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Looking for the Redskins Returners for 2019

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It’s one way to make the team

New York Jets v Washington Redskins Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

As Jay Gruden is fond of telling us, when it comes down to the final few roster spots in setting the 53-man roster, special teams play is the usual deciding factor.

The first piece of advice usually given to late-round draft picks and undrafted college free agents? Go find the special teams coach, introduce yourself, and tell him you want to play for him. Make yourself indispensable to the ST unit.

Terrelle Davis often recounts the special teams play he made in his first preseason game as an undrafted free agent that got him noticed by the coaches and ignited his Hall of Fame career.

In projecting roster spots, special teams players — especially gunners and returners — can’t be ignored. The players with these skills have a stronger grip on a roster spot than others.

Terry McLaurin, we have been told, was rated as the #1 special teams player in the NFL draft this year. Given the Redskins rather dire situation at wide receiver, McLaurin is in no real danger of being cut, but his skills in punt coverage make him even more valuable.

Last year, in early June, I published a look at the Redskins options at punt & kickoff returner. The names I listed then for the punt return job were Jamison Crowder, Trey Quinn, Greg Stroman and Darvin Kidsy. In 2017, Crowder had developed a tendency to muff or fumble punts, and the team had been in a jam because they didn’t really have a “Plan B” option, so the three rookies — two late round draft picks and a UDFA with return history from college — were in a good position to secure their roster spots by showing off their return skills.

By mid-August 2018, the Redskins had played two preseason games, and I published a followup article to update the status of the punt return competition as it had unfolded thus far. I ended up ranking the contenders:

  1. Trey Quinn
  2. Maurice Harris
  3. Greg Stroman

and then adding that Danny Johnson, who had fielded two punts early in Game 1, had looked bad doing so, and might be out of the competition.

I don’t think it’s an accident that Trey Quinn, Mr. Irrelevant, Mo Harris and Danny Johnson, both UDFAs, and Greg Stroman, a late 7th round draft pick, all made the roster and appeared in regular season games.

I didn’t do any ‘look ahead’ during minicamp this year because we had so many veteran players on the roster with return skills, but this tweet from Paul Conner today — the first day of training camp with pads on — seemed like an opportune time to take a look at the players he mentions. Of course, Danny Johnson is not discussed here as he is currently on the PUP list.

Trey Quinn

Quinn looked pretty good as a punt returner last year, returning 4 punts for 52 yards — an impressive 13.0 yards per return average on a small sample. His longest return was 30 yards. Quinn didn’t return any kickoffs last year.

If 3Q had been able to stay healthy in 2018, he might well have been my pick to be the #1 punt returner on the Redskins roster in 2019, but my priority is on keeping him healthy for his slot receiver duties.

Given the Redskins relative inexperience and lack of depth at wide receiver, I just don’t think they can take the added risk of putting Quinn on the field for, potentially, and extra 4 or 5 hits per game when there may be other competent returners on the roster.

Greg Stroman

I wasn’t as impressed by Stroman’s return abilities as I was by Quinn’s, and the fact is, he under-performed on a larger sample as both punt & kickoff return man.

Source: Pro Football Reference

Stroman’s longest punt return was 10 yards, and his average was a paltry 3.4 yards per return. To reinforce his lack of explosive return abilities, his kickoff return average of 18.3 yards is also unimpressive.

While Stroman meets the ‘competent’ standard to act as the backup return man, I don’t think I’d like to rely on him as the primary returner in 2019.

The “new Redskins” Options

If I want to avoid the second-year players as options in the return game — Quinn because he’s too indispensable to the offense at the moment, and Stroman because he’s not really an explosive returner — then we need to look at the three other players Paul Conner mentioned in his tweet, none of whom were on the Redskins roster in 2018.

Shaun Wilson, RB, Duke/Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Of the three players who are new to the Redskins, the one I know the least about is Shaun Wilson, as he was signed to the Redskins roster just this week.

A quick look at Pro Football Reference indicates that he returned 7 kickoffs for 122 yards for the Bucs last season (17.4 avg), but he didn’t return any punts.

Looking back to his college days at Duke, his stats are, as one might expect, more impressive. In 3 seasons with the Blue Devils, Wilson returned 67 kickoffs for 1,697 yards and two touchdowns, with an impressive 25.3 yards-per-return average.

If Wilson was likely to make the team as a running back, I might put him in the mix for kickoff return man, but the fact is, given the depth the Redskins have at the RB position, Wilson’s history as a kickoff return man isn’t going to get him onto the active roster or active on game days. When you consider Jay Gruden’s preference to just watch the ball bounce in the end zone and start the offensive possession on the 25-yard-line, it makes it even more unlikely that Wilson can muscle his way onto the roster on the basis of his resume as a kickoff return man.

