Washington COs looking for new kick and punt returner

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As Kyric McGowan followed a falling punt in the morning sun, he very slightly extended his right arm to catch. For the Washington commanders’ special teams coordinator, Nate Kaczor, that would not be enough.

For Kaczor, returning punts and kicks is all about thoroughness, doing the little things right. After that grab, he walked over to McGowan, grabbed and squared his shoulders, then patted the top of the “83” on his jersey, showing him where on his chest the ball needed to land for a perfect grab.

“At the end of the day, no matter what it looks like, you have to catch [the ball] and secure it,” Kaczor said Friday. “But football tracking gives the rest of your skills a chance to kick off.”

At the training camp, the hunt for the next return of the commanders is on. Last year, DeAndre Carter kept Washington among the league’s best in kickoff returns. The team ranked third in the NFL with 25.1 yards per punt return, but Carter was average on punt returns, averaging 8.4 yards. Now, after Carter’s departure in free agency, Kaczor thinks the ideal starter would be a double back for punts and kickoffs, a job Washington hasn’t locked out since Andre Roberts in 2014.

“It takes some of the pressure off of you trying to find another guy,” coach Ron Rivera said. “It also helps you when you need to have your 48 guy roster for game day.”

While Kaczor echoed that same pragmatism, he also wants to identify multiple players with the tools to return kicks and punts. So far, he’s tested newly signed veteran Alex Erickson, second-year wide receiver Dax Milne, undrafted rookies McGowan and Jequez Ezzard, practice squad wide receiver Marken Michel, and even wide receiver Jahan Dotson. who was the Commanders’ first-round pick in the April draft. .

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Of the group auditioning for a shot, Erickson, a return-and-wide specialist who signed with Washington this offseason, has the most experience at the professional level.

As an undrafted rookie with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2016, Erickson led the NFL in punt return yards (810) and spent three years as the Bengals’ two-time returner. In 2019, he shifted primarily to punting duties and he has returned over 20 punts in every season of his career.

The 29-year-old said he saw value in having an experienced comeback among a group of young candidates vying for the job.

“The guys are young, they’re hungry, they want to know the job, so I’m just an open book,” he added. “I relied on the older guys a lot when I was a rookie and the youngest.”

Dotson is the most well-known rookie in the mix for the job. He was an electric punt returner during his time at Penn State, and Kaczor praised his potential to be an excellent punt returner and first-team wide, but Rivera was cautious in discussing Dotson’s chances of playing. in special teams.

“Jahan has the opportunity to be an integral part of what we are already doing [offensively]”, Rivera said on Friday. “He showed some flashes…so we have to be very, very, very diligent, very smart about [how we use him] as we go through this process.

Milne is another option, and Rivera has complimented his double-return potential in the past. At Ashburn, Milne took receiver reps with the first and second teams and competition on the way back could be another way to secure a permanent spot on the roster.

“I feel really comfortable going back there and catching punts and kick returns,” said Milne, who returned just 12 punts and two kicks for a total of 92 yards in three years at Brigham Young University. “Whatever the team needs me to do, I will do.”

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Ezzard also presents a compelling case for return rights. The receiver earned first-team Western Athletic Conference honors last year as a receiver and returner.

“It’s just my athleticism, being able to make a play whenever I can,” Ezzard said of his skill set. “But I’m always here to try to adapt to everything and make the most of my opportunities when they arise.”

McGowan and Michel are longer shots to the role. McGowan went undrafted after stints at Northwestern and Georgia Tech, and Michel — brother of Dolphins running back Sony Michel — has been bouncing around NFL practice squads and Canadian soccer since 2016.

But Kaczor is watching players on the lower roster who might be able to use strong returning skills to secure a spot in the squad. The next starting returner is somewhere in training camp, along with two or three guys who would do the job at any time.

“Whenever the personnel department comes up and we start talking about making decisions, [the question becomes] what chance does this guy have to be part of the attacking team? Kaczor said. “Can he come back? …Or, this guy doesn’t have as much of a chance of succeeding [offense] Where [defense], is he good enough as a returner to warrant a spot on the roster? It’s the secret sauce behind it all.


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