I find the question of who will return punts & kickoffs to be an intriguing one — not just this year, but every year.
Last offseason, I wrote an article or two discussing the candidates for the position of kick returner and punt returner for the Washington Football Team. In the end, I suggested that Danny Johnson would continue as the kick returner, and that Deandre Carter would make the roster as the specialist punt returner and back up slot receiver.
It turned out that I was half-right. Carter did make the team, but he handled both punt and kick return duties, and Danny Johnson opened up the 2021 season on the practice squad.
Goodbye DeAndre Carter
Honestly, I was expecting the team to re-sign Carter to a 2 or 3 year extension in March, but for reasons unknown, he was allowed to leave in free agency, signing with the Chargers, meaning that it’s back to the drawing board for the Commanders.
Who are the candidates?
During OTAs and minicamp this offseason, reporters have consistently named the same 5 guys as lining up as punt returners.
We had this report from Peter Hailey:
When punt returners were sent back to catch blasts from Tress Way, Dotson, Alex Erickson, Kyric McGowan, Jequez Ezzard and Dax Milne were the five doing so.
and this tweet from Zach Selby:
Special teams update: same group of players returning punts — McGowan, Ezzard, Erickson, Milne and Dotson— Zach Selby (@ZachSelbyWC) June 14, 2022
- Kyric McGowan and Jequez Ezzard are college undrafted free agents.
- Alex Erickson is a 7th year return man who went undrafted in 2016 but has been active every regular season game over the past 6 seasons, accumulating 158 punt returns and 110 kick returns.
- Dax Milne was a 7th round draft pick of the Washington Football Team in 2021.
- Jahan Dotson was this year’s first-round pick, 16 overall.
Dotson played 4 seasons at Penn State and never returned a kickoff. He did return 25 punts with a 13.5 yard average.
The biggest argument against Dotson as the primary punt returner is his expected role in the offense. It appears that the Commanders see Dotson as one of their top-3 receivers going into 2022, and reports from OTAs and minicamps (where there are no pads and no tackling) have been glowing regarding Dotson’s understanding of the offense, his speed, hands and catch radius.
In 2019, Terry McLaurin was originally drafted by the Redskins with the primary intent of being a special teams ace; after the coaches saw what he could do on offense, however, plans to have him play special teams were scrapped.
I suspect that Dotson will only see the field as a returner in 2022 if the primary return man is injured. As the 16th overall pick in the draft, he will obviously make the roster, but I don’t expect him to be lining up as a return man except in an emergency.
Erickson has pretty good size, at 6’0” and 195 pounds. While he can play in the slot, and took the majority of his offensive snaps there in 2017 and 2020, over the course of his NFL career, he has more frequently lined up wide, meaning that he offers positional flexibility as a backup receiver.
In 6 NFL seasons, he has exceeded 200 receiving yards only once — in 2019 when he had 43 receptions for 529 yards.
Erickson is an all-round return man, who is a capable enough receiver, both in the slot and lined up wide, to justify a roster spot.
His statistics as a punt returner and kick returner were only “okay” in his first two seasons, but he has done well as a return man in 3 of the past 4 seasons.
- He has a career punt return average of 8.1 yards per return on 158 returns, and has only averaged less than 7 yards per return one time in his career (in 2019, his best year as a receiver).
- His kickoff returns have been likewise very consistent, with his worst year being 2019 — the only one in which his average fell below 20.7.
I thought it might be worthwhile to compare Erickson’s averages in his 6-year career to those of DeAndre Carter’s 4-year career and his one season in Washington.
You’ll see that Erickson has a slightly better career average on kickoff returns than Carter, though Carter achieved his career best numbers as a kick returner last season, primarily due to his 101-yard TD return against the Falcons.
With respect to punt returns, Erickson’s career average is below both Carter’s career number and Carter’s somewhat lower 2021 average. Erickson, however, has had three very good seasons (2018, 2020, 2021) in which he has averaged over 10 yards per return twice. In these three seasons, his combined punt return average is 9.8.
