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What options do the Giants have in the return game?

Coach Pat Shurmur has termed the role “unsettled” halfway through preseason

NFL: New York Giants at Detroit Lions
Hunter Sharp fumbles a kickoff vs. the Lions.
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants have not gotten a lot out of Hunter Sharp and Kalif Raymond on punt and kickoff returns through two preseason games.

Return Game Comparison

Player Punt Returns Avg. Long TDs Kickoff Returns Avg. Long
Player Punt Returns Avg. Long TDs Kickoff Returns Avg. Long
Hunter Sharp 6 15.5 55t 1 3 25.3 42
Kalif Raymond 7 12.6 35 0 3 13.3 15

The lack of explosive plays is one thing. Sharp’s issues with ball security against the Detroit Lions, a muffed punt and a fumble, exacerbated the Giants’ dilemma.

Who is going to return kickoffs and punts?

“Coach Pat Shurmur said this week that the Giants are “a little bit unsettled” at that spot.

“We have guys back there working, we’ll just play It out through the preseason and see where it goes,” Shurmur said.

The preference

Sharp or Raymond grabs the job — In each of the first two preseason games, Sharp returned kicks in the first half and Raymond in the second. The pair might be in competition for one wide receiver/return man job on the 53-man roster.

Playing for the Giants and Denver Broncos last season, Sharp averaged 9.3 yards on eight punt returns and had a 19-yard kickoff return. Before his bout with the dropsies last week, Sharp had probably been looked at as the more reliable of the two when it came to ball security.

In 12 games over two seasons with the Broncos, Giants and New York Jets Raymond has averaged 7.2 yards on 29 punt returns and 20.4 yards on 20 kickoff returns. The problem is he has fumbled seven of those returns, or 24.2 percent of them.

Both guys have a lot to prove before the Giants trust either of them with the return job.

The nuclear option

Let Odell Beckham Jr. and Saquon Barkley do it ... maybe even Sterling Shepard — All three have returned kicks in the past, and have done at least some work returning kicks this summer. Beckham and Shepard, in fact, work with the return teams on a regular basis.

Letting the two star players handle returns would, of course, set off a frenzy of “remember what happened to Jason Sehorn” alarm bells from Giants fans.

Well, yes, we remember. Shurmur wasn’t the coach then, and bringing up the Sehorn discussion with him would be pointless. I seriously doubt that the Giants want to see any of these three players handling returns on any sort of regular basis. Maybe not at all.

Could you really blame Shurmur, though, if he put Beckham back to return a punt or Barkley a kickoff late in a close game that the Giants needed to win? In my view, I could not. The job of the coach is to win, and putting your best players in positions to make impact plays at important times gives you a better chance to do that.

Injury risk or not, I would be OK with the Giants using Beckham and Barkley in critical situations.

By the way, I have to add this. During practices this summer I have watched Beckham return a number of kickoffs. Like a lot of other things, it just looks different — faster and more explosive — when he does it in comparison to anyone else.

Other possibilities

Cody Latimer — The wide receiver did some kickoff returning with the Denver Broncos, averaging 24.4 yards on 18 returns over four seasons. He returned eight kickoffs in each of the past two seasons. Latimer has seldom worked as a returner this summer, but did field kickoffs during Tuesday’s practice. Perhaps that is a harbinger of things to come.

Travis Rudolph — He can return kickoffs and punts, but really seems to lack the big-play explosiveness you would like from a returner. Rudolph averaged 2.7 yards on three punt returns last preseason and 22.0 yards on three kickoff returns.

Sterling Shepard — I mentioned him above. He averaged 7.4 yards on 30 punt returns at Oklahoma. Shepard has worked consistently this summer with both the punt and kickoff return groups.

Grant Haley — The rookie cornerback averaged 20.6 yards per return on 32 returns as a freshman at Penn State. He has not returned kicks since, and to my recollection has not gotten any reps doing so with the Giants.

Donte Deayon — The former coaching staff gave the 5-foot-9, 163-pound Deayon a look as a return man last preseason. He had three punt returns for a total of 1 yard averaged 19.5 yards on a pair of kickoff returns. Deayon returned punts at Boise State, averaging 8.4 yards per return on 30 attempts.

Mike Jones — The recently re-signed rookie cornerback averaged 22.2 yards on kickoff returns and 5.6 yards on punt returns for Temple in 2017. In 2016, playing for North Carolina Central in the FCS, Jones averaged an explosive 22.0 yards per punt return with two touchdowns. Jones, to my knowledge, has yet to get any looks with the Giants as a return man. The problem with the idea of keeping Jones as a returner is that we saw him play cornerback on Friday vs. the Detroit Lions in the fourth quarter, when he committed two penalties and gave up catches on all three targets where he did not commit a penalty. To keep him for returns, the Giants would have to cut a more deserving cornerback. The cornerback depth is already iffy.

Waivers/free agency — There does not appear to be an established return man available right now. That could change after the final preseason game when teams make cuts to reach the 53-man roster limit. If the Giants remain “unsettled” in the return game once the preseason concludes, perhaps their 2018 return man is currently on someone else’s roster.