My previous two draft player roundups have examined nickelbacks and coverage linebackers who might help the Commanders build a winner. The penultimate instalment in the series will examine players with potential to light a spark in their lackluster return game.
Punt and kick returns are obviously important for establishing starting field position on offensive drives and present an opportunity to flip the field with game-changing big plays. The Commanders’ two primary returners in 2022 were competent, but didn’t really strike fear in opposing special teams coordinators.
The most common praise of Dax Milne on punt returns is that he doesn’t fumble very often. While that’s true, he doesn’t return the ball very far either. His average of 7.8 yards/return ranked 23rd among players with 10 or more returns in 2022. He was also not a threat to rip off big returns. His long return of 19 yards ranked 36th in the league.
Kick returns have been devalued since 2012, when the kicking line was moved to the 35-yard line, resulting in an increase in the rate of touchbacks. Nevertheless, the Commanders felt enough need to breathe some life into the return game that they gave primary kick return duties to their second lead running back, Antonio Gibson. While he may have been the best option available, short of risking their starting wide receivers, his performance was below league average. Gibson’s average return of 23.1 yards ranked 19th among players with 10 or more returns. His long return of 45 yards ranked 24th.
The 2023 draft is loaded with players who could add the explosive element that the Commanders’ return game is lacking. In this roundup, I will examine players with potential to add something special on punt or kick returns, throughout the draft, with an emphasis on players who add value on offense or defense.
The players listed include receivers, running backs and defensive backs who have excelled as returners at the college level, or have potential to do so in the NFL. Throughout the draft, I have focussed on players with starting potential or developmental upside on offense or defense, and have only included a few players who are likely to be limited to being return specialists in the later rounds, or who might be available as UDFAs.
I have also avoided players who have experience as returners in college, but were just OK or not good at it. These include a few players who regularly turn up on return specialist rankings, including Charlie Jones, WR Iowa, who averaged a modest 8.1 yards/return on punts and 22.3 yards/return, and Demario Douglas, who muffed 6 punts in college. The idea was to identify players with potential to be much better than the Commanders’ 2022 returners, who would be worth drafting even if they weren’t.
Consensus prospect rankings were taken from the Athletic’s 2023 NFL Draft Consensus Big Board 4.0. RAS values were taken from the Mathbomb website. NFL combine measurements were sourced from NFL.com. All other player stats were sourced from the Sports Reference College Football website, Pro Football Reference, or scoured off of the NCAA stats website or college websites in the case of lesser known late-round prospects.
Brian Branch, CB/S, Alabama
6-0, 190 lbs, 4.58 sec 40, RAS 6.10
Consensus Prospect Rank: 18
Branch is a player I really like for the Commanders at pick #16. He provides a plug-and-play option to fill a vacant starting position on the Commanders’ defense, is one of the safest picks in the 2023 draft and has potential to become an elite starter.
If the Commanders did draft Branch in the first round, would they really use him as a returner? Maybe. Branch only returned two punts in his college career. He totalled 65 yards and one touchdown. He might be an option to consider on those occasions when the team really needs a quick score. He is probably not a player you would want to use as a primary returner.
Josh Downs, WR, North Carolina
5-9, 171 lbs, 4.48 sec 40, RAS 7.79
Consensus Prospect Rank: 40
Downs is among the best of the second tier of wide receivers in the 2023 draft. He is an undersized, dynamic and highly productive slot receiver. In 2022 he had 94 receptions for 1,029 yards (10.9 yds/rec) and 11 TDs. That represented a dropoff from 2021, when he was Sam Howell’s favorite target, hauling in 101 receptions for 1,335 yards (13.2) and 8 TDs.
If the Commanders’ were willing to invest their second-round pick on a slot receiver, he would join the team as WR4 on the depth chart and provide a cheaper, younger, and potentially better option to replace Curtis Samuel in 2024.
I don’t think it’s likely, but one reason they might consider such a move is that he has potential to revitalize their punt return game. In 2022, Downs returned 10 punts for 133 yards (13.3 yds/ret). That average return yardage figure should place him 7th in the NCAA, but for some reason he is not listed on the leaderboards.
Devon Achane, RB, Texas A&M
5-8, 188 lbs, 4.32 sec 40, (RAS 7.02, incomplete)
Consensus Prospect Rank: 54
Achane is a creative runner with elite short-area quickness and burst to evade tacklers and breakaway speed to escape pursuit. Despite his size, he is a fearless inside runner, although that could be a difficult way for him to earn a living in the NFL. He is also an excellent receiver out of the backfield or lined up in the slot. He could join the Commanders’ RB rotation as a dangerous flex weapon and third-down option.