It may be just a simple rationalization, but I think there’s an argument to be made that 2019 was a career outlier for Erickson in which he played the most offensive snaps and put up the best receiving stats of his career, but the worst return numbers. I think it’s possible that his 615 offensive snaps in 2019 reduced his effectiveness as a returner.
If that’s the case, then one could argue that his three best seasons (‘18, ‘20, ‘21) are the norm for Erickson as a specialist return man.
My feeling is that the coaching staff will want a veteran return man to replace DeAndre Carter. Of the 5 guys known to be vying for the job, Erickson is the only one with NFL experience as a punt or kick returner, and I think that gives him the inside track. It won’t hurt that his 2022 cap hit is only $895,000.
Unless one of the other returners does something special in preseason, I feel like the punt returner position is Erickson’s to lose. He is an experienced punt returner who can also handle kickoffs, and as a backup receiver, he can line up in the slot or out wide, and he’s got enough size and experience to feel confident about his durability.
Undrafted college free agent Ezzard is just just 5’9” and 194 pounds. Due to injuries and COVID rules, he spent 6 years at two small colleges: Howard University and Sam Houston State.
As a punt returner, Ezzard had his best season in 2020, when he averaged an incredible 17.4 yards per return, with 2 touchdowns. In his 3 best years as a punt returner, he averaged 13.6 yards per return. He also has some experience returning kickoffs.
As a small college player and an undrafted free agent, Ezzard faces an uphill battle to make the roster, and it seems his best chance is as a practice squad player who offers injury insurance in the return game as both a punt returner and kickoff return man.
McGowan is a 5’10”, 183 pound receiver from Georgia Tech, where he played as a 5th-year senior following 4 years at Northwestern.
McGowan’s career as a receiver was fairly undistinguished. His best season was his 2021 campaign with Ga Tech when he caught 37 passes for 467 yards and 7 touchdowns.
His returner pedigree is limited.
He only had 5 punt returns in his college career, and his best season saw him gain 9 punt return yards on 4 returns.
As a kickoff return man, McGowan has a career average in college of 23.2 yards, which is respectable.
Given his limited experience and lack of success as a punt returner, I don’t see McGowan winning the job unless he can have multiple successful punt returns in the Commanders’ 3-game preseason. Absent some truly impressive on-field performance in preseason, I think he’ll struggle to make the roster or the practice squad.
Milne is a 2nd year player who was drafted in the 7th round of the 2021 draft. He made the regular season roster in 2021, but played only 163 snaps, getting 14 targets and 9 receptions on the year. He did not return any kickoffs or punts for the Football Team in ‘21.
At BYU, Milne had 12 punt returns over two seasons. He averaged a sparkling 11.4 yards per return on 5 returns as a sophomore, but I’m guessing (without looking it up) that his average was helped by one big return.
As a Junior, Milne had 7 returns for a combined 3 yards — an dismal average of just 0.3 yards per return.
While Milne may get some looks at punt returner in training camp and preseason, I don’t see much evidence to indicate that he’s likely to win the job. In fact, with all the competition at both returner and receiver in 2022, I think he’ll find it difficult to make the regular roster to start the season. He could very well be on the practice squad come September.
My current projection
Obviously, seeing the players in preseason can have a huge impact on who wins the returner job, but at the moment, I believe that Alex Erickson has the advantage and is most likely to make the 53-man roster as a returner.
Erickson can return both punts and kickoffs; he has 6 years of NFL experience and has never missed a game due to injury. At 6’0”, 195 pounds, he has good size, and he has demonstrated ability to play multiple receiving positions in an NFL offense.
Dotson will obviously make the roster, and his experience at Penn State makes him a good choice as the backup to Erickson as a punt returner in case of injury.
I expect the the team to keep one viable punt returner on the practice squad, and at this point I believe that will be either the rookie Ezzard or 2nd year receiver Dax Milne.
Danny Johnson seems to have a good shot at making the 53-man roster, though that is by no means a sure thing. If he does, I think he could fill the role of either primary or backup kickoff returner — a role he excelled in during the 2020 season.
Taking into account the restrictions of a 53-man roster, who should be the team’s primary punt returner this season?
This poll is closed
None of the above