Rams' kick return duties up for grabs

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- With no obvious solution in place last season, the St. Louis Rams turned their kick returner job over to rookie Tavon Austin in week 6 against Houston.

To that point, the Rams had used the likes of running backs Benny Cunningham and Isaiah Pead in the role with solid, if unspectacular results. Cunningham seemingly had claimed the job as his own, but when he suffered an ankle injury against the Texans, it cost him two weeks and, until an injury to Austin, his return duties.

But the Rams didn't necessarily intend for Austin to handle anything beyond his role in the offense and the punt returning job. They put him at kick returner as a matter of necessity, a move they apparently intend to course correct this year, according to special teams coach John Fassel.

“Yeah, I think we’ve got great candidates that can do it that can maybe take a couple reps off him per game from a kickoff return standpoint,” Fassel said.

Based on that response, it sounds as though Austin could still do some kick returning, but the Rams would like to pick their spots when to put him in there.

In reality, the job of a kick returner doesn't come with the opportunity that it once did. While it's hard to argue against any scenario in which Austin gets his hands on the ball, kick returns didn't provide many chances for him.

As the primary kick returner for the seven games after Cunningham's ankle issue, Austin found himself watching the ball sail out of the back of the end zone or kneeling 8 yards deep into it on most kickoffs. He finished with just 18 returns for 398 yards, an average of 22.11 per attempt with a long of 32 yards.

When Austin suffered a late-season ankle injury against Arizona, Cunningham reclaimed the job and fared just as well. Cunningham averaged 23 yards on his 13 attempts. And, believe it or not, Pead actually performed the best of the three, though on a smaller sample size, with an average of 27.60 yards on only five attempts.

For those keeping score, that adds up to 36 kick return attempts for the season. Rams opponents booted 39 touchbacks. Factoring in a couple of squib kicks, Rams' opponents had a touchback rate of exactly 50 percent in 2013.

Considering the lack of opportunity the job provides, it makes sense for the Rams to seek a more consistent alternative and choose their spots with Austin as his role in the offense expands. Quietly, the team added a few more options in the offseason, including rookie cornerback Greg Reid and running back Tre Mason.

In Tuesday's organized team activity, the Rams took a look at many of their kick returner applicants, a vetting process that will extend well into the preseason. After all, you can't tell much of anything about a kick returner until an actual game.

"I think Pead back there give us some great burst and ball-handler, (receiver Chris) Givens, (receiver Justin) Veltung, Reid, a couple young guys that you can throw into the mix," Fassel said. "Mason did it at Auburn. So everybody will get a couple cracks at it. I’m very optimistic about our kickoff returner, whoever that might be.”