The New England Patriots’ special teams group was arguably the best in football last year. However, not every unit worked equally efficiently. Take the kickoff return role. Led by Gunner Olszewski, the Patriots averaged 23.1 yards per runback — not a bad number per se, but still “only” the 12th best in football.
Needless to say, New England might be looking for some increased production out of its kickoff return group. While the blockers up front play a crucial role in this process, so do the return men themselves. The Patriots have multiple candidates on their roster to take over the primary role in 2021; some already offer experience in the return game, others have the athletic skillset or potential to possible receive some opportunities this summer.
Either way, the competition will be an interesting one to watch in training camp. Let’s dig a little bit deeper into it.
WR Gunner Olszewski, S Kyle Dugger, RB J.J. Taylor, WR Marvin Hall, WR N’Keal Harry, RB Sony Michel, WR Isaiah Zuber, RB Rhamondre Stevenson, WR Tre Nixon
First things first, the Patriots could very well decide to have somebody else take over the kickoff return role in 2021. Then again, the nine players listed here are possibly the most realistic candidates to compete for the primary role this summer; all of them have strong arguments to at least be considered as New England’s kickoff returners.
As noted above, Gunner Olszewski — an All-Pro at the punt return position — was the number one guy in 2020. He ran back 18 kickoffs for an average of 23.2 per attempt. Also running back kicks last season were J.J. Taylor (4/21.8) and Kyle Dugger (2/23.5). The second-year men might get a shot, especially if the Patriots want Olszewski to focus on punts and maybe an increased role on offense.
As for the others, they all have some intriguing tools as well. Marvin Hall has a combined 29 kickoffs on his NFL résumé; N’Keal Harry has some return experience from his time in college and could use special teams to solidify his standing on the roster; Sony Michel returned four kickoffs as a rookie in 2018; Isaiah Zuber was used on kickoff returns in college; Rhamondre Stevenson has a similar skillset as former Patriots running back and kickoff returner LeGarrette Blount; Tre Nixon has the buildup speed to be successful.
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 another group as well. This, in turn, means that young players or those seemingly close to the roster bubble might be given a chance to prove their value in the kicking game outside of just offense or defense. The Patriots could also use Gunner Olszewski as their main kickoff returner again; the third-year man, as noted above, also handles punt return duties.
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.
Decision making: The field position battle is immensely important in the NFL, which means that teams will try to make the most out of it on every punt or kickoff. Accordingly, they will try to force return men into challenging situations. In turn, those returners will have to make sound split-second decisions when to field the ball, when to better take a knee in the end zone, where to attack if running lanes are clogged. Running back kickoffs is much more nuanced than just fielding a ball, running with it and trying not to let it slip through the hands.
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, Marvin Hall stands out: the veteran wide receiver ran a 4.28 40-yard dash at his pro day in 2016. Speed alone will not be the deciding factor in the competition, of course, but it is one to consider nevertheless.
Vision and ability to read blocks: What makes a good return man is his ability to react to what unfolds in front of him: the best players in the league read their blocks very well and have patience to let them develop, while also possessing the vision and quickness to exploit potential holes. Gunner Olszewski has shown an ability to do all that in the punt game, while J.J. Taylor, Sony Michel and Rhamondre Stevenson, for example, have to showcase the same talents at the running back position as well.
Based on last year Olszewski should be seen as the favorite to earn the kickoff return role again. However, the Patriots might prefer to give him fewer exposure — especially if he is earning an increased role on offense as well. As a result, we might actually see a wide open competition this summer.
If things really develop that way, all of the players listed above are worth keeping an eye on even though four stand out from this perspective:
- J.J. Taylor: Taylor already saw some return action last season, and with James White’s return in free agency might not be asked to do too much work as a running back. Employing him in the kickoff game might be a good use of resources.
- Sony Michel: Michel saw a handful of kickoff returns in 2018, averaging 19.3 yards per runback. Those numbers do not stand out, but a smaller role on offense due to the emergence of Damien Harris and the arrival of Rhamondre Stevenson might free him up to see more special teams snaps. It would make some sense for New England to use him as a returner if he is kept on the roster.
- Isaiah Zuber: While Zuber spent the 2020 season on the practice squad and appears to be firmly on the roster bubble heading into camp, he might get a shot at the kickoff return role. Not only does he have experience, it would also allow the team to keep him around over more one-dimensional wideouts.
- Rhamondre Stevenson: The fourth-round rookie has to be considered a dark-horse candidate, but his build-up running style reminiscent of LeGarrette Blount’s could push the coaching staff towards giving him a shot. As is the case with Taylor and Zuber, the return role would increase his value to the team; he also is the only de facto roster lock among the three due to his draft status.
Obviously, the kickoff role could also go to the aforementioned Kyle Dugger, Marvin Hall, N’Keal Harry, or Tre Nixon. However, there are arguments against all of them: Dugger might be too important as a safety to also be used in the return game; Hall’s outlook as a receiver is not favorable; Harry was not used as a return man of any kind so far in his career; Nixon is an inexperienced bubble player.
At the moment, the Patriots therefore might go with one of the three youngsters in case Olszewski is not given another shot at the kickoff return role.