Marcus Sherels

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Battle is on for Saints returner jobs

Kick and punt return spots are up for grabs at training camp

Seth Dunlap
July 30, 2019 - 10:09 pm
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Two of the most intriguing battles unfolding at Saints training camp are those for the kick and punt return jobs.  Head coach Sean Payton has been open about his desire to improve those two areas this season as the Saints try to make another push to a Super Bowl.  

The team signed Marcus Sherels this offseason, a veteran returner who is entering his 10th season in the NFL.  Sherels has spent his entire career in Minnesota, where he specialized as both a kick and punt returner for the Vikings.  While competent, he was anything but spectacular.  Sherels averaged a healthy 12 yards on 23 punt returns last season, but saw his opportunities as a kick returner diminish.  He returned just two kicks for 24 total yards last season, and had just 17 total kick returns in his last for season with the Vikings.

While Sherels is the defacto frontrunner for each job, he's no lock to make the final roster.  There's a reason the Vikings felt comfortable letting him go in free agency, and the Saints could be looking for more big play potential than what Sherels can offer in consistency.

"In both areas I don't know we've penciled in somebody we think will be our starting guy there," Payton said after practice on Tuesday.   

"We've got a handful of guys competing, and we'll take a look at them.  I know Alvin (Kamara) can go back there and play in either role, but more importantly who else can help in that area."  

There's perhaps no position more difficult to evaluate during camp than returner.  While you can set up game-type situations during camp, the pressure and speed of game day return opportunities provides the only real way to evaluate each player fairly.  That's why the competition for those jobs is likely to stretch late into training camp, perhaps through the team's final preseason game against the Dolphins on August 29.   

"Without having had the first hand exposure to (the returners) yet that's something we're paying attention to," Payton said.  "I'd wait and reserve judgment until we see them return in game situations, but it's to be determined right now."

With that battle just beginning, here's a look at the main candidates to lock down one, or both, return jobs.

Marcus Sherels:  As mentioned, Sherels is the quintessential trustworthy vet in this competition.  He hasn't had a return touchdown since 2016, so his big play potential is a bit limited.  On the other hand, he takes care of the football and hasn't lost a fumble since that same season.  Sherels could provide consistency the Saints have lacked at the position for years.

Alvin Kamara:  Payton singled out Kamara today for a reason.  He's been the most reliable of a relatively unreliable group of returners over the past couple of seasons.  Kamara has returned a combined 12 punts and 15 kicks in his two years with the Saints, and ran back a 106 yard touchdown on a kick return during his rookie season.  He wasn't very effective as a punt returner last year, averaging just 6.8 yards on those dozen returns.  With Kamara now set to assume the lead role at tailback, the team likely doesn't want to expose him as a returner if possible.  But, if he's the best option, you can expect to see him on special teams again this season.

Cyril Grayson Jr.:  The ultimate wildcard in this battle, Grayson Jr. has one big time asset the other players don't; world class speed.  He was an All-American track star at LSU, and he's continually flashing his speed on offense, catching multiple deep balls behind the defense from Drew Brees.  Grayson Jr. has the big play potential that others in this return battle, outside of possibly Kamara, just don't.  Expect him to get many opportunities in preseason games at both return spots.  Being a viable option at returner, even in a backup role, will help Grayson Jr.'s case to make this roster.

Austin Carr:  Carr is in a real battle just to secure a roster spot.  With young receivers like Grayson Jr., Emmanuel Butler, and Keith Kirkwood performing well early in camp, his window to make the roster as strictly a receiver is diminishing.  Carr will need to prove he can be a valuable asset on special teams.  Here's the problem for the third-year pro; he's never returned a kick or punt during his NFL career, nor did he during his college career at Northwestern.  As unlikely as it may sound, Carr is likely on the outside of the 53 man roster looking in at this point.

Ted Ginn Jr.:  Almost an obligatory mention for Ginn Jr. who has been highly effective as a returning during his career.  However, he was relegated to Payton's returner doghouse after ball security problems during the 2017 season.  In fact, Ginn Jr. only returned one kick last year, and never got an opportunity to return a punt.  Ginn Jr.'s versatility is valuable to have, but the Saints are probably in a bit of a dire situation if he's out there as the team's full time returner once the season begins.  

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