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Jay Gruden: “We have to find a returner, and that returner — odds are — will make the team”

The injury to Shaun Wilson opens up opportunities

Jay Gruden’s Monday press conference was, to me, one of the most fascinating we’ve seen in a while, largely because of his comments on the importance of special teams play in finalizing the roster, especially with regard to identifying punt and kickoff returners.

The situation became a shade more dire when Shaun Wilson, who had looked good as a punt returner in preseason, and especially against the Bengals, was injured in the 4th quarter of that game when he was playing on the punt coverage team. There hadn’t been an update on his injury status since he was carted off the FedEx field Thursday night, but in answer to a direct question on Monday, Gruden said about Wilson, “He has a pretty good ankle [injury], so he’ll be out for a little while.”

For a guy who was fighting for a spot on the running back depth chart, and relying almost completely on his return skills to make that happen, it sounds like his 2019 season may be over. With just 2 12 weeks before final roster cuts, Wilson is likely to either end up on IR or waived with an injury settlement.

Related: Shaun Wilson looked like a pretty good punt returner against the Bengals, right up until he got injured

But that opens up opportunities for others.

When I watched the press conference live, I thought that Jay said that Trey Quinn hadn’t been able to return punts, and it immediately caught my attention, but, reading the transcript, it quotes Jay as saying that “Trey Quinn has been able to return punts.”

That makes more sense.

But the team needs a backup returner, and the Redskins need to have a kick returner. Jay mentioned that, to date, Byron Marshall had been the primary returner for kickoffs, but that the coaches needed to focus on other players now.

Here’s the full quote from the press conference:

Trey Quinn has been able to return punts. We’ve got to get [Greg] Stroman some, [Steven] Sims [Jr] some and whoever else can get back there – maybe [Jimmy] Moreland.

Kick return right now has been [Byron] Marshall pretty much, so we’ll have to look at some other people there as well. We have to find a returner, and that returner — odds are — will make the team.”

That’s pretty powerful stuff. With the final two preseason games coming in the next nine or ten days, the head coach just announced that the guy(s) who win(s) the return job(s) will probably make the roster.

I know that I’ll be keenly focused on the punt and kickoff returns against the Falcons and Ravens to find out who that might be.

Jay clearly identified two potential roster ‘bubble’ players in Stroman and Steven Sims who could help themselves by showing punt return skills in the final two preseason games. Other players like Darvin Kidsy or Craig Reynolds might suddenly have an opportunity because of the injury to Wilson, who was looking like a potential backup return man, or by showing the ability to return kickoffs.

It partly helps explain Jay’s continuing fascination with Byron Marshall if one sees him as the primary kick returner.

If Marshall holds onto the role of #1 kick returner, that could spell the end of the road for a guy like Samaje Perine, who doesn’t play special teams.

Conversely, if Jay really wants to hold onto Samaje, then it could create a job for a DB or WR if Byron Marshall doesn’t make the 53-man cut.

Special teams could also prove to be the deciding factor for Josh Doctson. Jay has repeatedly said, over the years, that the Redskins typically keep six wide receivers, dress five on game day, and the fifth guy is expected to play special teams. When Doctson was viewed as a starter, his lack of special teams play wasn’t really critical, but if the coaches see him as a backup receiver, it may be the deciding factor in whether he makes the team or not.

Related: Kelvin Harmon impressed the hell out of me by getting called for two offensive pass interference penalties

Roster construction is a tricky process. We fans often get very focused on just offense and defense, forgetting that between kickoffs & returns, punts & returns, extra points and field goals (both kicking and defending), a lot of football is played by the special teams. The coaches have to factor that in. We saw last season, when the Redskins fielded a top-quartile ST unit, just how much the kicking and punting game can impact wins and losses.

Washington has two guys with talented and reliable kicking legs in Dustin Hopkins and Tress Way; now the challenge is to see if the Redskins can get better production in the return game — especially on punts.

Keep your eye on the punt returner position on Thursday night — it may tell you who makes the roster cut, and who doesn’t.