The New York Giants began churning through kickoff and punt returners in the preseason. Kalif Raymond and Hunter Sharp were found wanting and let go. Kaelin Clay and Stacy Coley were tried and discarded once the season began. Cody Latimer got a turn before landing on IR. Jawill Davis got an opportunity. Desperate for play-making, the Giants even used Odell Beckham Jr. as a punt returner for a handful of games.
Nine games into the season, the Giants finally may have found answers to their return game issues.
Speedster Corey Coleman, a fourth-year player on his fourth team since the beginning of training whom the Giants picked up off the NFL scrap heap a few weeks ago, was explosive on Monday in his first NFL action as a kickoff returner.
Coleman had a 51-yard returner, a 43-yard return negated by a penalty and averaged 30.7 yards on three returns.
“He did a good job. It was refreshing to make an explosive play in the kickoff return game. It was fun to watch,” special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey said on Thursday.
The Cleveland Browns, who made Coleman the 15th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, never used Coleman on kickoff returns. He didn’t last long enough with the Buffalo Bills or New England Patriots to get any sort of opportunity, special teams or wide receiver.
When they signed him to their practice squad early in the season, the Giants were aware Coleman might have untapped potential as a kickoff returner.
“He did it in college. That’s part of our job as coaches, we’ve got to do our research,” McGaughey said. “I worked with Art Briles, so I always followed Baylor kind of closely so I knew about him and I knew about his past. Kid can run. He showed his self-value, definitely.”
Coleman averaged 26.0 yards on 25 kickoff returns over three seasons at Baylor, most of those coming during his freshman season. Coleman ran a 4.37 40-yard dash and the NFL Combine.
“Speed and vision. You’ve got to be able to see it, and obviously got to be able to get there,” McGaughey said regarding what it takes to successfully return kickoffs. “Corey possesses both. He does a good job of fielding the ball and he has some mobility. He’s a first-round draft pick for a reason. Definitely has some big time ability.”
Henderson, an undrafted free agent from Pitt, averaged 26.4 yards with four kickoff return touchdown and 13.4 yards with three punt return scores in college.
In three games with the Giants, he is averaging 7.7 yards per return on punts and 22.4 on kickoffs. The punt return average doesn’t seem like much, but no one else who has gone back there for the Giants this season averaged more than 3.0 yards per return.
“He’s a sure-handed guy, does a good job of catching the ball. He’s a good young player that has a lot of potential as a returner,” McGaughey said about Henderson after he debuted with the Giants Week 7 against Atlanta.
Since then, of course, Henderson has been cut, brought back to the practice, squad, reinstated to the 53-man roster and is now back returning punts. He could also find himself returning more kickoffs should Coleman’s role on offense limit his availability to do that.
Kicking game becoming a strength
With the return game issues seemingly in the rear view mirror, the kicking game could be looked as a strength for the Giants.
Placekicker Aldrick Rosas has shown vast improvement from a rookie season that saw him make only 72 percent of his field goals. He is 19-of-20 (95 percent) with his only miss coming from beyond 50 yards.
Punter Riley Dixon is also having a nice season after being acquired by the Giants via trade from the Denver Broncos.
Dixon, in his third season, is averaging a career-best 47.0 yards per punt. That is significant since he no longer has the advantage of the mile high Denver air.
“I coached in Denver for two years and people always talk about the altitude. The altitude doesn’t make the ball hang, it just makes it go further faster,” McGaughey said. “When you compare the two from on the road and what he did at home [with Denver], it wasn’t a whole lot different. As a matter of fact, he was a little bit better on the road. He’s a young player, and we’re just happy that the maturation process is taking place with him, and we look forward to great things from him.”
Dixon has 14 punts downed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line as opposed to only 3 touchbacks.
Dixon and the Giants are averaging 42.1 net yards per punt attempt, fifth in the NFL.