Just as tricky as NFL Draft quarterback evaluations — long snappers

No long snapper has been drafted since 2021

(Taylar Sievert/Yahoo Sports)
Many don't notice the long snapper in football ... until something goes wrong. (Taylar Sievert/Yahoo Sports)

Following a crushing 28-20 road loss to the Los Angeles Rams in Week 15 last season, the Commanders made what seemed to be an innocuous decision to release long snapper Camaron Cheeseman. It was understandable considering his streak of bad snapping had partially cost the Commanders a game as Ron Rivera was fighting for his head coaching job, one he eventually lost.

Cheeseman misfired on a couple snaps, causing a disaster of a punt attempt and directly leading to a blocked kick, which continued his struggles at the primary job of a long snapper: snapping the ball.

Cheeseman getting cut is not the interesting part here. What’s wild about the transaction is the Commanders traded up in the sixth round of the 2021 NFL Draft to select Cheeseman. The Commanders’ price of a 2022 fifth-round pick, which ultimately became the Jaguars selecting running back Snoop Conner, was not a large price to pay for whiffing on the pick. It’s more about the idea of trading up for one of the most invisible positions in sports.

Cheeseman made himself noticeable for all the wrong reasons. According to Pro Football Focus, he was the lowest graded long snapper since 2016 with a 27.5 grade (out of 100). He was also the least accurate long snapper in the league last season, according to Pro Football Focus’ charting, with a whopping 25% of his snaps charted as inaccurate. Trading up for a player who consistently struggled on a fundamental to do the one thing they’re tasked with is an underrated draft blunder.

The Commanders missing on the Cheeseman selection begs the question: what exactly goes into scouting a player who typically sees the field 120-150 times a season?

The best long snappers never get noticed for their entire careers, sometimes playing more than a decade if they can provide steady snapping. The worst long snappers are immediately identifiable because their blunders can be devastating and they differ so far from what is normally seen on kicks and punts. For example, in Cheeseman’s final game with the Commanders, his botched snap on their own 31-yard line allowed the Rams to pick up the ball just 15 yards away from the end zone.

This is quietly an important position to get right, but the science for projecting which players will be successful in the NFL is like any other position — inexact.

ASHBURN, VA - JUNE 10: Camaron Cheeseman #54 of the Washington Football Team snaps the ball during mandatory minicamp at Inova Sports Performance Center on June 10, 2021 in Ashburn, Virginia. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
Washington traded up in the 2021 NFL Draft to get long snapper Camaron Cheeseman. He played three seasons. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

Washington missing on Cheeseman is its own blunder, but it brings the process of identifying long snappers for the NFL into focus. This is more difficult than it seems because long snappers in college football play a vastly different game than their professional counterparts. In college, no one can make contact with the long snapper until one second after the ball has been snapped. There is no such rule in the NFL, making the snapper a live player as soon as the play begins. That means long snappers in the NFL have to block, a skill that’s unnecessary to develop in college.

Senior Bowl special teams assistant Brendan Cahill explained the differences in punt formations used in college vs. the pros.

“The biggest differences that I see from college snapping to NFL snapping is that almost all of high school football and college football has gone to the spread punt, or snap-and-release long snapping requirement,” Cahill told Yahoo Sports. “It’s hard enough for coaches to find a kid who can snap the ball back 15 yards. It’s really hard to get a kid who can do that and then kick back and pick up blocks and identify coverages and all that stuff.”

Cahill noted the Georgia Bulldogs as a team that heavily relies on a spread punt formation. This punt from their 2022 win over Tennessee is an example of what a lot of college teams are doing now. They have two players next to the long snapper, two personal protectors for the punter and the rest of the players are spread across the field. The long snapper runs down the field unimpeded and doesn’t have to block anyone due to the one-second rule.

