Breaking Down the Punt Return Battle:
August 29, 2013 in Redskins Personnel
One of the bigger battles left for the Redskins as they get ready for the season is who will be their punt returner now that CB Richard Crawford is out for the year with a knee injury. Here are the potential options vying for the job including both why they should and shouldn't get the job:
RB Chris Thompson:
Why he should get the role: The Redskins drafted Thompson to be a weapon, both on offense and hopefully in the return game. Thompson when healthy can be a dynamic player and take over that Brandon Banks "weapon" role, and has the chance to be actually successful with it. If Thompson is the punt returner it would help give the Redskins an excuse to keep him on the 53 man roster. Thompson showed that game breaking ability with his punt return for a TD in the 4th preseason game.
Why he shouldn't get the role: For one thing Thompson isn't a lock for the 53 man roster to begin with, and he really has no business being on the game day roster since his contributions on offense seem to be a ways off. Unlike most special teamers he would only be used in a return role, and what's worse is he would probably only be the punt returner. That is less value than Banks had, who at least was utilized at both return roles. Part of the reason why he's not ready to contribute on offense is the fact that he clearly has quite a bit of rust, after missing most of the last two seasons with a pair of serious injuries. Not only did he miss a lot of game time, but he's missed plenty of practice time. That has continued during his time with the Redskins where he missed all of OTA's/Minicamp and part of training camp. He's fumbled twice already in preseason, and has yet to show any big play ability on offense.
The other issue with Thompson is simply the fact that you can't trust him as the return man to start the year. He never was a punt returner in college, and he didn't much offseason work at the role given his injuries. You would be trusting a guy back there who only has a handful of preseason returns and a few days of practice where he was splitting reps. That is a huge risk to have back there week 1 to start the season. One muffed punt or fumble could end up deciding a game or two for the Redskins. I don't see how you can trust Thompsons ability to field punts cleanly and his decision making on when to field punts versus letting them go, or call fair catch over returning them.
WR Aldrick Robinson:
Why he should get the role: Robinson has electric speed and he's a lock to be on the team and active roster. He's not a starter so there is no concern about him being over used or exposed to a higher injury risk. If Robinson can get past the first gunner or two, he has a good chance to break a big return off. That obviously won't happen every time, but it could happen a couple times a year.
Why he shouldn't get the role: Robinson returned some kicks in college, but he was never used as a punt returner (in part due to Richard Crawford) at SMU. Though he's worked on it some for three years in camp with the Redskins, he never got a ton of work since Banks was more established and there were other options in camp. He's probably not going to be a great decision maker which could cost the Redskins. Finally, though he has the game breaking speed, he's not the shiftiest receiver, so he might not be able to make that first guy miss as often as you'd like.
TE Niles Paul:
Why he should get the role: Paul was a very good return man in college, and averaged 10.78 yards per return on his 60 punt returns in college, including 1 TD. One thing that stands out with Paul's punt return numbers is how consistent he was, as he never averaged less than 10.0 yards per return in a given year. Paul is a lock to make the team and be active on game days so they wouldn't need to create a spot for him at all. He's likely to be the primary kick returner, so this would just add to his duties in the return department. He hasn't returned punts as much as a pro, but given his experience it is likely he should be a solid decision maker.
Why he shouldn't get the role: Paul has bulked up since moving to tight end, and while he's still got great speed, he's not as shifty as some of the other options. He's likely to not be much of a dynamic returner and the Redskins shouldn't expect to be anything more than average if he's the primary punt returner. Another reason to keep him out of the return role, is that it would take him away from being the primary blocker for the punt returner. Paul is very good at this role and you don't want to take him off that role unless you have to.
WR Santana Moss:
Why he should get the role: Before Moss became a good starting wide receiver, he was a dynamic punt returner for the Jets. In 2002 he had 413 yards and 2 Td's, averaging a ridiculous 16.5 yards on 25 returns. Even if he's lost a step (which is debateable), Moss is still very fast and shifty and a good bet to be a productive returner. The other benefit with Moss is that given his experience, he's probably going to be the best decision maker among returners, and will know when to fair catch it or return the punt.
