Big Decision: Who returns punts?

December, 8, 2012
12/08/12
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The day before each game this season, this space will feature one big decision facing Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and his staff, in terms of the game plan.

This week's decision: Who will return punts for the Patriots?

PatriotsTexansBelichick constantly preaches the importance of "all three phases" coming together to win a football game, but there will be an added challenge on special teams beginning Monday night against the Houston Texans.

The Patriots' top punt returner since the beginning of the season, Julian Edelman, was lost for the season with a foot injury earlier this week. He ranks fifth in the NFL in punt returns, averaging 15.5 yards per return.

In the past, when the Patriots had holes to fill at returner, they would almost always call on running back Kevin Faulk. But Faulk's days in New England are over -- he retired earlier this year -- and the Patriots need to find another reliable replacement with the versatility to return both punts and kicks.

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The top option would be Faulk's replacement in the offense, Danny Woodhead, who returned kicks earlier this season but has yet to return a punt in a regular-season game in his first four professional seasons.

Another possibility is wide receiver Wes Welker, who typically replaces Edelman at returner in "plus-50" (beyond the 50-yard line) punt situations. With the division already locked up, the Patriots may hesitate to put Welker back there for all punts, and risk injury to a position (wide receiver) that is already reeling.

In the preseason, the Patriots' top two punt returners were Edelman and rookie Jeff Demps, both of whom are now on injured reserve. Undrafted rookie running back Brandon Bolden returned three punts in the preseason, and taking on that role is a possibility for him as he comes off a four-game suspension.

There are two longer shots: tight end Aaron Hernandez and wide receiver Donte' Stallworth. Both players started fielding punts during organized team activities in the spring, and Hernandez returned one punt for 5 yards in the preseason. But it would be a shock if the Patriots risk injury to Hernandez on special teams, with fellow Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski already sidelined from an injury he suffered on special teams.

What do you think? How should the Patriots try to replicate Edelman's production in punt returns? Do they take a risk by using Hernandez or Welker as a returner? Does using Bolden, Woodhead or Stallworth create a fumble risk, as they all lack experience in returning punts?

Vote in the poll and join the discussion in the comments section below.

Mike Rodak

ESPN Buffalo Bills reporter

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