Washington is the only team in the NFL that doesn’t currently have a long-snapper on its roster, having let Nick Sundberg leave when his contract expired at the end of the 2020 season. The team will replace him with a young player just coming out of college; but will they wait to sign an undrafted free agent in the hours after the draft ends, or will they use the pick 258 – the next-to-last pick in the draft – to select the guy they want to hold down this important position for the next decade?
If you take the view that all long-snappers are created equal, then the answer is obvious – you’d just sign a UDFA post draft. But that’s like suggesting that all punters are the same, or that all kickers are the same. The fact is, all three special teams specialist positions – place kicker, punter, long snapper -- are pressure-filled key positions that require specific training and are integral to a team’s field position and scoring.
Although NFL teams drafting long-snappers isn't that common, it's also not unheard of. There's been one selected in each of the last six drafts:
- 2015: Joe Cardona, New England Patriots, fifth round (166th overall)
- 2016: Jimmy Landes, Detroit Lions, sixth round (210th)
- 2017: Colin Holba, Pittsburgh Steelers, sixth round (213th)
- 2018: Hunter Bradley, Green Bay Packers, seventh round (239th)
- 2019: Austin Cutting, Minnesota Vikings, seventh round (250th)
- 2020: Blake Ferguson, Miami Dolphins, sixth round (185th)
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. The vast majority of modern long snappers are around 245 pounds – basically linebacker size -- because that's "big enough" to block while "small enough" to still be able to sprint downfield and tackle returners in space.
Furthermore, snapping the ball isn't as easy as it sounds. Remember, a long snapper needs to be able to snap the ball in more ways than a typical center. 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.
Professional long snappers also practice endlessly to make sure the snap arrives at the right height, with the right velocity, and even with the laces in the optimum position for the guy receiving the snap to handle it cleanly. A poor snap on a punt can result in a bad punt, a block, or even a defensive touchdown. A bad snap on a field goal attempt can directly cost the team points on the scoreboard. 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. 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.
Because of the importance of the unit efficiency (the punter is the holder for field goals) the three specialists work together continuously to ensure smooth operation and flawless timing that allows them to perform in all sorts of weather, field conditions and game situations.
For all these reasons, the long snapper is an integral part of any NFL team.
Let’s say that the Washington front office and coaching staff, recognizing how critical it is to have the right guy on the roster, don’t want to risk losing their top choice to a competing team. Is it reasonable for them to use a draft pick to ensure that they get their guy?
Well, consider for a moment that the WFT just made a trade for OL Ereck Flowers that involved the swap of 7th round draft picks. Miami sent pick #258 to Washington (there will be 259 total picks in the 2021 draft). The success rate for 7th round draft picks in terms of becoming NFL starters is slender. Washington has had some recent success in drafting strong contributors in the 7th round, most notably CB Jimmy Moreland in 2019 and S Kamren Curl last year, but the final round of the draft is usually where teams draft the bottom-of-the-roster players with short careers.
Long-snappers are long-term players. Most stay with a team for a decade or more. In Washington’s case, the last two guys to play the position were Nick Sundberg, who was with the team for 11 seasons, from 2010-2020, and Ethan Albright, who had a 15-year career, but spent 9 seasons with the Redskins, from 2001-2009.
We can expect the next long snapper who dons burgundy & gold in DC to still be on the roster through 2030 or beyond. It’s an important decision, and it seems like it might be a useful way to invest the 258th pick in the 2021 draft.
Who would the Football Team select if they decide to go the route of drafting the long snapper they expect to carry the team for the next decade?
According to BNB Football, these are the top five long snapper prospects for this weekend’s draft:
No. 1 Cameron Cheeseman, Sr., Michigan
The first word that comes to mind for Cheeseman is prototype. At 6’4" 235 pounds with solid athleticism, he looks the part and can tackle well in punt protection. But the most important part of any long snapper is consistency and snap speed, and Cheeseman gets a check mark in both of those categories. Despite sitting out the 2020 season, he has one thing that very few long snappers can claim: Name recognition. That may sound silly, but at a position like long snapper where the top players are all very close, you’ll take any advantage you can get.
No. 2 Thomas Fletcher, Sr., Alabama
Last year the draft’s top long snapper was from the champion LSU tigers. This year, Thomas Fletcher of the champion Tide is right on the fringe of #1 in the class. Fletcher has been a consistent multiyear starter for ‘Bama, never once making a drastic mistake on the field. His spin rate and accuracy are great, and he was good enough to be awarded the Patrick Mannelly award for the nation’s best Long Snapper in 2020. While his size isn’t necessarily a positive, it shouldn’t be an issue at the next level.
No. 3 Ryan Langan, Sr., Georgia Southern
Ryan Langan was a finalist for the Patrick Mannelly award in 2020, making no mistakes for Georgia Southern while showcasing phenomenal spin rate and a quick release. Langan has the additional benefit of being a wonderful teammate off the field, and enough size to produce in punt protection.
No. 4 Adam Bay, Sr., Wisconsin
Adam Bay was the #1 long snapper in the nation coming out of high school, showcasing advanced accuracy and speed on his snaps. At Wisconsin it was more of the same, with exceptional play throughout his 4 years as a starter in Madison. He didn’t make many plays in punt coverage for the Badgers, but is a consistent blue-collar worker.
No. 5 Turner Bernard, Sr., San Diego State
As with the 4 players above him, Turner Bernard was a Mannelly semifinalist and was also the top long snapper in his high school recruiting class. After tearing his ACL in his true freshman season, he returned without issue and continued his consistent play in snaps and punt coverage.
It seems possible that Crimson Tide long snapper Thomas Fletcher could be the penultimate name called in the 2021 draft. He is, by all accounts a very good long snapper, but he’s a bit on the small side for the position in the NFL. Fletcher’s height and weight statistics vary from source to source, but he is listed at 6’1” and 231 pounds on one University of Alabama sports site; he isn’t listed bigger than that anywhere else that I’ve seen. My guess is that, in this case, size does matter, and that, in choosing a player to hold down a critical position for the next decade, the Washington Football Team will go with the number one option.
With his combination of size, snap consistency and tackling ability, however, Cameron Cheeseman seems to be the perfect replacement for Nick Sundberg. Don’t be surprised if his name is called just before the draft ends on Saturday evening.