In 2009, the average NFL team finished with 22.6 yards per kick return through the season. The Jaguars finished their campaign as the perfect picture of mediocrity with 22.6 yards per kick return. The longest return of the season for the Jaguars was 43 yards, which ranks ahead of only the Redskins and Cowboys who recorded longs of 42 and 41, respectively. After finishing at exactly average, it appears that Gene Smith wants to address this through the draft or undrafted free agency. Over the last few weeks, many of the prospects that the Jaguars have looked at would be able to contribute as a returner, if not exclusively as a returner. But is a position with so few touches a game worth a roster spot, let alone a draft pick?
The answer to that question is certainly arguable for either side, but knowing the impact that a dynamic returner has on a team can help to justify spending a pick on one.
In 2009, the Jaguars relied on Mike Thomas, Brian Witherspoon, Rashad Jennings, Montell Owens, Tiquan Underwood and even Maurice Jones-Drew for kick return duties. If such a carousel at the position can produce a return average that is better than half the league, then it can be assumed that finding an average kick returner isn't difficult. For a team to set aside a roster spot for someone that only returns kicks, that player would need to have a significant impact like Joshua Cribbs has for the Browns.
The 2009 Browns finished with the fewest yards of offense, over 300 yards behind the St. Louis Rams. Yet how did the Browns score a whopping 70 points more than the Rams? Well for one, Cribbs returned 3 kickoffs and 1 punt for a touchdown while the Rams returned neither a punt nor kickoff for a touchdown in 2009. Aside from that fact, the Browns were able to score 5 offensive touchdowns more than the Rams and kick 4 field goals more.
The Browns average starting field position in 2009 was 30.4 yards from the endzone, while the Rams was 28.6. A 2 yard difference might not seem like much, it's the long returns that change the game and allow the Browns to score without much movement of the ball. While the Ram returner, Danny Amendola, was a servicable returner, leading the Rams to an above average kick return average, his longest return was 58 yards. Cribbs consistently provided the Browns were terrific field position with 50+ yard returns throughout the season. Even the worst team in the league at advancing the ball was able to take advantage of the great field position.
Simply put, what a great returner gives to a team is more points with less yards. In 2009, the Jaguar offense finished 18th in the NFL in total yards, yet they finished 24th in the NFL in total points, 40 points behind the 18th ranked 49ers offense. A great returner can fill that gap and add points on top of that. In my opinion, the contribution that a player like that can make warrants a draft pick.
- Adam Stites
(Special thanks to mgrex03 of StampedeBlue for helping me with some stats.)