AFC South: Joshua Cribbs

Icon SMIAFC South return men Ryan Mouton of the Titans and Chad Simpson and TJ Rushing of the Colts failed to get their teams the yards they needed.
The Titans’ 2009 search for a returner was a failure. In recent years, the Colts haven’t shown a lot of interest in finding a dynamic one.

Universal thinking is each team can solve the issue in the upcoming draft, though it would take a change in Indianapolis' approach for the Colts to focus on it.

So what does it take to unearth a quality return man?

I set out this week to address this from several angles, and I’m going to let some smart people with informative takes carry the day.

So without further ado…

Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh has a big background in special teams.
What’s he want to see out of a prospective returner?

"Punt and kickoff return are completely different. In punt return, the bottom line is he’s got to be a natural catcher. So catching a punt is a unique thing. If they can’t catch, you can forget about it. Kick return is a little easier to catch, but some of these guys struggle to catch kicks. To me, a kick returner has to be a north-south runner. He’s got to have a burst of acceleration and/or power, and he’s got to have vision. It’s usually more of a running back-type guy who can read the hole and cut off blocks. Punt return is a guy that can catch the ball naturally, has great body control and he can do two things at once. He’s got to be able to catch the ball and feel the pressure around him. Make the guy miss, whether it’s make or miss with the body control to slip through there, or be able to change speed and change angles."

Does he need to see a college player do that or can he project it?

"It’s a good question. You’d rather see it because then you know. But if you don’t see it, you can project it. But you’ve got to go work the guy out and see if he can catch. So you can take a guy that maybe wasn’t a college punt returner, and maybe turn him into a pro punt returner. Maybe you find out that he has been catching punts every day but they didn’t put him back there because he was their primary receiver or whatever. It’s pretty rare to see a great pro punt returner who wasn’t a pretty good college punt returner."

Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. says he wants to see courage and toughness in a return man:

"It’s funny. When looking/reading prospect reports on draft prospects this time of year, many scouts rightfully put something along the lines of, 'Also can contribute as a return man' as part of a young man's scouting report. That is all well and good, but like kickers and punters, is he one of the best 32 (or so) at this skill in the world? It is not for the faint of heart and while speed, elusiveness and vision are all paramount for either punt or kickoff returns, I think guts/fearlessness/toughness is maybe the most important. If you are going to keep a pure returner, he had better be outstanding-by NFL standards. Otherwise, he has to do something else. Be the fourth cornerback or wide receiver or be a core special teams player on coverage teams."

Keith Hawkins of ESPN Stats & Information took a look at some of the best returners in league history and some of the most productive guys in recent history to see if there were any commonalities:

"The one 'similarity' of the best returner historically (Brian Mitchell) and the best return man in 2009 (Joshua Cribbs) is that they were both college QBs.

"The other common denominator is that of the players below, only three were defensive backs in college: Darrien Gordon, Devin Hester, Deion Sanders.

"Another common denominator (with the exception of the 6-foot-1 Cribbs) is that they are all under six feet tall."

Finally, Kevin Weidl of Scouts Inc. was kind enough to run through the best return prospects in the draft:
Return Specialists

These guys will either be drafted or signed as free agents strictly for their return skills. Due to lack of size, they will need a creative offensive coordinator to contribute offensively at the next level.

Brandon Banks, Kansas State (5-7, 159) -- Banks is the top pure returner in this years’ class. He possesses a nice combination of vision, quickness, speed and elusiveness to consistently set offenses up with favorable field position.

Brandon James, Florida (5-6, 176) -- James possesses great vision to locate and the short-area burst to quickly get through first line of defense. He also displays a quick stop and start and is very reliable tracking and fielding punts. Questionable overall long speed to outrun defenders when they have favorable angle in pursuit.

Trindon Holliday, LSU (5-5, 172) -- World-class track speed, and has the ability to exploit even the slimmest of creases. He is shifty but lacks elite elusiveness to make defenders miss in confined areas.

Other prospects that bring added value as returners (sorted by position);

Running backs

C.J. Spiller, Clemson -- The most dynamic and versatile offensive weapon in this year’s class. Explosive short-area burst and elite top-end and long speed give him ability to rip off a big gain at any point in both phases of the return game.

Dexter McCluster, Ole Miss -- McCluster is pint sized (5-8) but shows great versatility and quickness to contribute as a change-of-pace back and wide receiver at the next level. Elite open-field capabilities make him dangerous as a punt returner.

Other RBs with returning experience: Joe McKnight, USC; Ben Tate, Auburn; Andre Dixon, UConn


Javier Arenas, Alabama -- Instinctive and tough football player who should step in and contribute immediately as a sub-package nickel back. Despite lack of elite top-end speed, Arenas is one of the more effective returners in this year’s class. I love his vision, balance and quick stop and start as a returner.

Kyle Wilson, Boise State -- Physical press corner who shows great anticipation and ball skills out on an island. Wilson brings added value as a reliable punt returner with good speed and open-field capabilities.