Achane averaged 6.4 yard per rushing attempt over three years at Texas A&M. In 2022, he had rushed for 1,102 yards (3rd in SEC) and 8 TDs on 196 attempts (5.6 yds/att) and had 36 receptions for 196 yds and 3 TDs. In 2021, he averaged 7.0 yards/carry (1st in SEC, 5th in NCAA) and had 24 receptions for 261 yards (10.9 yds/rec) and 1 TD.
Achane is also a homerun hitter on kick returns. In his final two years in college, he returned 20 kicks for 613 yards (30.7 yds/return) and ran two back for touchdowns. While he was not tried as a punt returner in college, he has the traits to be equally dangerous in that phase of the return game, including ball skills, decisiveness, elusiveness and blazing speed.
Kayshon Boutte, WR, LSU
5-11, 195 lbs, 4.5 sec 40, RAS 4.73
Consensus Prospect Rank: 69
Boutte has the size and athletic ability to play as an outside receiver, but it’s hard to imagine him challenging either of Washington’s two starters. He is also skilled at gaining separation underneath, which might suggest a role in the slot as Curtis Samuel’s eventual replacement. He does have some issues with drops and needs to clean up his catch technique. He only returned 5 punts during his freshman and sophomore years in college, but was very good when he did, averaging 16.0 yards per return. He had a shockingly poor performance at the Combine, which could make him available later in the draft than initially expected.
Marvin Mims Jr, WR, Oklahoma
5-11, 183 lbs, 4.38 sec 40, RAS 9.13
Consensus Prospect Rank: 77
Mims is a speedy slot receiver with potential to be moved around to exploit mismatches in coverage. He has great run after the catch ability, but is not great at contested throws. In 2022, he had 54 receptions for 1,083 yards (20.1 yds/rec) and 6 TDs. Mims would immediately upgrade the Commanders’ WR4 depth position and has eventual starting potential.
He is also an explosive punt and kick returner, who presents a threat to break off long gains every time he touches the ball. In 2022, he returned 10 punts for 160 yds (16.0 yds/ret) and two kickoffs for 51 yds. He was used sparingly on kickoffs in college, averaging 36.0 yards per return on three returns over three years at Oklahoma.
Nathaniel “Tank” Dell, WR, Houston
5-8, 165 lbs, 4.49 sec 40, RAS 5.36
Consensus Prospect Rank: 88
The aptly named “Tank” Dell led the NCAA with 1,398 receiving yards in 2022, and scored 17 TDs which ranked 2nd in the ACC. Like many of the prospects who follow him on this list, he has borderline size for the NFL. However, it is likely that at least some NFL teams will be willing to take the gamble that his exceptional playmaking ability will be enough to compensate for any size limitations. Will the Commanders be one of them?
Tank has elite short area quickness and enough long speed to create separation at all three levels. He is excellent at tracking the ball and has a knack for making highlight-reel receptions. He has some issues with concentration drops and is not great at contested catches. Once he does catch the ball, he has dangerous run-after-the-catch ability and presents a mismatch nightmare for defensive coordinators.
Dell’s movement skills and speed also make him an explosive punt returner with game changing ability. In 2022, he returned 9 punts for 153 yards (17.0 yds/ret) and one TD. He returned kickoffs in his freshman and sophomore years, but was not as accomplished, averaging just 18.3 yds/return.
Tyler Scott, WR, Cincinnati
5-10, 177 lbs, 4.44 sec 40, RAS 8.30
BrisVegas Draft Projection: Rounds 3 to 4
Scott is a fluid and explosive former sprinter with the speed and elusiveness to uncover at all three levels. He is a big play threat, with 10 of his 14 career touchdowns going for 30+ yards. Lance Zeirlein comps him to T.Y. Hilton, which makes sense based on size, speed and versatility, as well as projected draft position. He could be an eventual replacement for Curtis Samuel, with potential to be a significant upgrade.
Scott had limited exposure to the return game in college, returning 6 kickoffs for 102 yards. He has untapped potential to be an explosive play threat as a punt returner.
Jayden Reed, WR, Michigan State
5-11, 187 lbs, 4.45 sec 40, RAS 6.18
BrisVegas Draft Projection: Rounds 4 to 5
Reed is a Z receiver with ability to line up all over the formation. He is already a good route runner with good ball tracking and excellent ball skills on deep throws and contested catches. In 2022, he had 55 receptions for 636 yards (11.6 yds/rec) and 5 TDs.
He is a dangerous punt returner and also has experience returning kicks. His best year as a receiver and returner was 2021, when he had 11 punt returns for 238 yds (21.6 yds/ret) and 2 TDs and 16 kick returns for 376 yds (23.5 yds/ret). In 2022, he returned 13 punts for 114 yds (8.8 yds/ret).
