September 13, 2015. That was the last time the Seahawks returned a punt for a touchdown; a 57-yard return by a rookie Tyler Lockett playing in his very first career game against the Rams—still of St. Louis at the time—in Week 1 of the 2015 season.
Two years later, Lockett housed Seattle's last kickoff return for six in the final game of the 2017 regular season. Since then, the team has never ranked higher than 19th in the league in punt return yardage and 15th on kickoffs, all while going scoreless.
To be fair, with rule changes that put player safety and longevity at the forefront, it's become increasingly more difficult for every team to do damage on returns—particularly on kickoffs. Still, 22 of 32 teams have at least one punt or kick return for a touchdown since 2018, though only seven have at least one of each.
So the Seahawks have a fairly common issue. And let's be clear: it's not that big of an issue, really. But for a team that focuses so much of their in-game strategy on field position, it would certainly behoove them to boast more upside out of the return game.
Upside, frankly, went out the window when Lockett broke his leg against the Cardinals at the end of the 2016 season. And despite a strong return in 2017, his usage on special teams has greatly diminished to the point where he only returned one kickoff for nine yards during the 2020 campaign.
From 2018 onward, eight players have recorded at least one return of some kind for the Seahawks. None of which have registered a punt return average of 10 or more yards, though two have eclipsed the 25-yard mark on kickoffs: Lockett in 2018 and D.J. Reed last year.
In a small sample size of five returns, Reed's 27.4 yards per kickoff return would have ranked fifth-best in the NFL last year. And while David Moore outgained Reed on punts (average of 9.3 to 7.8), the Seahawks clearly preferred the latter's speed and aggressiveness to the former's more patient approach. Thus, Reed became the team's primary punt returner for the rest of the season.
Moore is now gone, having signed a contract with the Panthers as an unrestricted free agent. But Reed, meanwhile, isn't necessarily a shoo-in to reprise his role either.
While he left some lasting impressions on the Seattle coaching staff in the return game, Reed truly broke out for his efforts on defense. As Quinton Dunbar went down with a season-ending knee injury, the Kansas State product slid into a full-time starting role at right-side cornerback and played beautifully, allowing an opponent passer rating of just 75.8 in eight starts.
With Shaquill Griffin also departing in free agency, Reed is all but guaranteed to keep his starting role at one of the team's outside cornerback spots in 2021. He's essentially the top dog in the Seahawks' group of corners, which features plenty of names but very little certainty.
For a position that's already been heavily scrutinized by fans and pundits alike, losing Reed for one reason or another would be detrimental. Therefore, it's hard to imagine Seattle putting its top corner in harm's way.
Fortunately for the Seahawks, they have other alternatives who, for once, provide quite a bit of upside—perhaps even more so than Reed. The biggest name, of course, is second-round selection D'Wayne Eskridge. The Western Michigan alum averaged 27.5 yards per kickoff return and ran one back for a touchdown in 2020—his first year fielding kicks. But the high school track star has never returned punts, which is something of a trend with all of Seattle's speedy rookies.
Cornerback Tre Brown and undrafted receivers Connor Wedington and Cade Johnson have longer track records of success on kick returns than Eskridge, but they have little-to-no experience on punts. Of the four names in total, Johnson may have the most potential to take to the role and run with it. In other aspects of his game, he's proven to be slippery with the ball in his hands, exhibiting excellent footwork and field vision. That should, in theory, play up in the punt return game.
But whoever goes on to take up the mantle, or if the Seahawks go by committee, one thing is clear: it shouldn't be Reed. The return game is, by nature, one of the most dangerous facets of the NFL and risk of injury goes up exponentially for those involved.
The risk far outweighs the reward here. He's just too important to Seattle's defense, and the team has other avenues it can go down to improve its return game.