Devin McCourty, Rutgers -- Not many holes in McCourty as a cornerback. Easy change of direction, strong overall ball skills, plays bigger than size indicates and not afraid to get jersey dirty in run support. McCourty is one of the most versatile special teams prospect in this year's class, an effective kick returner and outstanding gunner with punt coverage.

Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, IUP -- Possesses a nice combination of size, speed and ball skills teams covet as either a press corner or free safety at the next level. Owusu-Ansahis a strong open-field runner who has experience as both a kickoff and punt returner.

Other cornerbacks with returning experience: Perrish Cox, Oklahoma State; Syd’Quan Thompson, Cal; Walter Thurmond, Oregon; Dennis Rogan, Tennessee

Wide receivers

Golden Tate, Notre Dame -- Aggressive, savvy and sure-handed and should develop into at least a strong No. 3 WR at the next level. Reliable punt returner with good vision, balance and deceiving top-end speed.

Damian Williams, USC -- Smooth athlete and one of the most polished route runners in this year’s receiver class. Despite lack of top-end speed, Williams will consistently field punts cleanly and has enough elusiveness to pick up positive yardage.

Mardy Gilyard, Cincinnati -- Instinctive and passionate playmaker on the field who should develop into a solid No. 3 WR. By no means a burner, but a difference-maker as a returner in both phases as he shows elite body control and never slows down out of cuts.

Jacoby Ford, Clemson -- World class track speed and should be a nice vertical threat at the next level. Elite top-end speed gives him ability to hit the home run at any point as both a kick and punt returner.

Antonio Brown, Central Michigan -- Quicker than fast, and should contribute working out of the slot at the next level. Brown brings added value as both a kick and punt returner with his open field capabilities and overall elusiveness.

Other receivers with returning experience: Jordan Shipley, Texas; Emmanuel Sanders, SMU; Andre Roberts, Citadel; David Reed, Utah

And a bonus link to a Pro Football Weekly story on the best special teamers in the draft, including three return specialists.

Final thoughts from me having taken all this in: Things always get twisted up with return guys. If the Colts or Titans draft a guy they intend to be a contributor as a cornerback or running back or receiver, there is a point at which they won't want to overload them with the extra job or expose them to injury on special teams. How long would we see Spiller or Wilson or McCourty or Tate be a special teamer? First-round receiver Kenny Britt returned kicks for the Titans late last season, but the team can't want him there much longer.

So I'd like to see both teams commit a pick to a return specialist, dedicating a roster spot to him.

Consistent fielding of punts and kicks was an issue for the Titans last year, and it's time for the team to actually have bigger expectations for its returner than an ability to fair catch. Ryan Mouton couldn't even do that reliably when things were at their worst.

The Colts have always seemed to figure they'd simply get the yards the return game doesn't provide from Peyton Manning and the offense. Their issues on special teams extend beyond the returners -- primarily T.J. Rushing on punts and Chad Simpson on kicks in 2009 -- and their blocking, and got magnified in the Super Bowl loss to New Orleans. But with offensive line and depth at corner and linebacker as the major needs in a draft where the Colts have eight picks, it appears a good time to try to add a dynamic piece.

Posted by's Paul Kuharsky

 Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
 Kerry Collins threw two touchdowns as the Titans routed the Browns 28-9 Sunday to grab the AFC South title for the first time since 2002.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Stephen Tulloch wanted one. Cortland Finnegan had no use for his.

And so a simple handoff went down in the shadowy Titans locker room, where the same electrical problems that took out a Jumbotron meant only about half the lights were working.

While Tulloch acquired an AFC South Championship hat and Michael Griffin proudly wore his high on his head during interviews, most Tennessee players tucked their hats and shirts into their bags -- treats for family or mementos for later when they hope it's a small marker on the road map of a much bigger season.

"I think I'll put it in the closet with the rest of them, I think that's my fourth or fifth one," said cornerback Nick Harper, who jumped to the Titans in 2007 from the Colts, who won the previous five division titles. "I collect them. I've won so many, I never wore the hats. One day I'm going to have a trophy case and put them all up there for the grandkids to see."

Tight end Alge Crumpler enjoyed watching coach Jeff Fisher get a cooler dumped on him late in Tennessee's 28-9 victory over Cleveland, but said the celebration didn't extend far beyond that.

"We came in, said we've got one goal down, and by the time we said a prayer you guys were in the locker room, so we didn't get a chance to do much celebrating," Crumpler said. "If anybody on this team is satisfied, they're in the wrong place."

Long after the Titans finished their part, the Jets' loss in San Francisco assured Tennessee of a first-round playoff bye.

The last two weeks may have shown us as much or more about how bad the Lions and Browns are than about how good the Titans are.

Still, it's no small feat for the home team to survive a season-high three turnovers and season highs in penalties and yards -- 13 for 131 -- and still win by 19 points.

"It wasn't our cleanest game," quarterback Kerry Collins said. "I think a lot of credit has to go to our defense. We put them into some tough situations with the turnovers, hurt ourselves with the penalties, so a lot of credit has to go to them for stepping it up the way they did."

