- Paul Kuharsky, ESPN Staff Writer
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AFC 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.
"Another common denominator (with the exception of the 6-foot-1 Cribbs) is that they are all under six feet tall."
Top Punt Returners, Historically/Recently
Top Kickoff Returners, Historically/Recently
Finally, Kevin Weidl of Scouts Inc. was kind enough to run through the best return prospects in the draft:
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);
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.
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.
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.
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.