Draft Preview: Investing In Returns

Posted by Mike Wobschall on April 23, 2013 – 5:43 pm

How early would you be willing to draft a return specialist? This is a player who is categorized under a specific position, but you’ve drafted him to serve exclusively as a return specialist for your club, at least for the first season of his career while he develops at his standard position.

Think of Devin Hester, for example. While he is listed as a receiver and has played that position for the Bears recently, the 2013 plan for Hester is to focus primarily on return duties. If Devin Hester were eligible in this year’s draft, where would you be willing to select him?

Keep that question in mind as you analyze the group of players we’ve compiled as draftable return specialists. Also keep in mind that elite prospects at standard positions who also project to be returners are not included in this piece, such as West Virginia’s Tavon Austin, Oregon’s Kenjon Barner, LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu and Tennessee’s Cordarrelle Patterson.

As usual, we want you to be involved. Let us know what you think by leaving your thoughts in the comments section below this entry or by emailing me for possible inclusion in a future Pick 6 or Monday Morning Mailbag.

Immediate Game-Changers


WR Marquise Goodwin (Texas)
— Fastest timed player at the Combine (4.27 in the 40)
— Olympic track athlete (Participated in London Games)
— Explosive measurables besides speed (132.0-inch broad jump)
— Career kickoff return numbers: 44-985-1 (22.4 average) Grade: 4th-7th Round

Summary: Goodwin may develop into a solid NFL WR one day, but short arms, small hands and a need for improved route running make the primary KR role a better fit in Year 1.

WR Ace Sanders (South Carolina)
— Has potential as WR in NFL, but will instantly upgrade return game
— A true game-breaker who scouts describe as “quick twitch” with great feet, agility and instincts
— Set school record with 429 yards on 28 punt returns in 2012
— Career punt return numbers: 72-578-3 Grade: 4th-7th Round

Summary: One of the more electric playmakers in this draft, Sanders could step in as an elite punt returner immediately and provides intriguing potential as a kickoff returner as well. Rare acceleration ability combined with rare awareness of where the creases will open.

RB Onterio McCalebb (Auburn)
– In 4 seasons at Auburn, had career kickoff return numbers of: 53-1,360-2 (25.7 average)
— Had returns of 100, 99 and 83 yards
— Fastest 40 time for RBs at Combine (4.34) – great accelerator
— Long, lean, wiry frame but doesn’t take big hits and has limited injury history
— No punt return history Grade: 4th-7th Round

Summary: A gadget player for Auburn’s dynamic offense, McCalebb was an all-purpose yardage machine and is a great candidate to focus on return role during the early stages of his career. He has big-time playmaking ability, reaches top speed quickly and has elite change of direction ability.

WR Denard Robinson (Michigan)
— A+ athlete with experience playing QB, RB and WR and was 2010 Big 10 Offensive Player of the Year as a QB.
— Transitioning to new position in the NFL (WR) and worked as a returner during pre-draft build-up
— Explosive measurables, great top-end speed (4.43), experienced playmaker Grade: 2nd-3rd Round

Summary: Robinson just has too much equity built up in terms of making big plays in big games to write him off as he switches positions coming into the NFL. He struggled fielding kicks and punts during Senior Bowl week, but has worked tirelessly since to improve and definitely has the “it” factor to him.

Will Compete For Starting Role

RB Kerwynn Williams (Utah State)
— Accomplished and experienced college kickoff returner with career numbers of: 91-2,272-1 (25.0)
— Full-time kickoff returner as freshman (53-1,444-1)
— Also returned punts occasionally (15 career punt returns)
— Developed as a RB behind NFL talent and started as a freshman, so he could have visions of developing into RB role in NFL down the road.
— 4.46-4.48 in 40-yard dash, top Combine performer in 20-yard shuttle (4.15), explosive in vertical, broad jumps Grade: 4th-7th Round

Summary: Another yardage machine, Williams leaves Utah State as the school’s and conferences all-time leader in all-purpose yardage. Appears to have potential as an NFL RB, but could be a difference-maker as a returner while that development takes place.

