Yesterday we evaluated the kickers and punters heading into the 2013 season, and today we're going to take a deeper look at Carolina’s kick and punt returners who are expected to compete for roster spots in Spartanburg.
There's not a whole lot one can say about this area of the team since the Panthers didn’t have anyone on the team who stood out as either spectacular or horrible last season, but the addition of free agent Ted Ginn, Jr. should make things interesting in camp.
When Kealoha Pilares returned a kickoff for a touchdown against the Lions in 2011, fans were hopeful that he could continue that trend in 2012.
Unfortunately that didn't happen, and the kickoff return team as a whole was underwhelming for the entire season. Of course, fans in Carolina are used to underwhelming kickoff returns, as it's become the norm over the last decade.
The longest kickoff return for a Panthers player in 2012 was 35 yards by Armanti Edwards. Other than one return from Joe Adams, no one else made it past 30 yards for the whole year. Pretty crappy, huh? If you're curious about how the return men fared last season, please feel free to reference the chart below:
Before you ask -- yes, Sione Fua had a kickoff return last year. It was in the Tampa Bay game on November 18th, and it was a botched onside kick that went straight to him. I don’t expect to see that again in 2013, so for the purpose of this article you can skip over that line in the chart.
You can pretty much skip over Mike Tolbert and Captain Munnerlyn too, because unless there's some kind of emergency situation they won't be returning kicks either. That leaves us with four guys who could get the nod come opening day to be the man to return kicks for the 2013 squad. Let's take a look at each one, shall we?
Pilares spent most of the 2012 season on IR after injuring his shoulder in the Panthers' win against the Washington Redskins.
In his two years as a kick returner, Pilares sports a return average of 25.18 yards with one touchdown. However, his job is far from safe as there are three other players on the roster the coaching staff could choose from. The touchdown -- while an awesome play in and of itself -- was two years ago, and if Pilares wants to hang on to his roster spot he's going to have to show that his 101 yard return wasn't a fluke this pre-season.
Chance to make the roster - 50%
Ahh, Mr. Fumbles himself. Adams got 9 chances to return kicks in 2012 and while his average was a respectable 23.1 yards, his propensity to put the ball on the turf doesn't give much confidence to the coaching staff. Adams was unable to see much action towards the end of the season, and if he wants to stay out of Ron Rivera's dog house he's going to have to learn to hang on to the football.
Chance to make the roster - 50%
Armanti Edwards is the most polarizing player on the roster. It seems that half the fans adore everything he does, and half the fans regret the team's decision to draft him. Regardless of how you feel about Armanti Edwards, the statistics show that he wasn't too bad at returning kicks in 2012. He gets credit for the longest return of the year -- which is sadly only 35 yards -- and his average return of 21.7 yards puts him at 4th on the team for guys who returned more than one kick. (To be fair to Edwards, the 3rd ranked returner -- Armond Smith -- averaged only .1 yards more per return.)
Whether or not Armanti makes the roster -- or deserves to make the roster -- is one of the most disputed topics on CSR. As a kick returner, he has just as much of a chance as any of the other three guys competing for that last spot, but if he wants to make the team he's going to have to show that he is better than both Pilares and Adams at returning kicks.
Chance to make the roster - 50%
Because he isn't listed in the chart above, here is a look at what Ginn, Jr. did as a return man last season for the defending NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers:
While his kickoff returns are near-equal to those of Pilares and Adams, Ginn is probably the only lock to make the team as a return man, because he can reliably return both kicks and punts and only cost the team one roster spot. There's also the part where he was signed as a free agent specifically to improve the Panthers' return game, and it would be foolish to cut him unless the other three guys blow him away in training camp. I'm not saying it's impossible for that to happen -- but I wouldn't go to Vegas and bet a paycheck on it.
Chance to make the roster - 95%
Many fans remember one thing about the punt return unit from 2012: it seemed like Joe Adams fumbled the ball nearly every time he touched it. Furthermore, no one else who was trusted enough to return punts did anything worthy of note until Armanti Edwards outran everyone on the Saints roster save one very speedy punter en route to a team-high and career best 69 yard return in the final game of the season.
Other than that one solitary play, nothing positive of note happened when Panthers' opponents punted the ball. In fact, other than Joe Adams fumbles, nothing happened at all in those situations. If you take a look at the chart below, you will see the return totals for the three punt returners the Panthers used in 2012.
It's not much to write home about, is it? Aside from Edwards' lone 69 yarder, the rest of the Panthers returns are almost embarrassing. The problem that Ron Rivera and staff had in 2012 is they had to decide if they wanted to use one guy who could be the most dynamic return man in the league but has a tendency to put the ball on the ground, or if they wanted to use one of two men who don't make any spectacular plays but also don't screw up all too often.
Enter Ted Ginn.
The Panthers signed Ginn hoping he could be the answer, and it's almost a guarantee that he will make the team because they wouldn't have signed him otherwise. However, one knock that must be mentioned when talking about Ginn is that he also has the tendency to put the ball on the ground, as seen in his punt return stats in the chart below:
He fumbled three times in 2012 -- the same number of times Joe Adams did. But, one thing must be taken into account -- Adams fumbled three times in eleven punt returns, while Ginn fumbled three times in thirty two punt returns. That's a huge difference. Fumbles are going to happen. They are a part of the life as a punt returner. But, if you can bring in a guy who doesn't fumble as often as the guy you had before while maintaining the same big-play potential, then it's probably a good idea to do it.
I put the percentages above in the kick returner breakdown, and I think each player has the same chance of making the team after looking at the punt return numbers. Honestly, I believe it's a coin toss between Adams, Edwards and Pilares as to which one makes the roster, and without seeing any of them at camp it's foolish to declare any one of them to have the upper hand.
Ginn is nearly guaranteed a spot though due to his production and veteran presence, so you can just about pencil him into the depth chart as one of the return men for the 2013 Carolina Panthers.
That concludes the special teams preview for the 2013 season. Hopefully the Panthers can find solutions to the problems that have plagued them for several years in the offseason, and hopefully the review after the season is over will be much more enjoyable to read and write. Hey, a guy can dream can’t he?