For the Jacksonville Jaguars to improve upon last season's 6-10 record, they are going to need to find every possible edge they can. Whether it is on offense, defense or, in this case, special teams.
Jacksonville has had solid special teams unit in recent seasons, with special teams Joe DeCamillis overseeing some of the league's best kicking and punting units. Just this past year, veteran NFL reporter Rick Gosselin ranked Jacksonville's special teams unit fifth-best in the league for the 2019 season.
But one aspect of Jacksonville's special teams unit which hasn't quite made an impact over the past couple of seasons has been the return unit. With the Jaguars needing more big plays this season, this will be a pattern they need to change.
Last year, three different players handled kick return duties for the Jaguars. Michael Walker returned 18 kicks for 411 yards (22.8 yards per return), but he also fumbled two kicks toward the end of the season. Tyler Ervin returned five kicks for 107 yards (21.4 yards per return) while Keelan Cole returned three kicks for 110 yards (36.7 yards per return).
None could hold the job on a long-term basis in 2019, a problem the Jaguars have ran into for some time. In fact, the last time the Jaguars scored on a kick return was when Marqise Lee returned one for 100 yards against the Houston Texans in Week 14 in 2016.
So, who could the Jaguars turn to in hopes of changing their fortunes in the return game in 2020? The team has several in-house options, most notably seventh-round rookie cornerback Chris Claybrooks.
A former wide receiver and return specialist at the junior college level, Claybrooks converted to cornerback in his first year at Memphis in 2018. In 2019, Claybrooks took over return duties for Memphis, returning 11 kicks for 338 yards (30.7 average) and one touchdown.
"I think we’ve got a couple of guys. 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," head coach Doug Marrone said on Monday.
"But again, you’re talking about quick, powerful, inside, outside, one cut, I mean he has all that ability."
From the moment the Jaguars drafted Claybrooks, they have made it clear that Claybrooks will have a real chance to be the team's kick returner once Week 1 against the Indianapolis Colts on Sept. 13. While his natural position will be cornerback, general manager Dave Caldwell even noted returning would be Claybrooks' role.
“I hope so because that's why we drafted him," Caldwell said following the draft.
"That's his number one job is to come in here and be our kick returner first and foremost, hopefully earn a spot as a corner, then work on some of the punt returns skills. That's his forte."
But Claybrooks is far from Jacksonville's only option for the kick return role. Players like Cole who have kick return experience are still on the roster, while Jacksonville has other players along the wide receiver and running back depth chart who make sense to give reps to in training camp.
One notable option is veteran running back Chris Thompson, who was a special teams ace in Washington. While there may be some question of if it is worth to have Thompson on return duties due to his importance to the running back depth chart (and his history with injuries), he at least has plenty of experience in the area.
In his seven years in Washington, Thompson returned 37 kicks for 748 yards (20.2 yards per return). He may not have scored, but he is an explosive athlete who the Jaguars at least know has experience in the role.
"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," Marrone said Monday.
"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.
Dede Westbrook has only returned three kicks in his NFL career, but he is one of Jacksonville's best players in space. Add in Walker and Cole, who have each returned kicks, and the Jaguars have options.
Claybrooks and Thompson appear to be the frontrunners based off Marrone's comments, and these are the two most logical options. Now the Jaguars will have to decide what they valuable more in the return game: experience or upside.