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It seems that more so than in years past, the big brains at West 56th Street are making a concerted effort to fix the woeful special teams return game of the Indianapolis Colts. Last year, the Colts DVOA ranked -1.6 and -5.8 in kick and punt returning, respectively. Since Football Outsiders is the only stats resource that provides good analysis on special teams returns (take the hint, NFL.com) I'm using them to statistically show what all of us saw last year with our own eyes: The Colts stinks returning punts and kicks.
Now, having a great return game does not mean you will win football games. Sure, it helps, but a great offense and defense will overcome a team with a tremendous return game (see Super Bowl 41 as an example). In 2008, the Steelers had a terrible return game (back me up on this LV Steelers Fan), and yet they still were able to hold up their franchise record 6th Lombardi Trophy.
However, for the Polians and Tom Telesco, is seems they are a bit tired of watching returnable punts needlessly fair caught, or kick returns not generating a short enough field for Peyton Manning to utilize. Thus, this off-season the Colts have used a 7th round draft pick on a returner (Ray Fisher), brought in collegiate free agents Brandon James and Blair White (both have experience returning punts and kicks), and signed free agent Pete Ittersagen, who was a noted returner at Division III Wheaton. These players, along with Sam Giguere, all have a shot to win jobs as kick and punt returners, and the Colts are hoping one or more of these guys can PLEASE get the job done.
We'll start with Ray Fisher. Regardless of what people around here think about the importance or non-importance of late-round picks, the Colts used a 7th rounder on Ray. This means they think more highly of him than they do the others. When you factor in Bill Polian's comments from Friday, April 23rd (after the second night of the 2010 NFL Draft), where he said no real duel return threats were left to take, Ray Fisher was likely a definite target of the Colts, and they are very happy he was still there in Round 7.
So, what makes Ray special?
Well, as a senior at Indiana University, Fisher averaged 37.4 yards returning kicks took two kicks back for TDs. Playing in the Big Ten, that's nothing to sneeze at. At the IU Pro Day, Fisher ran a 4.32 and 4.34 in his two 40 runs. So, we know he has speed (which was something Chad Simpson and T.J. Rushing sorely lacked last year). Fisher is a converted WR, which means he probably had better hands than most other DBs. Fisher led IU as a junior with 42 receptions and 5 TDs. In 2009, they switched him to CB. Polian raved about his DB skills when discussing fisher on the last day of the draft. He was pretty good in press coverage last year, and has good recovery speed.
Because of Fisher's versatility as a returner and as a DB, he's in the driver's seat to win both return jobs.
Fisher's main competition is collegiate free agent Brandon James from Florida. Last year, no returner was more feared in the college ranks than James. As the Gators return man, he handled 29 kickoffs for 756 yards (26.1 average), running one back for a TD. He also returned 33 punts for 244 yards (7.3 yards per return).
James' main asset is his blazing speed. He's been clocked at 4.32 for the 40. From DraftBreakdown.com:
A very speedy back with great abilities as a return man. Good vision. Identifies a seam quickly, plants foot and streaks forward. Good body control. Displayed soft hands when asked to catch out of the backfield for the Gators. For a small player, James isn’t afraid of contact. Good change of direction abilities and straight line speed.
James also seems to have a fearless quality when returning kicks, and does not shy from contact. His main problems are his size (5'6, 176 pounds) and his lack of versatility. At his size and stature, he will not last the season if he is not shy from contact. I respect his moxie, but in the man's league, little guys need to get the hell away from the big dudes. An injured player is a useless player, and on the roster where the full 53 men active are often utilized on a weekly basis, injuries are a big deal.
James also offers little (no pun intended due to his size) as a running back. Yes, he's fast and has soft hands running routes out of the backfield. I'm not not certain he is a suitable cutback runner. Plus, if there are injuries, do you really see a 5'6 kid carrying the workload for an entire game? Two games? A month? No, he'd get killed.
However, when you look at videos like this, one cannot help but get excited about the potential for the Colts return game:
The Colts used Blair White as a punt returner in the rookie mini-camp last week. So, he's got a shot as a punt returner, at least.
You can few some of Pete Ittersagen's returns in college here.
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