Remember how excited everyone got when the Patriots signed Jeff Demps to finally give this team the dynamic return threat that it has been missing for some time now? And remember how we all got glimpses of Demps's insane speed and strong first cut?
Well, it was fun while it lasted. Now that Demps is done for the year (which is probably a blessing in disguise, as it gives him time to put some weight back on and get back into football shape), New England is seemingly no better off at return man when they were last season. The four guys who primarily returned kicks last year averaged about 20 yards per return, with a long of just 37 yards. While consistently long field didn't deter the Patriots from scoring all that much last season, field position is one of the more underrated nuances in the game, and I know that I for one am disappointed we won't be seeing Demps and his home-run ability out there this year.
So who will it be? Who is going to be returning kicks for this team in 2012? Odds are it is going to be a combination of players, all of whom bring various strengths and limitations to the position. Follow the jump for a breakdown of some of the more obvious candidates, in order of how much I'd like to see them fielding kickoffs.
Matthew Slater. If I remember correctly, Slater actually had a decent start as a return man last year before getting pulled for some fumble problems. I'd like to see the team give him another crack at it; he's fast, he's tall (ish), and he has a good second gear. I also think he's the best option the team has at the moment. Bill Belichick begs to differ, and since he won't return any of my calls, I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree here, but the bottom line is that Slater is fast and has a great grasp of Special Teams.
Shane Vereen. A lot depends on how much the team uses Vereen elsewhere, but he has experience at the position and offers a nice combination of speed and elusiveness. He obviously won't be returning kicks against the Titans, but I think he's someone to stick back there for a time and give him a shot to prove himself.
Nate Ebner. Runs hard, runs fast, leads with his shoulder, and seems like the kind of guy that can build a reputation for being someone you just don't want to tackle. He has little to no experience returning kickoffs as far as I know, but I wouldn't be adverse to lining him up back there just to see what happens. I'm also very aware that "just to see what happens" is my primary argument for lining Ebner up at pretty much any position on the field, including quarterback and place kicker, and thus there is little validity to ranking him this high.
Brandon Bolden. I don't know how many reps Bolden will be taking as a runner, but I wouldn't be adverse to seeing him return kicks. He isn't going to bring breakaway speed to the table, but he's a strong runner that is difficult to bring down, and he always falls forward. Granted, he didn't look spectacular back there during the preseason, but he didn't look awful either. I'd like to see the team experiment with him and see how he does.
Julian Edelman. I like Edelman as a punt return man, but not as a kick returner. His quick feet and shiftiness make him very hard to tackle in tight spaces, but in a situation where he has 20 yards of open field in front of him, he's not the kind of guy to make one cut and then turn on the afterburners.
Danny Woodhead. I seem to be in the minority on this one, but I really don't like Woodhead returning kicks. Not only is he unlikely to do any real damage, but kickoffs are one of the more dangerous parts of the game, and running head on into a wall of guys twice your size and weight barreling down on you is a potential recipe for disaster. Woodhead wasn't terrible as a return man last season, but he wasn't great, either, and I think that there are better options on this team.
Stevan Ridley. I actually hope we don't see much of Ridley at all back there this season, as he's likely going to be getting the bulk of the carries and will be taking enough hits as it is. Ridley also isn't a burner, so it seems like the Pats would want to save the contact he'll be taking for running situations.