Reed would represent exceptional value on Day 3, as a versatile receiving option with potential to breathe life into the Commanders’ return game.
Tyjae Spears, RB, Tulane
5-10, 201 lbs, 4.47 sec 40, (RAS 8.76 unofficial – Pro Day)
BrisVegas Draft Projection: Round 4 to 5
Spears is an explosive runner who projects as a change-of-pace/third-down back at the NFL level. While he lacks the frame for a lead back role, he has the burst, acceleration and breakaway speed to make big gains when he gets the ball. At the Combine, Spears displayed elite explosiveness (39” vertical, 10’ 5” broad jump) for a back his size. As Tulane’s lead back in 2022, he gained 1,581 yds on 229 rushing attempts (6.9 yds/att) and scored 19 rushing TDs. He added 256 yds on 22 receiving attempts with 2 receiving TDS. Over 4 years at Tulane, Spears averaged 6.1 yards per rushing attempt.
The projection to returner at the NFL level is largely speculation. I would view him as a potential replacement for J.D. McKissic; and if he works out as returner, so much the better. Spears was not utilized much on returns at Tulane, with his total collegiate experience comprising two kick returns for 36 yards in 2021. He has the explosive running ability that teams look for in a kick returner, and has potential to relieve Antonio Gibson of kick return duties in 2023. He might also be worth a look on punt returns.
Trey Palmer, WR, Nebraska
6-0, 192 lbs, 4.33 sec 40, RAS incomplete
BrisVegas Draft Projection: Round 4 to 6
Palmer is a developmental prospect with great physical tools and upside at wide receiver, who has an established track record as a dynamic return specialist with big-play ability. Palmer was a five star recruit and a track star in high school. He started his college career at LSU, where he spent time as a return specialist, but struggled to get opportunities on offense behind a deep WR depth chart. He transferred to Nebraska in 2022 season where he had a breakout season, catching 71 passes for 1,043 yards (14.7 yds/rec) and 9 TDs.
In addition to plus-athletic traits, Palmer sets up his breaks and tracks the ball well to win against off man coverage and on deep routes, where he can be a mismatch against safeties. He is not a physical player, and has issues with focus drops. He also needs to refine his route running and learn a full route tree. Given his limited experience at WR in college, there is good potential for further development at the NFL level.
Where Palmer excels already is on punt and kick returns. He averaged 8.3 yards per punt return and 25.3 yards per kick return across his whole college career, and has returned a punt and a kick for touchdowns. His best season as a punt returner was his freshman year, when he returned 3 punts for 65 yards (21.7 yds/return) and a TD. His best season returning kicks was his sophomore year, when he returned 7 kickoffs for 241 yards (34.4 yds/ret) and a TD. In 2022, he returned 4 punts for 36 yards (9.0 yds/ret) and 3 kicks for 62 yds (20.7 yds/ret).
On the Commanders, Palmer would compete with Marcus Kemp, Alex Erickson and Kyric McGowan for a position on the WR depth chart, and would have a good chance of displacing Milne as the primary punt returner. He might also provide an option to spell Gibson on kick returns.
Derius Davis, WR, TCU
5-8, 165 lbs, 4.36 sec 40
BrisVegas Draft Projection: Rounds 6 to 7
Derius Davis to Washington in the 7th round is a popular choice in mock drafts. He is a diminutive receiver with quick footwork to slip press coverage and find openings in zone coverage, which would suit a role at slot receiver in the NFL. He had good productivity in 2022, catching 42 passes for 531 yds (12.6 yds/rec) and 5 TDs.
He was one of the best two-way return specialists in college football. In the last three years, Davis has returned 4 punts and 1 kickoff for TDs. In 2022, he led the Big 12 and was 5th in NCAA with a 14.9 yards per return average. In 2021, he averaged 29.6 yards per kickoff return, which was good for 9th in the NCAA and 2nd in the Big 12. He has led the NCAA in punt return TDs twice, notching 2 homeruns in 2020 and 2022.
Whether Davis can succeed as an NFL slot receiver at his size is a good question. His best chance to make the Commanders’ roster is as a return specialist, where he would be favored to displace Dax Milne, and has a good chance of winning the primary kick returner job as well.
Keaton Mitchell, RB, East Carolina
5-8, 179 lbs, 4.37 sec 40, RAS 8.66
BrisVegas Draft Projection: Rounds 6 to 7
Mitchell may be small, but he is an explosive play threat whenever he touches the ball. In 2022, he led the FBS with 54 runs of 10+ yards. He also averaged 7.4 yards per attempt as East Carolina’s lead back and scored 13 TDs. He would bring elite explosiveness and speed to the Commanders’ backfield and presents a matchup challenge for linebackers in coverage.
