FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Looking to address a weakness from last season, the New England Patriots are auditioning a few different players as kickoff returners in a bid to boost production.
Only three teams averaged fewer than the Patriots’ 21.4 yards per return last year. Only two had their longest return of the year cover fewer yards than the 37 that was the Patriots’ best. So New England is giving players other than primary kickoff returners Danny Woodhead and Julian Edelman a chance to handle the ball during training camp.
“Obviously, last year was an area of still inexperience for us,” special teams coach Scott O’Brien said Sunday. “It’s like any phase after a season. You’re always looking to improve it, no matter how good you are or how poor you are. You’re evaluating the schemes, personnel, what you have, what you can go forward with.”
Returning kickoffs requires sharp vision, cutting ability, coordination with blockers and toughness in charging at bigger players trying to make tackles.
There’s also an element of uncertainty.
“It’s like having to run through a door and you don’t know what’s at the other end,” O’Brien said.
Edelman tries to learn what to expect by studying his team’s blocking schemes and the opponent’s coverage plans. Still, he can’t plan for everything.
“There’s always going to be a (defensive) guy there,” he said. “It’s like NASCAR. You see smoke, you put the pedal to the metal and you find a lane and go.”
O’Brien would like to improve the length of those trips so the offense can have better field position. Their average starting spot last season was between the 22- and 23-yard lines. That was a respectable 10th in the league. But the lack of long runbacks meant that the offense usually started a long way from the opposing end zone.
Woodhead, who didn’t handle kickoffs in 2010, returned 20 for an average of 21.9 yards in 2011. Edelman, the primary punt returner, brought back 12 kickoffs for a 23.7-yard average. Neither scored a touchdown on returns.
This summer, the Patriots have used running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen and wide receiver Donte’ Stallworth — as well as Woodhead and Edelman — as kickoff returners.
“I’m comfortable doing anything that they ask me to do,” said Vereen, limited by injury to five games and no kickoff returns as a rookie last season. “I did it in college a little bit. I did it in high school as well, but this is a whole other level. So it’s going to take more concentration. It’s going to take more practice.”
In 2010, Brandon Tate handled the job very well. He averaged 25.8 yards on 41 kickoff returns with two touchdowns, one covering 103 yards. But the Patriots waived him before last season.
Woodhead could remain the top kickoff returner. Edelman may play a larger role. Or someone else may take over.
Whatever’s best for the team.
“I’m just going to go out there and do what I have to do to get myself better to try to help this team win ballgames, and I’m sure there’s other guys doing the same thing. Competition makes you better,” Edelman said. “If you’re afraid to compete, you’re in the wrong field.”
Edelman played wide receiver and defensive back last season. But his major contribution this year, again, likely is to come returning punts.
He “had no experience doing it, had some natural instincts, pretty good ball skills,” O’Brien said. “It was a learning curve for him, not only catching the ball, understand what the ball was doing in the air, how it was going to come down and worked really hard on it.
“The biggest improvement for him, like all young guys, is not only learning our schemes and what our strategies are for certain situations, but field awareness. When you’re on the field, what’s happening to the coverage that you’re going to face? What do you have to do as a returner? What decision do I have to make? It’s hard for young guys, even if they have experience, coming in with us at the beginning, let alone a guy who has never really done it.”
Now, in his fourth pro season, Edelman is more comfortable as a punt returner.
“It’s like he plays everything (in his mind) before the play even happens,” O’Brien said, “and that’s what you’re looking for.”
Now he hopes to find someone with the same instincts on kickoffs.