The headline to this article seems like it has been an annual off season question about the Colts for as long as I can remember.
And guess what? It's not ending in 2013.
With the loss of Deji Karim, the Colts front office knew it needed help on kick returns. All they had to do was look at the table below:
Colts kick returns in 2013
Cassius Vaughn - 10 returns, 209 yards, 20.9 avg.
Deji Karim - 9 returns, 328 yards, 36.4 avg., 1 TD
T.Y. Hilton - 7 returns, 118 yards, 16.9 avg.
Tom Zbikowski - 6 returns, 123 yards, 20.5 avg.
Joe Lefeged - 4 returns, 68 yards, 17.0 avg.
LaVon Brazill - 3 returns, 50 yards, 16.7 avg.
Mewelde Moore - 3 returns, 50 yards, 16.7 avg.
Bradley Sowell - 1 return, 11 yards, 11.0 avg.
So they drafted Kerwynn Williams and signed UDFA Denodus O'Bryant in hopes of replicating this:
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There shouldn't be much debate here. Except for Karim, each player on the above list was unproductive. Even though Vaughn nudged Karim for the lead in number of returns, he struggled. It's a trend through the rest of those players.
Karim only played in three games, but he was brilliant in that time. Even if you throw out his 101-yard touchdown, he still averaged 28.4 yards a return. Of course its a limited sample size. But hey, it's actual production. That's something.
Unfortunately, Karim is now playing for the Texans. So the coaching staff is left to pick from a group of mediocre veterans and unproven rookies. Recent history isn't on the Colts side in finding a reliable player out of those players. Chad Simpson was their last decent returner, averaging 23.8 yards per return in 2009. After that...you probably don't want to revisit it.
So instead, let's look ahead to the future. Kick returner aside, the Colts will have a new special teams coach in Tom McMahon and potentially new blockers in rookies Hugh Thornton and Khaled Holmes. With all of those additions in mind, I analyzed the competing kick returners below. And yes, afterwards, I think this could be a better year for the Colts in kick returning.
Small yet speedy. The Colts 7th round draft pick measured in at only 5'8 at the combine but ran the third fastest 40 (4.48) and fifth fastest 20-yard shuttle (4.15). His explosion translates well to the field. He hits lanes well with good vision and can burst past defenders if he gets enough space. He struggles more with making open field moves since his lateral quickness is questionable.
Williams was taken off kick return duties last year when he became the starting running back for Utah State. He was the main returner for two years before that, averaging 27.2 yards per return in 2010 and 21.9 yards per return in 2011.
Williams was obviously drafted to inherit the returning job. Both Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano might as well have spilled it in their post-draft news conference.
"Our special teams coaches had him rated as one of the best returners in this draft". - Ryan Grigson
"We saw, last game of the season, what a kickoff return can do for ya. Turned that whole thing around and blew that thing open. This kid (Kerwynn) can do that all day." - Chuck Pagano
The expectations for Williams are set. He should win the job by the start of the season and return the most kickoffs on the team by its end.
In case Williams falls on his face this summer, the next player in this group is Plan B.
Standing at 5'9 and 194 pounds, O'Bryant is the smaller school version of Williams. Hailing from D-II Lindenwood, O'Bryant is his school's all-time leader in rushing yards (3,237 yards) and touchdowns (62). But more importantly for this article, he averaged 31.3 yards per kickoff return for his career. You shouldn't expect anything less from a player transitioning from such a small-school level to the NFL.
And that's where O'Bryant's problem rests. He has sub 4.5 speed, great production throughout college and multiple skills on the field. It's going to be hard, however, for him to shake the fact that he now may have to play against the Denver Broncos on gameday instead of Fort Hays State University. And yes, that's a real college.
Even though the Colts want to hand Williams the job, this should be an even competition for a roster spot leading into the preseason. Think of it like Ray Fisher vs. Brandon James in 2010. Even though Fisher was a 7th round draft pick that year, he was cut in August. James stuck around on the practice squad until he was activated in November, returning 14 kicks until he was eventually cut. James was terrible, but he did beat out a draft pick.
If Williams doesn't perform well this summer, O'Bryant could leapfrog him just like James did to Fisher.
This is the worst case scenario. Pro Football Focus handed Vaughn a -1.6 grade for his 10 kick returns last season, one of the worst grades in the league. Vaughn looked hesitant in his returns last season and didn't know how to create much. Settling with Vaughn at kick returner is settling for mediocre production, which the Colts have become accustomed to recently. One of Williams or O'Bryant will need to step up in order to avoid that.
It has to be Williams. His top-end speed and experience returning gives me hope that he'll be a decent returner despite his lack of lateral mobility. I'll admit, I'm slightly concerned about his mediocre stats in 2011 and his move away from returning to becoming a full-time running back in 2012. But his explosion never left him during that time. No matter how productive he is during his rookie season, I'm confident that he'll earn the job. The coaches want him to win it, and he's the best candidate to do it.
P.S. - It's good to be writing for Stampede Blue again. I'll be on board for the next couple of months and covering training camp when it finally arrives. Between now and then, let me know if you have any ideas for analysis articles. And let me know if you're going to training camp as well. Because come on, sitting alone sucks. Anyway, give me your thoughts in the comments on the kick returner candidates this year. And go Colts!