He would provide an intriguing option on third downs and gadget plays. His lack of value as a blocker could be a limitation in that role, but it is possible that Bieniemy uses an H-back or fullback in two back sets for added pass protection on third downs, as he did in Kansas city.
Mitchell was used sparingly as a kick returner at East Carolina and averaged 26.6 yards per return in 2022. His footwork and elite explosiveness might make him a threat on punt returns, as well.
Kazmeir Allen, RB/WR, UCLA
5-9, 175 lbs, 4.45 sec 40
BrisVegas Draft Projection: Round 6 to7
Allen is an undersized but versatile offensive weapon who has spent time at RB and WR in his 5 year career at UCLA. The Bruins line him up all over the formation, and he is an electric playmaker with the ball in his hands. He had 49 receptions for 403 yards (8.2 yds/rec) and 2 TDs in 2022, and rushed for 203 yards on 15 attempts (13.5 yds/att) and 2 TDs. He is also a willing blocker, despite his size. He could provide quite a change of pace from Brian Robinson as a third down back.
Allen is also a homerun hitter on kick returns. He averaged 27.0 yards per return on 39 returns in 2021 and 2022, and returned one 100 yds for a TD in 2021.
Malik Knowles, WR, Kansas State
6-2, 196 lbs
25.7 yds/ret (17th in NCAA)
BrisVegas Draft Projection: Round 7
Knowles is a big perimeter receiver with good hands. He might earn a spot at the bottom of the Commanders’ WR depth chart, where he would add size to the group and value on special teams.
Knowles is a dangerous kick returner. He averaged 27.7 yds/return over his 5-year college career and return three kicks for TDs. In 2021, he returned 20 kicks for 662 yds (33.1 yds/ret) with 2 TDs.
Isaiah Bolden, CB, Jackson State
6-2, 196 lbs, 4.40 sec 40
BrisVegas Draft Projection: Round 7
Bolden was another small school prospect who stood out at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl. He couldn’t wait for the NFL draft and entered the USFL draft, where he was selected in the 2nd round by the Memphis Showboats.
At the Collegiate Bowl, Bolden demonstrated strong coverage skills and the versatility to play corner and safety. He had decent production at CB for the Tigers in 2022, with 21 solo tackles, 12 assists and 6 passes defended.
He is at his best as a kick returner. Bolden returned 16 kicks for 591 yards (36.9 yds/return) and 2 TDs in 2021, with a long of 94 yds. He also returned 7 punts for 67 yards (9.6 yds/ret) that year. He had a down year on kick returns in 2022 compared to 2021, and only returned 13 for 371 yds (28.5 yds/ret). His success as a kick returner was not just a product of playing against lesser competition. In 2019, he averaged 26.0 yds/return on 6 returns against SEC opponents, while playing for Florida State.
Long CBs who can turn and run with receivers are always of interest to NFL teams. Bolden projects as a Day 1 contributor on special teams, who might just earn a spot on the Commanders’ thin CB depth chart in time.
Xavier Gipson, WR, Stephen F. Austin
5-9, 180 lbs
BrisVegas Draft Projection: Round 7/UDFA
Gipson dominated the FCS in 2022, and was a standout at the NFLPA Bowl, hauling in a 48-yard reception and looking strong in one-on-ones. He is a big-play threat from the slot, having accounted for at least one 45+ yard play from scrimmage in 7 of Stephen F. Austin’s 11 games.
Gipson is also an explosive big-play threat as a punt returner. In 2022, he returned 12 punts for an amazing 300 yards (25.0 yds/return) and 2 TDs. He might just be the playmaker the Commanders need in the return game and could challenge for a spot on the WR depth chart.
Eric Garror, CB, Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns
5-9, 176 lbs, 4.51 sec 40
BrisVegas Draft Projection: Round 7/UDFA
If the Commanders really want to put a spark in their return game, why not pick the best draft-eligible punt returner? Garror led the NCAA with 392 total yards and 2 TDs on punt returns, and had the 4th highest average, at 15.1 yards per return, which leads the draft class.
He is also not a bad nickel back. In coverage last season, Garror had 6 pass breakups, 2 interceptions and a respectable 71.4 passer rating when targeted. He could be a worthy successor to Jimmy Moreland. He will probably still be available as a priority UDFA after the draft.
How should return ability figure in the Commanders’ draft priorities?
This poll is closed
Treat it as an added bonus for a Day 2 draft picks
An important consideration for depth players on Day 3
Prioritize drafting a dynamic returner
Unimportant. I like the players we have.
Not at all. They should draft 8 offensive linemen.