Before I talk about what Brandon Banks really brings to the Redskins' table, let’s take a gander at what we do know about him. He is a shifty, slippery return man, who really does possess the athleticism to take the ball to the house at any given moment. At least that’s what his highlight reel shows us.
Even with the inclusion of a play that was called back for Perry Riley’s block in the back, we can see that Banks is often the fastest player on the field who, when at full speed, rarely gets caught from behind. It’s easy to embed flashy returns like the ones seen in the video into memory because there just hasn’t been a lot of positivity coming from Ashburn over the past few seasons.
But now that the “boom” Banks brings has been established, it’s time to focus on where he “busts”. Unfortunately, it’s quite often.
Banks actually had a very good 2010 season as far as returning kicks and punts went. Pro Football Focus anointed Banks with the third-highest return grade in the NFL, behind only Tennessee’s Marc Mariani and Chicago’s Devin Hester. Furthermore, those grades are cumulative, meaning if Banks had actually played in all 16 games like the aforementioned specialists, he may have been graded first overall.
But then 2011 came, as did new kickoff rules, and Banks saw a significant drop off in production. Despite returning a league-high 52 kicks, he didn’t do much with the ball. His return average fell from 25.1 to 22.6, and was the eighth-lowest among returners who had at least 20 returns.
Additionally, that big-play potential we saw in the highlight reel just was not on display. Of Banks’ 52 returns, 45 of them were for less than 30 yards, which is alarming given that he returned 27 kicks from the end zone. His longest kick return of the year was 47 yards, a total which 28 other returners bested.
Steve Shoup took this a step further and examined Banks’ kick returns piece by piece. As a whole, he found that the Redskins often would have been better off if Banks had taken a knee instead of returning from the end zone. Even with returns from outside of the end zone taken into account, the average field position for the Redskins was at the 24-yard-line when Banks returned a kick. That’s not exactly a great statistic for a returner to hang his hat on.
This is only half the story, as punt returns need to be taken into account as well. The story gets better for Banks in this case, but not by much. Banks’ 37 punt returns is a plenty large enough sample size to determine how well he did, given that only six men had more attempts in 2011. His 55-yard punt return versus Dallas was a career long, and was one that only 16 returners topped over the course of the season.
However, Banks’ 8.9 average was the fourth-lowest among returners with at least 20 punt-return attempts, which is still remarkably low especially with a 55-yard outlier. If that one play is removed from his sample size, Banks’ already low season-average gets reduced by over a full yard to a miserable 7.6.
It’s reasonably fair to say that the new kickoff rules factored into Banks’ struggles, but they are here to stay. Given his struggles with returning punts, it’s also fair to say that more than just rule changes were at fault for Banks’ stymied development.
Until the new rules go away, Banks must figure out a way to replicate his 2010 production, or else his job could very well be in jeopardy. The Redskins already have a crowded depth chart at wide receiver, and now have additional depth at running back, inside linebacker and safety positions. With Banks’ paltry numbers from a season ago, it’s not out of the question for the Redskins to think that they have someone on the roster who could fare just as well or better than Banks can in terms of getting consistently good field position. It will be an interesting story to watch with training camp and preseason on the horizon.