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Washington's new punt returner may surprise a lot of fans

Washington Football Report

Special Teams in 2020

Special teams was a mixed bag for the Washington Football Team in 2020.

Tress Way, as always, was magic as a punter, with a booming leg when needed and a soft touch when kicking the ball inside the opponent’s 20 yard line.

The kick return game was solid, with backup CB Danny Johnson handling the bulk of the kick return duties.

Dustin Hopkins was strong on kickoffs, but had an inconsistent stretch with field goals in the middle of the season as he struggled through an injury that led to a mid-season slump in his field goal length and accuracy. By the end of the year, however, he had returned to his normal performance levels, and coach Ron Rivera never wavered in his support of Hopkins and has not brought a kicker to camp to compete with him.

The real problem was with the punt return game, with the team’s primary return man, slot receiver Steven Sims, struggling to make good decisions, handle the ball cleanly and get adequate return yards all season long.

Let’s review what options the current roster offers in the return game when we get to training camp and the preseason.

Kick returner

There shouldn’t be a lot of mystery about Washington’s kickoff returner unless one of the new players on the roster shows a real aptitude for it. The guy who did it last year did it well, and should be on the roster again this season.

Danny Johnson is a backup cornerback, but he filled another key role in 2020 as the team’s kickoff returner, and he did the job pretty well.

Danny Johnson with a big return against the LionsPhoto by Amy Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Per Pro Football Focus, among players who returned at least 15 kickoffs in 2020, Johnson had the following rankings:

  • 7th in number of returns at 24
  • 10th in total return yards at 573
  • 16th in average per return at 22.0
  • 11th in PFF grade at 66.5

An important part of being a kick returner is making sure that the offense gets the ball in good field position. Obviously, if the kickoff reaches the end zone, choosing not to return it means starting at the 25 yard line, so that becomes our threshold for evaluating “good” and “bad” return decisions.

Per Stathead.com, of Danny Johnson’s 24 returns, only three traveled beyond the goal line and into the end zone, and his decisions on those three returns were...okay. He ended up at the 27, 24, and 23 yard lines, which means that he made two incorrect decisions, but at only a very marginal cost to field position.

The other 21 returns were forced by the kicking team putting the ball into play by kicking short of the end zone. On these 21 returns, the average starting field position for the offense was the 27.29 yard line — which means that, on average, when the opposing team forced Johnson to return the ball, it provided roughly a 2-yard advantage in field position. Of course, averages can be skewed by even a single outlying result, and Johnson did have one return to the 50 yard line, but on two thirds of these returns (14/21) he got the ball to the 25 yard line or beyond, and he was stopped short of the 20-yard line only three times.

All in all, I think the statistics support the eye test here; Danny Johnson is an above-average kick return man in the NFL, which should help him make the roster, since he is probably only an average quality backup corner.

It seems worthwhile noting that JD McKissic has 3 years’ experience as a kick returner with a fairly handy 19.0 ypr average; he should be able to provide backup to Johnson in the kick return game.

Also, Curtis Samuel returned kickoffs in ‘17 and ‘18. He had 10 total returns with a 21.5 ypr average.

Punt returner

Okay, so Danny Johnson provides a good option as the kick returner.

But what about punt returns? What should Washington be doing there?

Per Pro Football Focus, last season, Washington returned 31 punts and called for 26 fair catches. Because of Washington’s very good defense, this number (57 punt return plays) was among the highest in the league. In fact, Washington was 3rd in the NFL in 2020 in forcing the opposing team to punt, behind only the Rams and the Steelers. In 2019, Washington ranked 25th in this metric.

Steven Sims

Steven Sims was the return man for 43 of those 57 return plays, with Isaiah Wright getting the second-most snaps as a punt return man, with 7.

According to PFF, Sims led the entire NFL with 3 muffs in 2020, which was atrocious. One of those muffs was recovered for a touchdown. Even worse, there were only 8 players in the league that had 2 muffs, and one of them was Isaiah Wright. I think it’s safe to say that the WFT set a new standard for the opposite of excellence with its 5 muffed punts. That’s not a good thing.

Steven Sims (15) muffs a punt that Carolina recovered for a touchdownPhoto by Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Also, Sims’ average of 6.7 yards per return was not good. Among punt returners with at least 10 returns last season, Sims ranked 24th in average per return.

