The Jaguars, led by special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis, have boasted one of the better special teams units in the NFL over the last couple of seasons, especially from a kicking perspective. Placekicker Josh Lambo and punter Logan Cooke are both at the top of their game. Jacksonville's coverage units have also performed at a high level.
But from a kick return perspective, the Jaguars have plenty of room to improve.
Last year Michael Walker led the team in kick returns with 18 total returns and averaged 22.8 yards per kick return. Walker underwhelmed and fumbled twice on returns.
The only other player currently on the roster that returned a kick in 2019 is Keelan Cole. He only returned three kickoffs but was impressive in limited duty, averaging 36.7 yards per return.
So where do the Jaguars stand at kick returner right now?
Doug Marrone wants rookie seventh-round pick Chris Claybrooks to win the job.
"I think that, obviously, [Chris] Claybrooks is a guy that we're banking on and he is not—he hasn't given us any indication that he would not be able to do it and I think he has to earn it," said Marrone. "But again, you're talking about quick, powerful, inside, outside, one cut, I mean he has all that ability."
For me, Claybrooks indeed represents the greatest upside for the Jaguars as a return man. The Memphis product returned 11 kickoffs for 338 yards and a score during the 2019 season. His speed and vision are apparent.
But head coach Doug Marrone also feels good about his other options.
"I think, the guy that's probably a little bit under the radar with it and he had been a really good returner in the past, is you have Chris Thompson, who has really done a great job there," said Marrone. "I don't have any issue of putting anyone back there as a returner. I think that' s—I look at that as a play or an opportunity to get something done. So it really, doesn't matter. If you're a starter or not a starter, if you're worried about this or not worried about that, you know, Chris can get back there. And I think we've had— Dede [Westbrook] has been back there, he's been there before, [WR] Michael Walker has been there before. So, we have a lot of guys that have done it, but we also have some guys that I think have the talent to be different."
While Marrone is happy with his options at kick returner, he acknowledged that it might be difficult to gauge who the best man for the job is without preseason games.
"So, we think we have a couple guys, and we're still working through, that have that ability," said Marrone. "So, we made an effort to better that and we'll see if that effort comes to fruition or with results when we start playing. Because, the one thing that's tough right now, without the preseason games, is that part of it. Where now you've got 11 people running down full speed and they can't let loose and get after you. So, those are some of the things that we're trying to simulate, but at the end of the day, how do you simulate that? You used to say, 'Full go, here we go.' And we're going to get some of those just to make sure that we're right on it. We'll probably get some within the next four or five days and I think that'll give us a good indication of where we are. But as far as what they can do and what they've shown so far, we have some guys that, we feel, are going to help us in the return game."
The challenges of a COVID-19 preseason are apparent. Figuring out who the best kick returner is will be a difficult task, based purely on the lack of real reps due to no preseason games. But the Jaguars' best option in terms of explosiveness is rookie Chris Claybrooks.
Stay tuned for more.
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