A game that was sailing early got bogged down with chippy play -- 21 total penalties and 30 incomplete passes. But the Titans took command with a stout run defense, a steady diet of carries for their two running backs and third-down success on both sides of the ball.

The Titans were a bit daring on the play of the game that might best symbolize how things line up for them. Down 6-0 and facing a fourth-and-1 from the Cleveland 28-yard line after LenDale White couldn't convert on third-and-1, Collins faked a handoff to White, then threw to fullback Ahmard Hall, who snuck out into the flat. He caught the short throw, raced to the front left corner of the end zone and the Titans were ahead for good.

"Actually it was the best call I think we could have had for the defense they were in, I think they had a 6-2 defense in," Crumpler said. "If we tried to just run it up the gut, we were outmanned. It was a great call at the right time."

Collins said it was a "gutsy" call by offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger and that the Titans hadn't imagined Hall would be open, but planned to throw to one of two crossing receivers.

Just like with the penalties and the turnovers, it all worked out for the best.

At the two-minute warning, the Titans' marketing folks were pitching AFC South Championship gear on the one scoreboard that was working. But Finnegan was not at all excited about his keepsakes.

"That's short-lived man, I don't care about that," he said. "The Houston Texans don't care, that's a division rival coming up."

Other things I noticed, heard or asked about after the game at LP Field...

  • Rookie Running back Chris Johnson came into the game averaging an impressive 4.7 yards per carry, and did significant work to boost it to 4.9 with 19 carries for 136 yards and a touchdown.

    His backfield partner, White, got a touchdown too, and landed a yard short of 100 himself. He actually had it until he took a late fourth-down carry wide left for a loss of two yards.

    Had he stayed in triple figures, it would have been the Titans' third game with two 100-yard running backs. No team had seen two backs top 100 yards rushing in three games in the same season since Rocky Bleier and Franco Harris on the 1976 Steelers.

  • An illustration of how Fisher and Collins are hardly the only calm, cool, collected guys leading this team, just the most visible:

    Return man Chris Carr watched the opening kickoff of the third quarter scoot by him and circled behind it. When it touched the goal line he was on a knee in the end zone gathering it to down it. Touchback.

    Undoubtedly, there are some return men in the league who wouldn't have known the rule well enough to make the right play with such confidence and would have tried to bring it out of the end zone for fear of being hit for a safety.

    "I think I played it exactly the way you're supposed to play it," Carr said. "It's tough when the ball bounces like that, but I think I did the right thing."

    A similarly smart play: Collins let go of his second touchdown pass, a 9-yarder to Justin Gage, while defensive back Eric Wright had his back turned. Gage may have gotten away with a slight shove and Wright slid sideways, away from the ball, as it arrived.

    "The defender had his back turned," Collins said. "Sometimes if you throw it high and right at him, the defender doesn't know the ball is coming and at worst it's going to be incomplete."

    Likewise on defense, the Browns' use of Joshua Cribbs in a "flash package" where he took direct snaps and lined up some at quarterback hardly made the Titans flinch. He threw one nice pass that led a receiver out of bounds and ran six times for 24 yards. Ho hum.

  • Three of the Titans' penalties h
    ad side effects that don't show up in the raw numbers:

    Kevin Mawae's personal foul undid a 5-yard gain, Jevon Kearse's defensive offside undid a Nick Harper interception and a 14-yard return, and Jason Jones' defensive offside meant his 18-yard sack of Ken Dorsey didn't count.

  • One spot it doesn't look like this regime or a new one for the Browns will have to address is weakside linebacker. D'Qwell Jackson had two picks and nearly had a third, and looked to do very well getting depth covering the deep middle when he had too.

    He was credited with 15 tackles in a game where no one else had more than eight.

    But Jackson can't solve this team's primary issue -- an inability to get into the end zone. The Browns' touchdown-less streak now extends just 13 seconds short of 13 quarters, dating back to the early fourth quarter of their Nov. 17 win at Buffalo.

  • Until late in the second quarter, the scoreboard in the north end zone was completely dark. The play clock at the other end was turned off too to make things fair.

    Collins said he looked only for the 10-second signal from the official. Fisher was complimentary of the crisp pace with which the offense worked to ensure it was a non-issue.

  • Finnegan was kicking himself after the game for two near-misses on field-goal blocks. Twice he streaked in from the right edge, beating Steve Heiden and nearly blocking Phil Dawson's kick.

    "I was real close, great penetration," he said. "I made the same move both times and it worked both times, and the third time he roughed me up. ... I definitely owe us one."

    While we're on the subject of field goals, an odd note from ESPN Research:

    With Dawson hitting from 47 and 41 and missing from 44, opponents are just 5-for-10 on field goal tries from 40 yards and beyond against the Titans. Tennessee kicker Rob Bironas, meanwhile, is 14-of-17 from 40 and beyond. His work was limited to extra points on Sunday.