Contrast that with this Chiefs’ punt from the Super Bowl. The snapper has to block immediately after letting the ball go and has to withstand the 49ers’ aggressive rush up the field. The situations display the increased difficulty and punishment that NFL long snappers are exposed to.

Since the responsibilities of an NFL long snapper are more physically demanding than what happens in the collegiate ranks, size is an important factor when it comes to evaluating prospects.

“Most of these guys are 220 to 240 [pounds], sometimes around 6-4,” Cahill explained. “Then there are exceptions to the rule, like Jon Weeks for the Texans, who is like 5-11 or something like that. Now, he makes up for it by being insanely fast and athletic.”

Even with the size and athleticism being important for the NFL, the actual skill of snapping and being able block is still what this is all about.

“In general, I think the biggest thing that predicts a college long snapper is usually going to be how good is their blocking?” Cahill said. “There’s not a shortage of guys who can snap, there tends to be a shortage of guys who can snap and block consistently… you’ve got to have a perfect snap and you can’t mess up your blocking. The athletes are just too good, they’re too fast at that level.”

Cahill noted that there are guys who play linebacker, tight end and defensive line in high school who practice snapping to boost their hopes of being recruited, but the way the college punt game is played doesn’t give a whole lot of room for evaluating blocking reps. So offseason workouts during the draft season are important for teams to gather information on long snappers they’re scouting. There they can run drills that better simulate the responsibilities of NFL snappers and give talent evaluators a more precise look, in person, at the speed of the snaps.

“The margin for error is just so razor thin,” Cahill said.

This year, five long snappers were selected to the East-West Shrine Game and Senior Bowl, where they worked with NFL coaches throughout their evaluations. Eric Galko, the Shrine’s game director of football operations and player personnel, broke down the process for finding players, noting the help he got from Shane Coughlin, the bowl’s director of college scouting and former Miami Dolphins staffer.

“He teaches me more than I even know, too,” Galko said of Coughlin. “About how much spin rate matters, accuracy and what that means, short snapping and long snapping and the difference in what that means.”

Galko mentioned Nebraska long snapper Marco Ortiz and North Carolina State’s Joe Shimko as two Shrine Game snappers who had the best chances of being drafted this past week. There were ultimately no long snappers drafted. Shimko ended up signing as a free agent with the Arizona Cardinals and Ortiz was invited to the Los Angeles Chargers’ minicamp.

“You’ve got to be built basically like a taller linebacker ideally,” Galko said. “There are some aspects of that that help with being able to generate force with longer arms, but a lot of it is like, can you not look out of place on the punt team? Get down the field and actually be competitive and make a play.”

Galko and plenty of NFL teams have looked to players at other positions to play long snapper, but it’s not always a clean transition.

“We tried that, my first year at the Shrine Bowl. Having position converts,” Galko said. “We had a center Alec Lindstrom and another linebacker who was doing it and it just showed, within one day of practice, it’s just not going to work … you can see it quickly the difference between a long snapper that can play in the NFL and a linebacker masquerading as one.”

A lot has to go into identifying long snappers and scouting them thoroughly because they’re the key to a hidden high-leverage play in football. Most snaps at the NFL level are fine, but the ones that aren’t are plays that can lose games. If they add up, as in the case of Cheeseman, they can alter a season — which is more impact than any long snapper should have over a game.

For this past draft, Galko had three long snappers in mind he thought could last in the league. “It’s Shimko, Peter Bowden [Wisconsin] and Marco Ortiz,” Galko said. “All can play in the league for a decade.”

Bowden reached a free-agent deal with the Packers, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The rules in the college game make pro projections difficult, but big, strong, and fast players tend to get the first chances when it comes to NFL long snapping. There hasn’t been a long snapper drafted since Cheeseman and Thomas Fletcher (now the special teams coordinator for UCLA) were selected in 2021.

This year’s crop of prospects didn’t break the trend, yet the undrafted free-agent long snappers will get a chance to prove to NFL teams that they can make one of the hardest transitions in the sport.