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Off-Season 2008: Return Threat

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Good ole Clarence.
It's been a long, long time since the Colts have a viable, dangerous kick or punt returning threat. You have to go back to the days of Clarence Verdin in the late-1980s and very early 1990s to remember a time when teams feared punting the ball. Actually, at that time, it was the only thing they feared, because both the offense and defense of the Colts sucked hard donkey nuts back then. In the years since, the Colts have gotten by with serviceable but not deadly returners. For much of the Dungy era, players like Troy Walters and Terrence Wilkins did a solid job ensuring the Colts fielded punts and kick without turnovers, and managed decent return yardage.

Now, I've stated this time and time again: Doing a "serviceable job" is nice, but I don't pay $150 a ticket to watch someone fair catch every punt or return it a few yards only to run out of bounds. It's the kick returners job not to fumble the damn ball, and to try and score on every single return. So, when I hear people like Bill Polian praise guys like Troy Walters, saying he was good because he protected the football, my response is always, "Well, duh! He did his job protecting the football, because if he didn't I hope he'd be bagging my groceries rather than returning my team's punts. He'd be doing a good job if he ran a punt back for a TD in a key moment of a key game."

Last season, Terrence Wilkins did a "good job" returning kicks and punts. His punt return in the first Jacksonville game was the difference, and he did a solid job getting good field position for Indy all season. He was cut in the 2007 off-season and replaced by TJ Rushing. Rushing was drafted in the 7th round of the 2006 draft, and though he played CB in college the Colts drafted him specifically to return punts and kicks. In 2007, he won the job, and was good in some games and shaky in others. He bobbled returns, fumbled one, and ran another back for a TD. Along the way, he also developed into a pretty good CB. In my opinion, he should have won the nickel corner job over Tim Jennings. And though Rushing still has some decent upside, I don't see him as a scary returning threat. I definitely think he has a place on this team, and should see more playing time at CB over Tim "Oops, I slipped" Jennings. But as a returner, I don't see him growing into a homerun threat, which is why getting or developing such a threat is important during the 2008 off-season. Here are some ways to do it:

  • Free agency: The Sporting News released their top 25 NFL free agents of the 2008 season, and on that list not a single return threat is listed. This might be because flashier names like Bernard Berrian and Randy Moss are more likely to make this list, or it might be because NFL teams see the value in locking up big time kick and punt returners. Both New England and St. Louis traded for their big play returners (Wes Welker and Dante Hall, respectively). Chicago and San Diego will make locking up Devon Hester and Darren Sproules priority #1 soon, or Jerry Angelo and AJ Smith better build concrete bunkers and lay low for a while. In fact, if you look at the top 15 returners in the league, not one of them is a free agent in 2008. Many of these guys are young players, one or two years in the league. This tells me that free agency is likely not the place to get a good returner, because there ain't none to get.
  • The Draft: The most logical place to find a great returner is the NFL Draft. Chicago took a chance using a second round pick on Hester, but it certainly has paid off for them. Most of the better returners in this league were drafted specifically to do the dirty job of fielding kicks and punts. Most of these guys are speedy college players who lacked discipline running routes or didn't have good hands. Otherwise, they'd be highly ranked WRs or DBs. Hester was a DB in college, but in the pros he was laughably bad. They switched him to WR, and while it is an improvement, Hester is about as good at catching the ball as Aaron Moorehead. Still, if a guy has that special something, that difference maker quality when returning kicks, you get him on your team ASAP.
    Cal's Desean Jackson: Explosive returner, but sometimes has shaky "focus."

    I already discussed LSU's Early Doucet in my WR depth story earlier this week. Doucet has tremendous speed, and when he gets into open space he can kill you. As a receiver, he's kind of "meh," not because of his route running but because of his questionable technique (he uses his body to catch football, not his hands). California's Desean Jackson has tremendous kick returning potential. His speed is clocked at 4.29, which is, like, really, really fast, man. Jackson, unlike Doucet, has good hands, but his downside is he seems to lack focus. Now, Dungy sometimes likes these kinds of players (Ed Johnson) because he feels he can mold them into men. Polian can't stand them. If you pop over to SB Nation's Cal blog, you read some interesting things about Desean, like how he was essentially benched for most of a game for nearly fumbling a punt. He also struggled with an injured thumb much of the season.

    A non-WR option is Mississippi State's Derek Pegues. He was ranked as one of the best defenders in the SEC last season as a CB (4 INTs), but his kick returning abilities are also eye popping. Pegues was a CB in college, but is more suited to play safety in the pros and especially in Dungy's Cover 2 scheme. Some people think Pegues' impressive play in the All American game and his MVP performance in the Liberty Bowl boosted him higher on draft boards. Pegues' downside is he is a bit of a troublemaker, and Polian tends to shy away from guys like that. However, with the possibility of Matt Giordano leaving, having Pegues as a back-up safety and a KR could prove useful for the Colts.

  • Mississippi State's Derek Pegues has great ball hawking skills and game-breaking returner speed.
  • Trade: I discussed trading for Antwaan Randel-El in the previous article, but a trade will likely not involve a draft pick as the Colts do not have a first round selection this season. So, likely a trade will involve a player swap. One potential notion is Indy swapping one of its DTs (like Ed Johnson or Booger McFarland) for a player like Randel-El. As insane as this sounds, the Colts actually have DEPTH at DT. It's shocking, I know. Another possibility, and one that was discussed here in 2007, is trading for Atlanta's DeAngelo Hall. Hall is considered a "Shutdown" corner, an overused phrase in the modern NFL. In reality, Hall is a decent corner with great speed and good technique. He likes to model his game after Deion Sanders, who was probably the most over-rated player of his generation. Any CB who was afraid to tackle is not someone I'd consider "great." However, Hall does have good tackling ability, and when he is focused he can really make an impact. I personally think he is far more dangerous as a KR than a CB. I've watched him play, and I can say with utter sincerity that both Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden are better corners than Hall. But having someone like Hall playing nickel and returning kicks would add a dangerous weapon for the Colts on both defense and special teams. And if the Colts are worried about overworking Hall (playing nickel and returning both kicks and punts), then someone like TJ Rushing can returns kicks and Hall can do punts. Hall is in the final year of his contract, and after his blow-up in 2007 with Bobby Petrino, he's likely looking for a big payday after 2008. Since Atlanta is rebuilding (again), Hall might not get his chance to get paid. If he came to a contender, his chances increase. And since Hall is considered part of the whole "Michael Vick" regime, owner Arthur Blank might listen to trade offers.
Would you trade for DeAngelo Hall?

Of all the options, the Draft is the likely place where someone like Polian will look for a dynamic returner. But I think the two trade proposals, in particular the DeAngelo Hall trade, offer the most immediate fix. Obviously, you have to give up value to get it, and giving up someone like Booger McFarland for Ed Johnson for a player like Hall is risky. But, if it works, the payoff would add a significant weapon to the Colts. Can you imagine teams scared to punt or kick to the Colts? If you spot the Colts any points on special teams, you pretty stand a 100% chance of losing the game. I cannot recall a single game where the Colts lost when they ran a kick or punt back for a TD. And if you give Peyton Manning and Adam Vinatieri a shorter field, it's even more points for a team that scores a lot of them.

For this reason, finding a game breaking return threat is important for the 2008 off-season. It just adds one more dimension to team that can attack you in so many different ways.