The New York Giants were atrocious in 2013 when it came to covering kickoffs and punts. We have spent an inordinate amount of time discussing that. The Giants, though, were not much better at returning kicks than they were at covering them. That is something that probably receives less media attention because failing to break big returns is less devastating than giving up long ones. It is, however, a weakness the Giants recognized and addressed during the offseason.
Free agency, the draft, and -- hopefully -- better health have given the Giants a plethora of return options for both kickoffs and punts in 2014.
"We have experienced guys that have been in this league, it’s always exciting," said special teams coordinator Tom Quinn. "We’ll just see how it all plays out and how we can use them to fit their best abilities."
Let's look at the options Quinn and the Giants have and see how it might play out.
Rookie Michael Cox was the Giants' primary kickoff return man a season ago. He averaged only 21.8 yards on 20 returns. Jerrel Jernigan averaged 22.4 yards on 11 returns. David Wilson returned nine kickoffs, averaging 24.7 yards, before being injured. Let's look at this year's return options.
Quintin Demps -- Demps is an under-rated return man, and has probably been under-used in this capacity throughout his career. He averaged 25.3 yards on 52 returns as a rookie with the Philadelphia Eagles back in 2008. He was not used regularly as a return man again until last season, when finished third in the league with an average of 30.1 yards on 33 returns. Demps took first-team reps during mini-camp and appears to have the inside track on being the Giants' No. 1 kickoff returner.
"We’re real excited to have him. He’s been consistent in this league and explosive. He’s a legitimate number one kickoff returner for us," Quinn said. "He runs with good size and he has a real good understanding of the schemes. He’s been great with all teams. A real leader, coming in likely to start and he’ll be able to contribute on special teams."
Trindon Holliday -- The Giants somewhat surprisingly signed the 5-foot-5, 166-pound return specialist during their offseason free-agent frenzy. Over two full NFL seasons (and one 2011 game with the Houston Texans) Holliday has established himself as a dangerous kick returner -- both to the opposition and to his own team. In Big Blue View parlance, Holliday is a 'Kwillie' waiting to happen. In 130 returns (punts and kickoffs combined) Holliday has scored four touchdowns. The flip side is, he has fumbled the ball 11 times. So, the question is does having Holliday return kicks help you or hurt you? The Giants brought him in to find out.
"We’ve always known about him. You study all of the really good returners and so you have a book on them all. When he became available we were happy to go get hi," Quinn said. "His speed’s an asset, that’s for sure. He’s a strong guy for his size, ball security obviously will be his biggest focus once we start putting pads on and start knocking him around a little bit."
Holliday, 28, has averaged 9.3 yards on punt returns and 27.1 on kickoff returns in his career. During mini-camp, he worked as the second returner after Demps on kickoffs, and the primary returner on punts.
David Wilson -- After his aborted 2013 season, it is easy to forget just how electric Wilson was on kickoff returns for the Giants in 2012. He led the NFL in returns (57) and yards (a franchise-record 1,533) in 2012. Wilson averaged 26.9 yards per return, 10th in the league, with one touchdown. He brought an element to the kickoff return game the Giants had not seen in a long time.
Now, if and when Wilson is cleared to play following last season's neck surgery the question will be whether or not the Giants want him to reprise that role. With Demps and Holliday in the fold, they may not need him to.
Odell Beckham Jr. -- When the Giants drafted Beckham in the first round general manager Jerry Reese made sure to mention the LSU star's ability as a punt and kickoff returner. He worked in both capacities, generally as the third option, during offseason practices. As a kickoff returner, Beckham averaged 25.1 yards at LSU on 40 returns.
"He’s explosive, he’s got legitimate speed and he runs, I think, pretty strong for his size," Quinn said. "You put all of that together and it ends up being a good returner."
Other Options -- Cox and Jernigsn (24.6 yard average on 20 career returns) have also gotten reps here. Jernigan in particular might be considered an option as he has had some success in this role.
Trindon Holliday -- If Holliday is going to have a primary role with the Giants, this would seem to be it. He did work as the No. 1 punt returner during the spring. As NJ.com pointed out, however "Holliday's fumbling became such a problem that the Broncos rarely used him on punt returns late in the season and in the playoffs. They favored someone that could secure the ball over a potential game breaker."
Only once in the last five weeks of the 2013 regular season did Holliday return more than one punt. In two games he did not return punts at all. In Denver's three playoff games Holliday returned kickoffs, but not punts.
Holliday, speed and game-breaking ability not withstanding, will have to show the Giants ball security will not be an issue. If he can't do that, he might not make the roster at all.
Reuben Randle -- If it is ball security the Giants value most in a punt returner, they will just stay with Randle in that role. Randle has averaged 7.8 yards on 44 returns over two seasons with the Giants. That isn't great in terms of big-play ability, but he is rock solid when it comes to catching the ball and not losing it in the mayhem of a punt return, where hits come from all sorts of odd angles.
It isn't hard to see Randle, because of that ball security, returning more punts in 2014 than you might think with the other options the Giants now have. A Holliday-Randle combination based on field position, with Randle handling the punts deep in Giants' territory, might even make sense.
Odell Beckham Jr. -- Beckham returned 58 punts at LSU, averaging 9.3 yards per return. How much the Giants use him in the return might depend on the performance of others and on how much he is playing on offense. The Giants generally don't like full-time offensive or defensive players handling return duties.
Other Options -- Wilson has caught punts during practice ever since his rookie year, but has never done so in a game. Victor Cruz also catches punts occasionally, but it would have to be an emergency of epic proportions for him to do so in a game. Cornerback Walter Thurmond has also worked as a punt returner. Thurmond averaged 15.0 yards on 11 returns at Oregon in 2009, but returned only one punt in four years with the Seattle Seahawks.
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