T.J. Rahming, WR, Duke

Shaun Wilson and T.J. Rahming were teammates at Duke for three seasons. While Wilson was a kickoff returner, Rahming returned punts in his Junior and Senior years. He returned 13 punts in 2017 and 25 punts in 2018, averaging 7.0 and 5.8 yards per return, respectively.

Rahming also put together an impressive bowl game that included a notable 14-yard punt return.

In our Hogs Haven profile on Rahming, film analyst James FitzGerald had this to say:

Aside from his speed and athletic ability I don’t see any reason Rahming would make an NFL roster. It’s natural to compare him to Jamison Crowder, as they did both go to Duke, but Rahming is not even close to Crowder’s level.

Rahming did return punts for Duke, but I don’t see him as special in that category either.

Rahming is small and fast, but he’s highly unlikely to make even the Redskins roster as an NFL receiver, meaning that he would almost certainly need to make it as a specialist punt returner, and neither his statistical production in college nor the film that James FitzGerald watched indicate that he has that kind of skill.

Steven Sims, WR, Kansas

Source: Sports Reference

Sims has a little experience as both a kick returner and a punter, but not a ton of experience at either role.

His 12 returns for 77 yards as a Junior in 2017 mark him as a competent punt returner, but nothing special, while his kick return statistics — both his 14 returns for 355 yards as a Junior and his career average of 21.7 yards per return — indicate that he is capable of following blocking and utilizing his speed and explosiveness to beat the coverage.

Turning to his Hogs Haven profile, I see a lot of emphasis placed on this part of his game:

Steven Sims Jr. has to be a part of special teams to make the regular season roster. He was not the main punt or kick returner on film at Kansas, but he did return a few.

Sims has the ability to make the 53-man roster, but the Redskins have a few people that already have his skill set. To avoid getting cut or ending up on the practice squad, he will have to beat out our current return men for that spot, and he has a shot at doing that if he can shine in preseason.

In comparing him to T.J. Rahming, the Redskins’ other UFDA wide receiver, who is roughtly the same size, with a similar skill set, Sims, in my opinion, has a better chance to make the team.

This seems to leave the door open just a crack for Sims to find his way onto the roster. The difficulty to my way of thinking is that the Redskins are going to need every receiver active on game day to be able to contribute on offense, and I’m not sure Sims is talented enough to do that.

BONUS UPDATE

As Scott Jennings pointed out in the comments section below, Craig Reynolds also got a run at kick returner today. It seems worthwhile to add some information about him to this article.

We published a profile on Reynolds about a month ago, highlighting his skills as a returner. Let’s see what that article had to say:

We’ve got a decent sized back who shows some power and quickness that averaged 5.3 yards per carry, 10.5 yards per reception, 21.6 yards per kickoff return, and 11 yards per punt return, who also scored 45 touchdowns in a 4 year career at a Division II school in Pennsylvania. What should I make of his NFL potential generally, and his possible role with the Redskins in particular?

Importantly, Reynolds has special teams ability. He is a good kick returner and could possibly be used as a punt returner as well due to his vision combined with his speed and strength.

Without a doubt the Redskins signed Reynolds to try out as a returner on special teams. He is a great athlete; however, he is not better than any other running back on the Redskins roster. As I mentioned above, he returned kicks in college, and if he is able to wow the coaches as a returner, he could make the team, but if he doesn’t win the return job, he will be cut.

Reynolds looks to be a handy kick returner and has impressive stats as a punt returner. If he can fill both roles for the Redskins, he might — might — be able to make the team as a specialist return man, taking up a valuable roster spot. It’s difficult to see him making the team as a running back alone in 2019, but when you consider his return abilities and his potential to fill the backup RB role in 2020 and beyond, it may be enough to get the front office to think long and hard about his place on the roster.

Summary

It’s far too early for any “bottom line” analysis. I have, in fact, only relied on a couple of tweets for identifying the six options in the return game, and even then, I haven’t looked at Jimmy Moreland, who was named as working on returns as well. As mentioned above, Danny Johnson, who was in the mix last season, is currently on the PUP list, and we may well see other players given a shot on different days in camp. We’ll know a lot more after we’ve seen the first two pre-season games.

That said, I’m feeling that the coaches may end up forced to rely on Trey Quinn as the team’s primary punt returner, as there seems to be a big dropoff when other options, aside from Craig Reynolds, are considered.

The kickoff return man on a Jay Gruden team in 2019 is not a critical role, since the coach really likes to see the ball downed for the touchback, but there are times when opponents kick the ball short and force a return. It appears that the Redskins will have options for filling the role of kickoff return man, with Stroman being a likely candidate to make the 53, and Steven Sims and Craig Reynolds more ‘dark horse’ candidates.

This camp battle often goes unnoticed and unremarked upon until the final cut downs are made, but the competition for return duties is a critical part of securing a place on the active roster for Week 1.