For years, the Giants' return game has left a lot to be desired. Players like Chicago’s Devin Hester and Arizona’s Patrick Peterson have proven to be game changers, but for some reason, New York has been slow to catch on. That all could change in 2012 if rookie wide receiver Rueben Randle gets a shot at returning punts.
The Giants’ average yards per punt return has ranked in the bottom half of the league in four of the past five seasons. These past two seasons have been especially poor. In 2011, the Giants averaged a measly 6.1 yards per punt return, with the longest return of the season being a whopping 18-yarder.
The Giants’ punt return average ranked 29th last season, which, surprisingly, was an improvement from the year before when they ranked 31st.
Even though Hixon looks poised to make the 53-man roster in 2012, he is not expected to contribute in the return game. After back-to-back ACL tears, putting the 27-year-old receiver back to return punts would probably lead itself to more risk than reward.
So, the Giants have been searching for fresh legs in the return game. Rookie cornerback Jayron Hosley looked impressive in the first quarter of the team’s opening preseason game versus Jacksonville, with returns of 14 yards and 20 yards. But just before halftime, Hosley muffed a fair catch, allowing the Jaguars to score a late touchdown.
Second-year wide receiver Jerrel Jernigan also had a chance to make his mark on the Giants return game versus Jacksonville. Jernigan was simultaneously trying to put his awful 2011 preseason performance against the Jets, in which he dropped four punts, in the rearview mirror. However, a muffed punt in the fourth quarter of Friday night’s game placed Jernigan back at square one.
Head coach Tom Coughlin, who has always preached ball security, did not like what he saw, which led him to hold a tryout for the punt returner job on Monday. According to a report by Mike Garafolo of The Star-Ledger, Hixon and Randle joined Hosley and Jernigan in the competition. The four players practiced catching Steve Weatherford’s punts with gunners bearing down on them.
The Giants know that Randle has good hands—that’s why they drafted him. However, he never really had a chance to return punts at LSU since the previously mentioned Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu have always held down that position. But things are looking bright early on—Garafolo said that Randle fielded his punts perfectly.
Special teams coordinator Tom Quinn told Tom Rock of Newsday earlier this week that he has been impressed with what he’s seen out of Randle in the return game:
“He has very good hands,” Quinn told Rock. “Sometimes he’s almost too confident with his hands and he catches the ball as if he’s catching a pass instead of getting up and underneath it. He covers more ground than it appears because he’s a long smooth strider, but he does have the ability to stick his foot in the ground from what it looks like in practice.”
Even though it sounds like he still has a bit of work to do, it’s tough not to get excited about Randle’s confidence and potential. He could provide the spark in the return game that the Giants have been missing for so long.
The return game may also act as a catalyst for Randle's career as a receiver. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride has implemented a complicated scheme, and Coughlin rarely trusts inexperienced receivers to carry out their responsibilities on Sundays. Right now, Randle is behind Hixon, Jernigan and possibly even Ramses Barden for the currently vacant third wide receiver spot, but if he can prove his big play ability on special teams, Coughlin may reward him with more playing time in the passing game.
Plenty of receivers have gotten noticed in the return game—take a look at Green Bay’s Randall Cobb. With Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings, James Jones and Donald Driver already on the squad in 2011, it didn’t seem like the Packers had any room for the second-round draft pick to fit in.
Then Cobb returned a kickoff for a touchdown in the Packers’ opening game and averaged 11.4 yards per punt return throughout the season. His special teams success resulted in more looks from quarterback Aaron Rodgers when on offense. Cobb finished the season with 25 catches for 375 yards—not bad for a rookie who, in the preseason, was not expected to have many balls thrown his way.
It’s difficult to wait patiently for a rookie’s time to come—especially one as highly touted as Randle. With that in mind, it’s safe to say that Giants fans would like to see Randle follow in Cobb’s footsteps.
Randle was advertised as NFL ready during draft, but now he has the critical opportunity to prove that to Coughlin and the rest of the Giants coaching staff by producing in the punt return game.