Last season marked the first year of the new kickoff rule in the NFL, moving the kickoff spot from the 30-yard line up five yards. While this benefited many kickoff units who used kickers or punters with strong legs to kick the football deep in the end zone, there were those return specialists who were willing to take it out and gain ground beyond the 20 yard line.
In Carolina, the art of the return is conservative, to say the least. Most fans expected to see the Panthers take a knee instead of trying to make the big play. However, the philosophy of the kick return unit may be changing, just like the philosophy of the offense did last season.
The reason? Kealoha Pilares.
Pilares was taken in the fifth round of the 2011 draft and found himself mostly buried on the wide receiver depth chart. He was given a chance to return kickoffs after replacing Carolina's usual returner, Mike Goodson, during a Week 11 game against the Detroit Lions. He made the most of this opportunity by returning a kickoff 101 yards for a touchdown.
Despite scoring only one touchdown in that season, Pilares brought optimism to a team and, more importantly, a fanbase which had grown bored of the Panthers' inability to do more on kickoffs.
Just how good is Pilares? Let's review the numbers.
The Panthers returned 39 kickoffs in 2011. They recorded 926 yards on those returns for an average of 23.7 yards per attempt. Pilares fielded 23 of those kickoffs for 590 yards for an average of 25.7 yards pert attempt. What is really fascinating about these statistics is Pilares accounted for approximately 64 percent of Carolina's return yards.
However, there is more.
Pilares ranked 20th in the league among kick returners, but a lot of that is due to him not getting many attempts to return the ball. The league leader, Brandon Banks of the Washington Redskins, only averaged 23.0 yards per return and was ranked 20th in return yards average. Pilares' return average was good enough to have him ranked eighth in the league in that department.
It will be interesting to see what kind of production Pilares brings to the table in 2012. He is seemingly a fan favorite to remain in the return role, and he has the potential to bring his talents to the offense too. It's still too early to determine how good he will be, but if he improves or even maintains his numbers from last year, he will most likely be among the top returners in the league.