Kenjon Barner returned three punts through his first four NFL seasons.
But there’s reason to think the New England Patriots agreed to terms with the veteran running back on Tuesday because of the work he fielded deep during his fifth.
Barner re-signed with the Philadelphia Eagles late last September after ageless all-purpose threat Darren Sproles landed on injured reserve with a broken arm and torn ACL. He would finish his 2017 campaign having returned 28 punts for 250 yards – and with a Super Bowl LII ring.
Prior to then, Barner had 19 yards on his NFL resume in that department.
It’d been awhile.
The 2013 sixth-round pick returned zero punts as a senior at Oregon and lost yardage in limited reps there as a junior. Yet between Barner’s freshman and sophomore seasons with the Ducks, he took 23 punts back for 269 yards and a touchdown.
That background is of use in Foxborough after New England waived Riley McCarron on Monday – the same day Barner was in for a free-agent workout. McCarron, a recent practice-squad promotion, had a punt bounce off his facemask in the fourth quarter of the opener versus the Houston Texans, reminiscent of growing pains the likes of Chris Harper and Cyrus Jones endured in 2015 and 2016.
Barner wasn’t immune with the Eagles in 2017, either.
He muffed three punts last year courtesy of specialists Michael Palardy, Chris Jones and Marquette King.
Two arrived on fair-catch attempts that drifted outside the numbers well inside the 20-yard line against the Carolina Panthers and the Dallas Cowboys. The other arrived against the Oakland Raiders as Barner looked to rebound a one-hopper.
All were recovered by the Philadelphia’s unit, and Barner himself recovered a pair of them.
But no recoveries were needed on Oct. 8 against the Arizona Cardinals when Barner earned NFC Special Teams Player of the Week. Barner amassed 110 punt-return yards on just three goes of it in that 34-7 win for Philadelphia.
It marked fourth-highest single-game tally in franchise history.
Barner got 76 yards worth on one that looked dead in the water as Arizona’s Ifeanyi Momah and Tyvon Branch cornered him at Philadelphia’s own 15. He would tightrope the sideline and find a cutback lane to the inside, however.
And on a diagonal course the well-traveled runner went to Arizona’s own 15.
“With Kenjon, obviously we know him,” Eagles head coach Doug Pederson said of Barner during his day-after press conference. “We’ve had him in here before, so we really felt comfortable with bringing him back in and understanding what he can do. He’s just gotten better in these last couple weeks, had great production in the game.”
Barner, who compiled 50 total touchdowns as a rusher, receiver, kickoff and punt returner during his Ducks career, spent his rookie year with the Panthers. He was then swapped for a conditional seventh-round pick and logged his next three years with the Eagles.
A spring-to-summer stop with the San Diego Chargers followed before Sproles’ injury sent him back to Philadelphia last fall.
In his return, Barner appeared in every game despite touching the ball just 21 times on offense. He averaged 8.9 yards per on punts. And nine of his opportunities doing so, including playoffs, netted a pickup of double-digit yards.
Barner, who was in training camp with Carolina before being let go on Labor Day weekend, may get his next opportunity Sunday night against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
He finds himself the fourth running back on New England’s active roster for it, with Jeremy Hill placed on injured reserve to begin the week.
“We won’t put anyone on the field if we don’t have trust in them, number one,” Patriots special teams coordinator Joe Judge said of the responsibility during his conference call Tuesday, prior to news of Barner signing. “My job as a coach is to prepare everybody on the field the best I can and establish as much depth at every position as best I can, not just for finding the best 11 that are available at the time, but looking past that and seeing the ripple effect that may happen through inactives or in-game injuries or situational adjustments we’re going to have to have.
“So, we’re always preparing multiple guys on the team. We’re always working ahead and thinking the ‘if, then, what’ type scenarios.”
If, then or what, Barner should soon become the 10th player to return a punt in regular-season action for the Patriots since the start of 2015.
Julian Edelman, Patrick Chung, Danny Amendola, Keshawn Martin, Damaris Johnson, Bernard Reedy and the aforementioned Harper, Jones and McCarron precede him.