Specialist Needed: Who Will Handle the Return Duties for Carolina in 2014?

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Specialist Needed: Who Will Handle the Return Duties for Carolina in 2014?
Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

We are almost a week into the free-agency period, and the Carolina Panthers have lost a few key players from last season. One of those players was wide receiver and return specialist Ted Ginn Jr. The former Panther signed a three-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals, and his departure has left a gaping hole in the Carolina special teams unit.

As if the Panthers didn't have enough holes to fill this year, another one has presented itself.

The problem may not be as complicated or hard to resolve as some may think. Carolina has not really had a strong reputation for having an effective return game, but having someone capable of picking up chunks of yards on a kickoff or punt return would help the offense out tremendously.

Carolina does have a few options when it comes to finding a return specialist. They can take a look at the players on their roster, sign a free agent or acquire someone via the draft. It's likely that Dave Gettleman uses a combination of sorts and utilizes all three areas to fill the positions of kick and punt returner.

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

 

On the Roster

Currently, there are three players on the team who have experience as return specialists. By default, the best return man available is Kealoha Pilares. He spent the entire 2013 season on injured reserve after suffering a torn right ACL against Baltimore in the preseason.

However, he has experience returning kickoffs, as he has returned 32 kicks for 806 yards and a score. Assuming he is able to recover from his injury, he could be a legitimate consideration. The only drawback is whether or not he will be able to make the same kind of cuts after fielding a kick. His injury could hamper his ability to return as a wide receiver.

Elsa/Getty Images

Another option is Kenjon Barner.

Barner was drafted last season and did very little on the field. He was projected to be an explosive asset while paired with Ginn on kick returns, but he only fielded two for 17 yards through seven games. It's still too early to dismiss him, as he was quite good at his craft in college.

He may have evolved more into a running back while at Oregon, but during his freshman year in 2009, he returned 41 kicks for 1,020 yards and a touchdown. He did return a few punts, but he was mainly utilized on kickoffs. Barner is still five seasons removed from being a productive special teams member, and he may never regain that form that made him successful in college.

The Panthers do have one more option on their roster. Josh Thomas was called upon to field a punt last year, but it was a fair catch. Since that was his only contribution to the return game, Thomas emerges as a dark-horse candidate to assume the job on a full-time basis in 2014.

 

Free Agency

The free-agent market has a few notable names who have made a career out of returning kicks and punts. One name that could generate interest is Devin Hester. The former Chicago Bear needs no introduction, as he has burned opposing special teams units and made returning kicks and punts for touchdowns a fine art.

Career Return Stats (Kick & Punt Returns)
Player PR Return Yards TDs KR Return Yards TDs
D. Hester 264 3,241 13 222 5,504 5
J. Cribbs 203 2,250 3 407 10,505 8

Pro-Football-Reference.com

It may help that Hester is familiar with Carolina head coach Ron Rivera.

Hester may be past his prime, but he can still do enough to bridge the gap at special teams until a suitable replacement can be found.

Another free agent on the market who has made a name for himself in the return department is Josh Cribbs. The former Cleveland Brown and New York Jet was very proficient and found the end zone a combined 11 times between returning kicks and punts.

Both Hester and Cribbs have experience as wide receivers, but neither has really made the same kind of impact on offense as they have on special teams. Regardless, signing either one gives Carolina another receiver and someone who can be inserted into the offense on designed plays.

Career Receiving Stats
Player Receptions Yards TDs
D. Hester 217 2,807 14
J. Cribbs 109 1,167 7

Pro-Football-Reference.com

 

NFL Draft

Career College Kick & Punt Return Stats
Player KR Yards TDs PR Yards TDs
J. Gilbert 102 2,681 6 8 55 0
O. Beckham, Jr 40 1,005 0 58 538 2
J. Saunders 33 798 0 31 465 3
D. Archer 6 8 0 51 1,436 6

Sports-Reference.com

There are four draft prospects who have experience on special teams that the Carolina front office can look at. The best prospect looks to be Justin Gilbert out of Oklahoma State. He is regarded as a high to middle first-round pick this year and could be off the board by the time the Panthers are on the clock. Still, his ability warrants a look, andin the unlikely event he were to fall—he would make a strong case for consideration by Carolina.

A more realistic option could be Odell Beckham Jr. The LSU wide receiver did well at the combine and split a balanced amount of time between fielding kicks and punts. Carolina needs a wide receiver in the worst way, and Beckham gives them a player who can be a difference-maker at two positions.

The need for wide receivers in Carolina is high enough that the team will probably invest at least two draft picks at the position. If the team targets the position during the middle rounds, there are two players who could play the position and be legitimate contenders for the open return job.

Oklahoma's Jalen Saunders and Kent State's Dri Archer are both projected to be middle-round prospects by CBSSports.com. Saunders played two seasons at Fresno State before transferring to Oklahoma and primarily handled kick return duties during his freshman year with the Bulldogs. Saunders could benefit from adding some body mass, but given his frame (5'9”, 165 lbs), he could remind fans of a young Steve Smith.

Archer is an inch shorter (5'8”) than Saunders but has a bit more bulk, as he weighs in at 173 pounds. His versatility and durability has him drawing comparisons to Tennessee's Dexter McCluster. If either player can make an impact on special teams, they could be considered mid-round steals.

The situation at special teams is less than desirable. It shouldn't be surprising to see the Panthers mix and match a combination of veterans and rookies in an effort to find the right guy. It never hurts to go with a proven veteran, and for a team that is redefining itself, bringing in younger talent can't hurt.

Gettleman has proven to be crafty during both free agency and the draft. He should be able to find the right player for the return specialist position without having to overpay. Carolina needs a long-term solution when it comes to the return game, and there are plenty of options to choose from this year.

All stats provided via Pro-Football-Reference.com and Sports-Reference.com.  Player information provided via CBSSports.com and Panthers.com.  Free-agent list courtesy of Rotoworld.com.

Follow me on Twitter as we monitor the Carolina Panthers offseason activity.

 

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