Why he shouldn't get the role: Though Moss is truly no longer a starter, he gets significant playing time and is such a clutch member of this offense. He led the team with 8 TD's last year and was very productive at getting first downs. Moss may not get the most targets, but when he is seeing the ball you can bet that he's having a significant impact. Do the Redskins want him back there 35-40 times? Not only is there a risk of injury, but if he has a return where he runs a lot, it could limit using him for the next couple of plays.
CB DeAngelo Hall:
Why he should get the role: Hall maybe doesn't have a lot of experience returning punts in the NFL, but he's more than capable of doing the job. He is a great open field runner and would probably be a better decision maker that wouldn't take risks that could lead to a fumble.
Why he shouldn't get the role: Unless you know that the returner would be elite at the job (i.e. Patrick Peterson), it's not always the best idea to have a starter returning kicks or punts. Also, while there is speculation that Hall would be a good decision maker (i.e. when to fair catch it, when to let it bounce, etc) he might not be considering he doesn't have a ton of return experience. The biggest issues could be the fact that Hall has been dealing with an ankle injury in preseason/training camp, so you probably wouldn't want to expose him to unnecessary running if you didn't have to.
WR Nick Williams:
Why he should get the role: Williams was a pretty dynamic returner at UConn these past four years, and had a combined 4 total return TD's, including 2 on punt returns in 2012. In 2012 Williams had his best year returning punts averaging 12.05 yards per return (out of 21) to go along with those two touchdowns. Williams also projects well as a future slot receiver, which is a need area for the Redskins. Nick Williams had a big punt return in the 4th preseason game and again showed his potential in this area.
Why he shouldn't get the role: While Williams is an interesting guy, he wasn't going to make this roster before the Crawford injury, and he'd be unlikely to contribute much to the receiver role this season. Another slight concern is that while Williams had a big year returning punts in 2012, he struggled in 2011 averaging just 5.59 yards per return (22 returns). He may be a practice squad option, but he's a reach for the 53 man roster.
WR Skye Dawson:
Why he should get the role: Dawson has plenty of speed and quickness and could take over the role Brandon Banks had on the team. He flashed some big play return ability in practice and the preseason, and could have future upside for an expanded role.
Why he shouldn't get the role: Though some people are in Dawson's corner, he's more hype than substance at this point. While he has natural speed and quickness, it is unclear if he really could perform at a high level or have the potential to improve next season. Also, being compared to Brandon Banks isn't exactly the most ringing endorsement. Like Banks, Dawson showed indecision as a returner at times and that really isn't a good thing. Dawson also doesn't have a great career track record as he averaged just 8.1 yards per punt return (out of 30) in college, which isn't exactly a strong number.
My Take: UPDATED
For me decision making and the roster spots matter quite a bit. The Redskins survived last year with Brandon Bank's return antics, so just having a returner who knows not to try to return a kick inside the 5 yard line, or that will dance around when time is running off the clock and you are trying to comeback in a game would be a plus. I also want to see a returner who knows when to call for a fair catch, if he's not going to be able to make the first guy miss. The roster decisions loom large for me as well. The Redskins will already have to cut two players (assuming there isn't a serious injury) when Rob Jackson and Jarvis Jenkins come back, so I don't know how they can justify keeping a return guy only. Particularly if they aren't returning kickoffs as well. That is even more important once you try to figure out the 46 man active roster. You have just 43 non-specialist spots, so keeping a guy active who only returns punts is extremely hard.
Thompson did a great job with his punt return for a TD, but I still don't know if he deserves the return job. Nick Williams had a great return later (and a far better track record), yet no one is calling for him as the return man. Thompson may have gotten himself a roster spot, but I don't know if you want him back there just yet. Again a big factor is decision making and that is not something that you can learn overnight. In the game on one kickoff return Thompson caught a kickoff 6 yards deep in the end zone and was going to bring it out, but was stopped by Evan Royster. Now obviously in the preseason you might take some more risks, but as a returner it is crucial for you to know the situation and what to do in each case. I don't believe Thompson is there year. In the end for me I think a combination of Niles Paul and Santana Moss is the best option for this team. Paul can be the consistent guy and get say 70% of the returns, but in key situations I would turn to Moss for a big return or just trusting his decision making to ensure he isn't fumbling the ball which could steal a win away from the Redskins.