In 2018, the New England Patriots had one of the best kick returners in the league in their fold: Cordarrelle Patterson was the undisputed top option to run back kickoffs, doing so on a combined 28 regular season and playoff occasions. All in all, the former first-round draft pick gained 804 yards on his returns, for a healthy 28.7 yards per attempt as well as one touchdown and a fumble. By all metrics, Patterson was pretty good.
The veteran left the Patriots in free agency, however, leaving a sizable hole to fill — and no clear candidates to fill it. This, in turn, makes the competition for the kickoff return spot one of the most intriguing to watch during this year’s training camp.
RB Sony Michel, RB Damien Harris, WR N’Keal Harry, WR Maurice Harris, WR Ryan Davis, WR Braxton Berrios, WR Gunner Olszewski
New England does not have a ton of kickoff experience on its current roster, with only a handful of players having run back at least one in the NFL. Based on 2018, Sony Michel would therefore be the next in line to replace Patterson. However, it would not be a surprise if a) one of the club’s offseason acquisitions established itself as the top option at the position, or b) the team opted to go for more of a rotational approach similar to 2016.
The deciding factors
Role on another unit: The Patriots using a roster spot for a player to exclusively return kickoffs would be a break of tradition, so the man to earn the role will likely have to carve out one on offense as well. This, in turn, makes it unlikely that roster bubble players such as Ryan Davis or Gunner Olszewski come away victoriously unless they stand out as pass catchers as well during training camp and the preseason.
Ball handling: Returning kickoffs is different than playing wide receiver or running back in that the action is sped up and happening entirely in front. This means that collisions are happening more violently, placing a greater importance on ball handling technique. If one of the players listed above fails to properly and consistently secure the football both at the catch and while running with it, he could play himself out of the competition.
Vision and ability to read blocks: What makes Cordarrelle Patterson such a good returnman is his ability to react to what unfolds in front of him: he reads his blocks very well and has patience to let them develop, while also possessing the vision and quickness to exploit potential holes. While none of the Patriots’ current returners should be expected to perform at the same level as Patterson in this areas, they do have to show that they are capable of performing at a serviceable level in order to win the job.
Straight-line speed: While speed alone does not make a kickoff returner, it is a necessary trait to perform the task at the NFL level. Of the Patriots projected to compete for the role this year, N’Keal Harry and Sony Michel had the fastest straight-line 40-yard times during the pre-draft process at 4.53 and 4.54, respectively. This will not be the deciding factor, of course, but one to consider nevertheless.
Considering all the deciding factors that play into the decision as well as the current composition of the roster, it would be slightly surprising if Ryan Davis, Braxton Berrios — a potential option at punt returner — or Gunner Olszewski won the competition for the kickoff return role. The same has to be said for Sony Michel: New England will attempt to limit his exposure to hits this season, which is why him succeeding Patterson seems unlikely.
This leaves Damien Harris, N’Keal Harry and Maurice Harris as the favorites at this point in time. Either one should be capable of filling the kickoff return role given their skills and projected roles on offense — the latter might very well decide who gets most action in the kicking game. Ultimately, it would not be a surprise if either of the two Harris earned the spot: they will both play rotational roles, and in Maurice Harris’ role could boost the standing on the roster. Then again, the Patriots could opt for a rotation of the three men as well.
Ultimately, New England’s kickoff return game will probably not feature a home-run threat in the mold of Patterson — but it will still be a high-quality unit considering who the team has under contract at the moment.