given to a 7th wide receiver or 5th tight end. That's because any player who misses out on a roster spot because of the presence of a long snapper is the type of player who is unlikely to see the field much, even if he had made the roster, while the long snapper is guaranteed to play a significant role in special teams plays. Developmental players who are 5th string or lower on the depth chart because they're unable to help the team this year will find a place on a practice squad, which can now field 10 players per team.