One of the major problems with the 2009 Raiders was the struggle in the return game.
Fullback Gary Russell became the primary kick returner when Nick Miller was injured for the season.
Johnnie Lee Higgins was the primary punt returner, but showed little of the promise in 2009 that he did in 2007 and 2008.
The Raiders ranked 32nd in the league in kick return average in 2009 with just 18.2 yards per return and 29th in the league in punt return average with just 4.9 yards per return.
There are three phases of the game: offense, defense and special teams. The Raiders have two of the best legs in the game to kick and punt, but in 2009 the worst return game.
A lot more goes into the return game in the form of blocking than we can cover here and the personnel are so fluid at this point it isn’t worth the effort.
One way the Raiders can improve drastically is to give the return duties to a new player.
Gary Russell’s lack of speed and agility really hurt the return game. Warren Sapp at one point commented saying that Russell’s waist was as big as his. Take this for what it is worth, but by most accounts Russell should never have been returning kicks.
Higgins struggled mightily to recapture the success he had in the return game in 2008, but has a small window to recapture it in 2010.
Higgins punt return average in 2007 and 2009 were an identical at a sub standard 5.2 yards per return. In 2008,
Higgins returned three punts for a touchdown and averaged 13.0 yards per punt return. His career average is 23.4 yards per kick return and 8.7 yards per punt return.
Can Higgins recapture his 2008 success or 2009 the norm?
Almost immediately following the season the Raiders signed Yamon Figurs. Figurs will attempt to earn a job in return game in 2010, having averaged 23.1 yards per kick return and 8.0 yards per punt return in his career. If Figurs can replicate those marks in 2010, the Raiders return game could improve, but those numbers would still be considered average by NFL standards.
The Raiders used the draft pick acquired for Kirk Morrison to select Jacoby Ford out of Clemson University. Ford was good enough to share return duties with C.J. Spiller, the Bills first round draft selection.
While Spiller was much more dynamic with seven kick return touchdowns to Ford’s two, he wasn’t significantly more successful returning the football. Spiller averaged 27.7 yards per kick return in college and 6.5 yards per punt return. Ford averaged 23.9 yards per kick return and 6.0 yards per punt return.
Ford’s youth and speed make him the favorite to win a return job, but it is also possible the Raiders opt for dual threat kick return game for the first time in years.
Nick Miller returns as a second year player who made the team as an undrafted free agent only to play in zero snaps. No small feat. Miller averaged 20.3 per return on kickoffs in college and a whopping 16.5 yards per punt return while playing for Southern Utah.
It is difficult to gauge how return stats will translate to the NFL, especially in Nick Miller’s case. He played just one year against inferior competition.
Rock Cartwright also has a chance to make the roster partly because of his kick return ability. Cartwright has returned kicks exclusively the past four seasons and averaged 24.0 yards per return in his career.
Cartwright is a sleeper candidate to win the kick return job, but he may also need to beat out Michael Bennett for the reserve running back position to stick.
Johnnie Lee Higgins has a slight window to recapture his 2008 success, but he will have players breathing down his neck for the punt return duties.
This will be one of the better return battles in recent memory and the Raiders are hoping the player who wins the job can elevate one of the weakest areas on the team.
Who do you think wins the kick and punt return jobs in Oakland?
- The Raiders signed CB Joe Porter of the UFL’s Las Vegas Locomotives. He was a track star at Clemson University and ran a 4.33 second 40 yard dash at his pro day in 2007.