Len Pasquarelli notes that the recent draft class marked a new emphasis on punt returns, a declining stat in recent years.
For every action, it seems there is always a reaction in the NFL, and that was reflected in the uncharacteristically large number of return specialists chosen in this year’s draft. Beginning with the selection of Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush (New Orleans) with the second overall pick, through the final choice in the lottery, Maine wide receiver Kevin McMahan (Oakland), there was an unprecedented grab on prospects with standout return skills. Players such as defensive backs Danieal Manning of Abilene Christian and Devin Hester of Miami, both chosen by the Chicago Bears in the second round, became priorities. So did guys such as UCLA tailback Maurice Drew (Jacksonville, second round), Florida State wide receiver Willie Reid (Pittsburgh, third round) and LSU wideout Skyler Green (Dallas, fourth round), among others.
So why a sudden emphasis on multitalented prospects teams hope will offer big returns, literally and figuratively, on their investments? Well, for openers, consider this: The league average for punt returns in 2005 was a puny 8.10 yards. That represents the fifth-lowest punt return average in the NFL since the 1970 merger, and the most anemic since 1979, when the league standard was a measly 7.65 yards. It marked the second consecutive season in which the average dipped below 9 yards, the first time that has occurred since the 1990-91 seasons. And there were only nine punt returns for touchdowns, the fewest since 1991.
Puny punt returns The leaguewide average for punt returns during the 2005 season, just 8.10 yards, ties for the fifth-lowest mark since the 1970 merger. It marked the second straight year in which the league average was under 9 yards, the first time that has occurred since the 1990-91 seasons. Here are the 10 worst seasons, in terms of punt return average, since 1970: Year Average 1971 7.02
7.14 1970 7.36 1979 7.65 2005 8.10
8.10 1982 8.13 1980 8.29 1978 8.38 1990 8.43 Source: Elias Sports Bureau
Fact is, there were just a combined 21 touchdowns in the league last season on punt and kickoff returns. That is the lowest number of combined kick returns for touchdowns since 1995, when there were 19. But the continuing slippage in punt return average — last season marked the fifth straight year in which the average declined and the seventh straight in which the NFL norm was less than 10 yards — was almost certainly responsible for the considerable contingent of return men chosen in the 2006 draft.
Clearly, the shrinking punt return average has garnered attention around the league and inflated the need for electrifying return specialists. “The [punt return] numbers are a little bit of a concern,” said Atlanta Falcons team president and general manager Rich McKay, co-chairman of the NFL’s influential competition committee. “They are too low, definitely, and it may be something we have to look at in the near future. We always take a hard look at the kicking game. Six or seven years ago, we talked about some things like not allowing teams to punt the ball out of bounds or not allowing the ‘gunners’ to leave the line of scrimmage until the ball is kicked. In terms of rules changes, though, there probably isn’t a whole lot we can do.”
So in this year’s draft, obviously, teams sought to change the human element. The glaring shortcoming on punt runbacks was addressed by franchises adding mercurial players they hope can dodge coverage units and run a long way. Of the top 10 punt return specialists from the 2005 college season who were eligible for the 2006 draft, nine were selected in the seven rounds of the lottery. And that didn’t even include Bush, who ranked No. 38 in average punt return in the NCAA statistics.
“It’s a game-changing opportunity, every punt or kickoff return, and it seems like more teams realized that in this draft,” said former Olympics moguls skier Jeremy Bloom, chosen by Philadelphia in the fifth round and expected to pump excitement into the Eagles’ return units. “It seemed like, once one or two return guys went off the board, the position kind of became a hot commodity. It really exploded.”
As accomplished as those return men were in college, however, they will have to step up their games to deal with the NFL’s ever-shrinking punt return average. But why is the league’s punt return average, which between 1992 and 2003 registered 10 yards or more in three seasons and never slipped to less than 9 yards, suddenly in such a perilous decline? “I think punters have bought in more now to the importance of net average,” said Buffalo Bills assistant head coach Bobby April, one of the NFL’s premier special teams mentors. “A guy like [former longtime NFL punter] Dan Stryzinski, he basically eliminated the punt return game by forcing so many fair catches every year. And guys see the wisdom of that. “Plus, as special teams coaches, we’re getting so much more practice time devoted to the kicking game than we ever did in the past. It’s certainly not any revolutionary changes in technique or mechanics or, for that matter, coaching. And, let’s face it, in an athletic matchup between the return man and a cover guy, who’s going to win? So you work harder at, get a guy to punt the ball more for net than gross average, and these are the results. I mean, no one ever wants to give a return guy any space.”
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