With Domenik Hixon gone for the 2010 season with a knee injury, the primary question is obvious -- who returns kickoffs and punts this season in Hixon's absence.
Call Hixon "just a return guy" and minimize the loss if you will. The Giants, though, will miss him on special teams. He was their primary return guy in 2009, and a pretty good one, and has been an outstanding coverage guy as long as he has been a Giant.
- Among players who returned 10 or more punts in 2009, Hixon's 14.2-yards per return average was second only to DeSean Jackson's 15.3-yard average.
- He handled 58 kickoff returns last season and averaged 22.3 yards per return, which had as much to do with poor blocking as anything else. He has averaged 24.9 yards per return in three years with the Giants.
- As a receiver, he caught just 15 balls in 2009. This means Ramses Barden will have to step up as the fourth receiver.
Back to the original question, though. Who will return punts and kickoffs? Let's look at the obvious candidates, in no particular order of preference or possibility. I will just name them as they come to mind.
- Sinorice Moss: I know, I know most of you want him off the roster instead of running back kicks. But, he is still a Giant, has experience handling both punt and kickoff returns and has to be considered a candidate. Thing is, he has never been any good in either capacity as a pro. He averaged a paltry 6.7 yards per punt return on 11 tries before losing the job to Hixon in 2009. In 24 attempts over three seasons, Moss has averaged just 19.4 yards per kickoff return. He has the speed, it just doesn't translate.
- Ahmad Bradshaw: He has done both jobs as a Giant, so he has to be on the short (or long) list right now. You would have to think, though, that coming off broken bones in both feet and with his importance to the offense as a running back, he would only handle either of these jobs as a last resort. Has career averages of a decent 23.2 yards on 77 kickoff returns and 7.8 yards on just eight career punt returns.
- Danny Ware: Was supposed to be the primary kickoff returner last season, but injured his elbow on the very first play of the season. Flashed some ability to be a good returner in the 2009 pre-season. He will be fighting for a roster spot, but showing he deserves this job will go a long way toward ensuring he gets one. Ware worked out as a punt returner at times in 2009, but has never done it in a game.
- Mario Manningham: Split time with Hixon and Bradshaw returning punts during training camp and pre-season games last season. Returned only one punt during his collegiate career. He has the speed and elusiveness, and would have to be considered a candidate since he is unlikely to start at receiver unless Hakeem Nicks or Steve Smith in injured. Unlikely to be a candidate for kickoff returns.
- Chad Jones: The Giants' third-round pick has collegiate experience returning both punts and kickoffs, though his LSU stats don't show that he excelled in either capacity. One thing in his favor is that he is unlikely to see a lot of playing time in 2010, especially in Kenny Phillips is healthy. One thing working against him is that Tom Coughlin hates trusting rookies, whose ball security can be sketchy, with return duties.
Aaron Ross: I find this one to be a long shot, but Ross was catching punts during Tuesday's mini-camp practice, and the fourth-year cornerback did come out of Texas with a reputation as a tremendous punt returner. Various reports Wednesday said Ross and Manningham were the first names GM Jerry Reese mentioned as potential punt returners to replace Hixon.
Ross apparently loves the idea of returning punts again. From Pat Traina.
Ross, incidentally, has been soliciting the coaches to put him on special teams. “I’ve been asking to do it,” he said of playing on special teams.
When asked what the appeal is, he smiled and said, “It keeps me loose. It’s a momentum changer for both sides of the ball. And it’s just something I’ve been doing since I’ve been in college, so I don’t mind doing it here.”
Ross, who spoke prior to the news about Hixon’s season-ending injury, might not get the chance to be the team’s punt returner if he ends up winning back his starting job from Terrell Thomas. Typically, the Giants don’t like to put starting players in kickoff or punt return roles.
However, Ross doesn’t seem to mind if he’s asked to do double duty.
“I don’t know how that’s going to work, but I just want to catch punts,” he said, adding, “Hopefully I’ll get a chance to do it.”
Here is a highlight reel of punt returns by Ross while he was at the University of Texas.
- Andre Brown: Did a limited amount of returning at North Carolina State, running back 17 kickoffs and one punt over three seasons. On one hand it makes sense to give him a look -- at least returning kickoffs. On the other hand, this is a guy returning from a devastating Achilles Tendon injury and you just don't know how he would react to the tremendous speed of kickoff returns.
- Antrel Rolle: The Giants' prized free-agent acquisition returned a few punts for Arizona last season, netting an average of 9.2 yards on six returns. Remember Jason Sehorn? I know you do. Knowing how important Rolle is to the Giants' revamped defense, with or without Phillips, I can't imagine Rolle getting an opportunity to do this.
Of course, there is always the possibility that a free agent will shake loose later this summer and be brought in to compete for the job. Or, that a return guy will be cut during pre-season and added to the roster.
For now, though, these are your candidates. If there was a game tomorrow, my guess is Ware would return kickoffs. I have no idea who would return punts.
Who do you want returning kicks?