In 2019, the New England Patriots’ punt return game was a tale of two players. Undrafted rookie free agent Gunner Olszewski proved to be a productive returnman over the first half of the season, fielding 20 combined punts and running them back for a combined 179 yards and an impressive average of 9.0 yards per return. After he had to be placed on season-ending injured reserve due to ankle and hamstring issues, Mohamed Sanu took over and returned 10 punts for 77 yards and a 7.7-yard average.
Heading into 2020, however, the question becomes if one of the two will keep the job as the Patriots’ primary punt returner — or if somebody else will emerge and secure it over the course of training camp.
RB Damien Harris, RB J.J. Taylor, WR Julian Edelman, WR N’Keal Harry, WR Mohamed Sanu, WR Gunner Olszewski, WR Damiere Byrd, WR Marqise Lee, WR Jeff Thomas, WR Sean Riley, S Kyle Dugger, S Adarius Pickett
Of the players listed as potential punt return candidates, five have already run back at least one punt in the NFL: Julian Edelman, Mohamed Sanu, Gunner Olszewski, Damiere Byrd and Marqise Lee. But while they may have the experience against pro-level competition, the others have also proven themselves during their collegiate careers. It would therefore not be a surprise if New England turned to one of its youngsters as their primary punt returner in 2020 — that is if the deciding factors work out in their favor.
The deciding factors
Ball handling: Returning punts is markedly different than playing wide receiver or running back in that the action is sped up and happening entirely in front of the ball-carrier. 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 made Julian Edelman one of the best punt returners in the NFL early in his career was his ability to react to what unfolded in front of him: he read his blocks very well and showed tremendous patience to let them develop, while also possessing the vision and quickness to exploit potential holes. The Patriots’ current group of punt returners — one that still includes Edelman even though it would be somewhat surprising if the was given the role — has to show that it has the vision to find similar success.
Quickness and speed: Speed alone does not make a returnman, but together with the right amount of quickness it could turn a serviceable punt returner into a great one. Of the Patriots projected to compete for the role this year, free agency acquisition Damiere Byrd — a former track and field competitor — stands out: he ran the 40-yard dash at 4.28 during South Carolina’s pro day back in 2015.
Role on another unit: Last year, Gunner Olszewski was able to play his way into the rotation during training camp and the preseason before finishing the exhibition schedule as the team’s leader in all-purpose yards. While he saw only limited action on the offensive side of the ball during the regular season, him being able to at least theoretically contribute at his primary position as well helped him earn the job. Projected fringe roster players such as Jeff Thomas, Sean Riley or Adarius Pickett will need to show the same if they want a realistic shot at the role this year.
Considering the current composition of the roster, it would be slightly surprising if the Patriots opted to go with one of their top wide receivers — Julian Edelman, Mohamed Sanu and N’Keal Harry — or free agency addition Marqise Lee as their primary punt returner in 2020: all four of them are coming off injuries of a varying severity and will likely not be exposed to any additional hits in as violent a setting as the punt return.
This leaves eight candidates to possibly take over the role this year: running backs Damien Harris and J.J. Taylor, wideouts Gunner Olszewski, Damiere Byrd, Jeff Thomas and Sean Riley, and safeties Kyle Dugger and Adarius Pickett. Of those eight men, only former third-round pick Harris and second-round rookie Dugger are guaranteed spots on the team’s 53-man roster due to their draft statuses. They could therefore have a leg up on their competition considering that they are projected to offer depth at their respective positions as well (something Byrd might as well).
Then again, the Patriots showed last year that they are indeed willing to go for a developmental and rather one-dimensional option as well if they see enough upside. This means that Olszewski or Thomas should be kept on the radar as well: the former served as New England’s main punt returner last year despite only a limited impact on offense, while the latter offers an intriguing athletic skillset. Either way, the competition should be a fun one this summer.