The New York Giants' rookie mini-camp provided plenty of news and entertainment the past few days. So did the signing of linebacker Aaron Curry, trying to come back from knee injuries and disappointing play.
One of the most interesting developments, however, was the free-agent visit right before rookie mini-camp by return specialist/wide receiver Josh Cribbs, one of the best return men in the NFL the past eight seasons. Cribbs did not sign and has continued making free-agent visits, but could still find his way back to the Giants.
Whether Cribbs ultimately ends up in New York or not, the visit is symbolic of the fact that there are changes afoot in the Giants' return game for 2013.
We know how good David Wilson was in 2012, averaging 26.9 yards per return while giving the Giants the most dangerous kickoff return game they have had since Willie Ponder averaged more than 25 yards per return in 2004 and 2005. With Ahmad Bradshaw gone, however, Wilson is slated for a full load of carries in the backfield. We also know from history that as players roles increase on offense or defense, head coach Tom Coughlin exposes them less and less often in the return game.
Special teams coordinator Tom Quinn would undoubtedly like to have Wilson returning every kickoff, but that seems extremely unlikely to happen, with Quinn admitting over the weekend "that's not my decision."
Quinn will likely have to settle for someone other than Wilson, whether it be Jerrel Jernigan, Da'Rel Scott or another player who emerges, returning more often than he would hope. Adding a player like Cribbs, who was actually better than Wilson a season (27.4 yards per return) and has averaged 25.9 yards on 387 career returns, would make losing Wilson's return ability palatable.
The Giants have also struggled in recent seasons returning punts. In 2012 they were 30th in the league, averaging 7.2 yards per return. In 2011, the Giants' average of 6.1 yards per return was 29th overall. In 2010 that same 6.1 yards per return average was 31st. The Giants have not been good in the punt return game since Domenik Hixon was healthy in 2009, when they averaged 10.9 yards per return, sixth in the league.
Cribbs averaged 12 yards per punt return a season ago, second in the league among regular returners. He has averaged 11 yards per return during his career.
"We do have to identify someone if they can be a punt returner that can make a difference because that’s something that’s been lagging the last couple of years," Quinn said. "In ‘08 and ‘09 we were pretty happy with it. The last couple of years it wasn’t anywhere near where it needs to be, so we’ve got to find someone to step up and take that role."
Most of the candidates currently on the roster -- Reuben Randle, Aaron Ross, Jerrel Jernigan, Jayron Hosley among them -- have been tried and found wanting for one reason or another. Randle and Ross because of lack of breakaway ability, Jernigan because he hasn't been able to consistently catch the ball and Hosley because he hasn't been able to stay on the field.
The other thing that makes Cribbs a natural fit for the roster is that his offensive position is wide receiver, where the Giants only have five obvious candidates for roster spots and not the six they carried a season ago.
Thus, Cribbs' free agency bears watching. If he doesn't end up with the Giants, what happens with the team's return game will likely be one of the main story lines of the preseason.