The punt return position is one that is always under scrutiny, but it has been an especially hot topic for the Washington Football Team this offseason, even within the team's coaching staff.
Special teams coordinator Nate Kaczor confirmed as much during his press conference to close out Washington's three-day minicamp, but it has been clear for some time now that the team is turning over every stone to find a viable return option. Even going back to OTAs, a small group that included DeAndre Carter, Isaiah Wright, Steven Sims Jr., Dax Milne and Danny Johnson have been catching punts during the special teams portions of practice.
All of those players, even one or two who are not part of that group, have some sort of history returning kicks. But no matter how many touchdowns they have scored or what their average yards per return might have been with other teams, Washington's coaches are dedicated to finding the right player among them who fit their criteria.
"It's a good group, we have a lot of options, I think," said head coach Ron Rivera. "We made some decisions in the offseason to bring certain types of players in. I think the biggest thing we have to look at is who is the guy that can be dynamic and be part of what we are doing going forward?"
It's worth pointing out that overall, Washington's special teams unit has been relatively solid. It was 15th in efficiency last season, according to Football Outsiders, and it performed even better when considering abnormal factors like weather and altitude, in which case it improved to seventh.
Punt return was undoubtedly an area that showed room for improvement, though. Washington's 5.7 average yards per return ranked near the bottom of the league last season. What's more concerning is that Washington was tied for the fifth-most return attempts (31). Four of the six teams either tied or ahead of it in attempts also had Top 10 return averages.
So, the numbers validate Washington's search for a consistent returner, and Kaczor has two main qualifications, the first of which being efficiency in catching the football. "As elementary as that sounds," Kaczor said, "that's the most important thing, because we're getting the ball back for our offense. All we need to do is possess it."
Sims was the team's most experienced option last year; fumbles were occasionally an issue, but he did have 24 return attempts and 19 fair catches. But Washington now has another savvy returner in Carter, who has made a three-year career out of a core special teams player. Carter averages 9.3 yards per return, and while he has not recorded a touchdown, his longest return was 42 yards. Washington has not had a punt return longer than 40 yards in five seasons.
"He's got good game experience," Kaczor said of Carter. "He's comfortable back there ... He's got good run skills. He's a good all-around returner, and we could see that on the film."
After efficiency, Kaczor is looking for explosion, because as he puts it, "every step we take towards their goal line after we catch it is yards in our favor." This is where Sims has shown flashes that he can be the dynamic player Rivera is looking for. He had 160 return yards in 2020, including a 22-yarder, and he even scored a touchdown during his rookie year on a 91-yard kickoff return.
Washington has options in this area as well. Wright, for example, was the AAC Special Teams Player of the Year at Temple in 2018 and was an All-AAC return specialist in the previous season. His college stats include five special teams touchdowns, three of which were as a punt returner. Two of his scores were on returns of 72 and 73 yards, and he averaged 10.3 yards in four seasons.
Even players like Milne, who only had 12 punt returns for his entire career at BYU, have shown some explosiveness in a limited sample size. Milne's best showing was in 2019 when had five returns for 57 yards, all of which came in a matchup with Idaho State. Milne showed during rookie minicamp that he was comfortable in the role, and he has been in the rotation ever since.
"I think I just need to continue being consistent when I get my reps back there," Milne said, "showing that I can be a guy that's dependable and catch every one."
Other players being considered or at least have some experience returning punts are Johnson and Adam Humphries. Johnson was mostly relegated to kickoff returns last year, but he averaged 22 yards and had a 46-yard return. Humphries, on the other hand, has 63 punt returns for 503 total yards, but he has not caught a kick since 2019. It has not been heavily discussed, but he was Kaczor's punt returner when he coached for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and he feels comfortable doing so again, if needed.
Washington is months away from starting the season, so there is still time to make a decision. There will also be more opportunities for Kaczor and the coaches to vet each candidate with a more normalized training camp schedule, which will include three preseason games. In any case, Washington has plenty of players, all of which have the talent to take the role for their own, to choose from between now and September.
"Those guys that have been working at it are the ones who we're looking at the most at this point in time," Kaczor said. "Then we'll recalibrate, and...we'll have everybody that is going to be evaluated going into training camp."