When you combine his below par numbers for average per return with his league-leading muff numbers, it seems that Sims should be replaced as the team’s primary punt return option.

But who does the team have on the roster that can replace him? The ideal candidate should have three characteristics:

  1. Experience as a punt returner
  2. Success as a punt returner
  3. Skilled offensive or defensive player to justify the roster spot

Let’s look at some possibilities.

DeAndre Carter

Per Pro Football Reference, Carter has played for three teams in his short 3-year career; Washington is his fourth. While he has only 41 career targets and 34 career receptions as a receiver on offense, he has 63 NFL punt returns on special teams.

  • In 2018 he returned 26 punts at an average of 9.6 yards/return
  • In 2019 he returned 22 punts at an average of 9.7 yards/return
  • In 2020 he returned 15 punts at an average of 8.4 yards/return

In addition to having a career return average (9.3 ypr) that is 50% better than Steven Sims’ (6.2 ypr), Carter is less likely to call for a fair catch. While Sims has waved his arm on 44% of his return opportunities, Carter has done so just 40% of the time. That means that Carter takes roughly 10% more opportunities to gain yards, and achieves a 50% better result per return when he takes the opportunity.

DeAndre Carter (14) returns a punt against Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback James Pierre (42)Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

On the downside, Carter did have 2 muffs in his rookie season (2018), but he hasn’t muffed a punt since Week 5 of the 2019 season, which means he’s fielded his last 45 punts cleanly (remember that Sims muffed 3 times on 43 return opportunities last season).

So, Carter has experience and has had success as a punt returner. He appears to be a competent backup slot receiver, catching 82.9% of his career targets with an average of 11.4 yards per reception.

I think there’s a very good chance that Carter is a surprise inclusion on the 53-man regular season roster as a specialist punt return man and 6th wide receiver. That’s because I’ve struggled to find a better punt returner option on the Washington roster.

There are a limited number of alternatives to Sims and Carter.

Adam Humphries

Humphries has a good shot at making the roster as a starting or backup slot receiver. He also has experience as a punt returner.

Like DeAndre Carter, Adam Humphries also has 63 career punt returns, but at a much more pedestrian 8.0 yards per return. He didn’t return punts last season, and he hasn’t averaged over 6.6 ypr since 2018. He also had 4 muffs in 4 seasons as a punt returner.

While Humphries has a good chance to make the roster and he has experience as a punt returner, he hasn’t been as successful overall in the return game. Humphries hasn’t had a good season as a return man since 2017, and hasn’t had a season to rival those of DeAndre Carter since his rookie year (2016).

Humphries is an option as a punt returner, but not a truly appealing one.

Dax Milne

Milne is a rookie who was drafted in the 7th round and he has a shot at making the regular season roster. Earning the role of return man would significantly enhance that shot.

At BYU, Milne had 12 punt returns over two seasons. He averaged a sparkling 11.4 yards per return on 5 returns as a sophomore, but I’m guessing (without looking it up) that his average was helped by one big return.

As a Junior, Milne had 7 returns for a combined 3 yards — an dismal average of just 0.3 yards per return.

While Milne may get some looks at punt returner in training camp and preseason, I don’t see much evidence to indicate that he’s likely to win the job.

Note - some other players I checked

RB Jaret Pattterson - no experience in college as a punt returner

CB Greg Stroman - 10 punt returns for 25 yards in 2018 & 2020 combined

WR Dyami Brown - no experience in college as a punt returner

S Troy Apke - no college or NFL return experience found

WR Curtis Samuel - no NFL punt return experience; limited KR expereince

Bottom line

I think Danny Johnson is a lock for the KR position, and the team has at least a couple of options as backups if Johnson gets injured.

At punt returner, it looks to me like all the options are at the slot receiver position. I would probably rank them as punt return options, in order:

  1. DeAndre Carter
  2. Steven Sims
  3. Adam Humphries
  4. Dax Milne

The decision will undoubtedly come down to three factors:

a. how the potential return men look in training camp practices

b. how the potential return me look in preseason games

c. how many roster spots are available at the relevant position, which right now looks like the slot receiver role

I suspect that two of these guys could make the roster, with one as the primary slot receiver and the other as the primary punt returner, with each acting as the other’s backup.

At this point, my money is on Humphries as the primary slot receiver on offense and DeAndre Carter as the primary punt returner for special teams, but those opinions are subject to change as we see these guys on the field in the three preseason games.

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