Edwards, for as much vitriol that has swirled around him during his two seasons as a Panther, actually performed admirably. His job, for the second straight season, was to play a position that he had not played since high school--if ever. What is most impressive is Armanti did not muff or fumble one time in 41 attempts (including nine fair catches).
In the Playoffs, we saw a man thrust into the punt return role in a similar fashion (49ers WR Kyle Williams), only to cough up two costly turnovers that perhaps re-wrote NFL history. Let us not underestimate the importance of a sure-handed punt returner, and let us not downplay how impressive it was that Edwards fielded 41 punts--and did it flawlessly.
For a deeper examination into his 2011 season and a prediction regarding his future in electric blue...join me after the jump...
Armanti Edwards' punt return average of 5.5 yards is pedestrian. There is no disputing that. But what gets lost in the numbers is just how reliant a punt returner is on his teammates...
Linebackers are the heart and soul of most special teams units. LBs Jon Beason, Thomas Davis, Thomas Williams, Omar Gaither and Jason Phillips all ended the season on injured reserve, so midway through the year the Panthers had to sign guys off the street to come in and play huge roles on special teams. With all of the injuries there was zero continuity. And I would be remiss not to mention that several huge punt returns (the most notable was 45 yards) were called back because of holding or illegal-blocking penalties.
Making excuses for Armanti Edwards doesn't do him, or anyone else any favors. Yes, at times he was timid. Maybe he was a little indecisive, too. There were times where there was a little yardage to go get, but instead he danced around and was stopped for no gain. I believe all of those things can be fixed with experience and proper coaching.
But the thing that really matters when evaluating Armanti Edwards as a punt returner is this: he held onto the job all season long. If the coaching staff thought he was doing a poor job they would have experimented with some different personnel.
Armanti lined up in the "Mountaineer" package a couple times during the season:
In week 14 against the Falcons Edwards took the snap and ran behind right guard Geoff Hangartner for a five yard gain. In week 15 at Houston the Panthers lined up in the same formation--faked the run--and Armanti threw an accurate ball nicely over the D-line to WR Steve Smith. The play gained 11 yards and a first down.
Week 11 at Indianapolis was his best game as a punt returner. Armanti broke off a beautiful 45-yard return, setting the Panthers up at the Indianapolis 32 yard line. Predictably, the play was called back because of a Kion Wilson block-in-the-back. The result of the play, after the penalty yardage was assessed, was a career-high punt return of 17 yards.
He has only one: "Money." This nickname was carried over from his days at Appalachian State. Hopefully he will live up to it's billing in 2012.
His future with the team:
Armanti Edwards will need to do one of two things to be a Carolina Panther in 2012. He will need to improve his vision and technique as a punt returner and hone his craft as a WR, or he will need to concentrate on playing QB full-time.
Something tells me that in order to keep his job as the primary PR, he will need to show improvement in mini-camp and OTAs, but he is capable of that. I don't see the Panthers bringing back Legedu Naanee, so he will have a chance to stake claim to that #4 WR spot (behind Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and David Gettis).
The second option is probably the more intriguing, but is not realistic. Can Armanti play QB in the NFL? We don't know. Does he have the skill-set to be a decent backup in case Cam has to miss some time? Perhaps, but the coaching staff went with a veteran backup in 2011, and that will probably be the safer play again in 2012.
If Armanti is going to stick, it's going to have to be at WR and PR. The problem is, even if he does manage to cement himself as the #4 WR, we saw last year that when a starter needs a rest, the coaching staff elects to go to two-TE sets so they could spell the starter one at a time with the #3 WR. The #4 WR did not see the field very often on offense.
To see more of Edwards offensively, he must beat-out David Gettis for the #3 spot. If Gettis has problems with his rehab, or he's not the player he was in 2010, then Armanti is likely the next man up. But Gettis is young, and with the way ACL rehab has improved, it's likely that he will return and earn one of the top three spots.
Armanti's 2012 cap number is not startling at $490,000. But the Panthers find themselves over the cap, meaning a guy who will only do one job will be constantly evaluated. This means Edwards will have to improve drastically as a punt returner if he's going to have any long-term job stability. To do that, he is going to need some help. Fortunately for Armanti, help might be on the way...
In an interesting development, the Panthers have brought in Special Teams Assistant Richard Rodgers (He was a teammate of Rivera's at Cal). The circumstances surrounding the hire make it look like he might be more of a co-coordinator with incumbent Brian Murphy. With an extra set of eyes and some fresh ideas, hopefully we'll see another step forward from a special teams unit that started to improve near the end of the 2011 season.
Getting some of the quality depth back from injury will provide the unit with an additional boost. Even more, most of the injured starters coming back will relegate the 2nd-string players who were filling in back to special teams.
Combine the additional coaching and better players with the added benefit of an offseason and it should provide Edwards with the support he lacked so he can become more cost-effective.
The frustrating thing about the situation is it looks like Edwards could succeed at WR if he got the opportunity. It was the preseason, but in 2011 he lead the team in receptions and receiving yardage. Again, his best bet will probably be improving as a punt returner. If he can make significant strides, it may be enough to earn a roster spot. After all, having a guy back there you can trust is big. Having a guy back there who can change a game with one play is an invaluable commodity. And in my opinion, Armanti Edwards has the ability and skill-set to do just that.