RB Theo Riddick (Notre Dame)
– Career kickoff return numbers:  47-1051-0 (22.4)
— Was Notre Dame’s primary kickoff returner in 2009 – 37-849-0 (22.9)
— Versatile player at Notre Dame – started at WR (2010) and led team in rushing (2012) Grade: 4th-7th Rounder

Summary: You can question whether or not Riddick has the long speed necessary to be an elite returner, but he does have excellent change of direction ability, is a proven versatile commodity and is known as a hard worker and team-first guy.

RB Michael Ford (LSU)
— Has just one season with return experience at LSU – kickoff return numbers of : 20-549-0
— Ran solid  4.5 in the 40-yard dash at the Combine, but Pro Football Weekly has him listed with a 4.46
— His 38½ vertical leap indicates explosiveness. Grade: 4th-7th Rounder

Summary: Ford was not heavily used as a RB at LSU, so there’s plenty of tread on the tires and he may cherish a role as a possible primary returner. Time speeds in drills are impressive, production at LSU doesn’t help his stock.

WR Jasper Collins (Mount Union)
– Was primary punt returner for 3 seasons – 38-605-3 (15.9)
— Snubbed by Combine but estimated 40-time is 4.55
— Helped Mount Union go 15-0 in 2012 as team’s leading receiver (no returns in ‘12) Grade: Ungraded

Summary: Hard to gauge true value as a returner because he stepped away entirely from that role as a senior. Solid 40-yard dash time combined with 15.9-yard average per punt return indicates he might have ability to fill this role in the NFL.

WR Alan Bonner (Jacksonville State)
— Productive and experienced returner in college – full-time role as a freshman and sophomore, but eventually became starter at WR.
— Career kickoff return numbers of: 46-1,020 (22.2) and career punt return numbers of: 87-972 (11.2) Grade: 4th-7th Round

Summary: Scouting reports describe Bonner as not explosive, but it’s hard not to like his experience and production as a returner in college. The fact that he’s experienced at both kickoff and punt return is a plus.

RB Chris Thompson (Florida State)
— Limited kickoff return experience at FSU:  8-183
— Pro Football Weekly has him with a 4.45 time in 40-yard dash Grade: 4th-7th Round

Summary: Big-time talent as a RB at Florida State, but injuries (broken back, ACL) derailed his chances of becoming a top-flight prospect as a ball-carrier. But that’s the rub here. Can he use his RB skill set in combo with elite track speed to be a returner at the NFL level and open the door for one day ascending the depth chart to carry the rock for an NFL team?

CB Greg Reid (Valdosta State)
— Electric playmaker for Florida State and then Valdosta State with some potential as a DB
— Was a kickoff and punt returner in college, posting totals of 63-1,553 (24.7) as a kickoff returner and 89-1,117-3 (12.6) on punt returns Grade: 4th-7th Round

Summary: The scouting report on Reid says: “Electric returner. A threat to take the ball to the house any time he touches the football due to elusiveness and tremendous open-field vision.” The report also sites an ACL injury and off-field concerns as reasons he’ll go undrafted.

Others To Consider

CB Adrian Bushell (Louisville)
— Moved around during college career but settled at Louisville for 2 seasons
— Had 2-year KOR total of 26-609-1 (23.4)

Summary: Bushell had moderate production in college and lacks elite athletic traits, but he needs major refinement at CB so he’s a candidate for primary return duties.

CB Mike Edwards (Hawaii)
– Moved around in college, settled at Hawaii for 2 seasons
— 2-year kickoff return total of 84-2,301-3 (27.4)
— Named Mountain West Special Teams POY in ’12 for return production (30.4 + 3 TDs)

Summary: His size and technique deficiency makes him a candidate for primary return duty in the NFL.

CB Khalid Wooten (Nevada)
— Experience and solid production as both kickoff returner and punt returner
— Kickoff return total of 23-493 (21.4) and punt return total of 19-242 (12.7)

Summary: Wooten is a classic “height-weight-speed” prospect who will use special teams roles to stick on a roster in hopes of developing into a defender.

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