The Patriots were bland on kickoff returns last year — consistently consistent, little more, little less. With a couple of more weapons on the roster in 2010, who will emerge as the Patriots' most dynamic kick returner?
Last season, the Patriots averaged 22.7 yards per kickoff return, which ranked 15th in the NFL. Their longest return of the season, however, was a 52-yarder from Laurence Maroney. Only four teams failed to run one back longer than that.
And lastly, the Patriots were one of 18 teams that didn’t return a kickoff for a touchdown. Three teams had multiple touchdown returns, and it's no surprise that they were blessed with the three best returners in the game: Josh Cribbs had three with Cleveland, Percy Harvin had two with Minnesota and Ted Ginn Jr. had two with Miami.
New England used a committee approach with Maroney (13 returns, 21.5-yard average), Matthew Slater (11, 24.5), Julian Edelman (11, 21.9), Kevin Faulk (six, 24.0), Darius Butler (five, 20.8), Brandon Tate (four, 26.5), Wes Welker (two, 22.5) and Isaiah Stanback (one, 22.0). Dan Connolly also recovered a short kickoff and returned it 16 yards.
Tate had the best average, but he only lasted two games due to injury. Slater, who is one of the two fastest players on the team, had the second-best average, but he couldn’t break tackles. Everyone else just fell in line after that.
Obviously, this doesn’t fall solely on the kick returners. The blockers have to be aligned properly, and that’s on them and special teams coordinator Scott O'Brien, who was in his first year with the Patriots in 2009.
The kick returner, however, holds the majority of the responsibility. He's got to be one of the most athletic players on the team, with the vision to read his blocks several steps in advance and the physicality to burst through the initial hole and break away from first contact.
It was somewhat curious why Butler didn’t get as much of a shot last season, though his average doesn’t exactly back up that average. But Butler has excellent open-field awareness, and he knew exactly what to do with the football when he returned an interception 91 yards for a touchdown in the regular-season finale against the Texans. It would be worth it to give him another look during the preseason.
Edelman might also warrant more positive results. His rookie season was hampered by injuries, and that could have led to limited productivity on kick returns. He's quick and shifty enough to be a pest as a slot receiver, and he looked like a real special teams asset when he returned a punt for a touchdown in the 2009 preseason.
Rookie cornerback Devin McCourty will also get a look. He averaged 25.4 yards per return last year at Rutgers, and he also registered a 98-yard touchdown scamper. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick praised McCourty for his work on special teams, so it's only natural to think he'll get a chance to show his kick return ability in 2010.
There's one guy who should emerge from the pack, though. Tate, who is the ACC's all-time leader in kick return yardage, displayed otherworldly speed on kickoff returns during the Patriots' spring practices. The kid flies, and he runs with a purpose in the return game, where he developed as a star at North Carolina.
Tate has drawn plenty of comparisons to Harvin, but he never got a chance to boast those skills during a rookie season that was all but washed away due to a knee injury. If Tate comes as advertised, he could be the best kick returner in New England since Raymond Clayborn.
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Saturday, July 17: Can Zoltan Mesko add some life to the punting unit?
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