Of the various position battles expected to take place this summer, the uneasiest ones for the Ravens come at the punt and kick returner spots.
With the Ravens jettisoning 2012 Pro Bowl return specialist Jacoby Jones earlier in the offseason, special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg is casting a wide net in trying to find his replacement. If voluntary organized team activities are any indication, numerous veterans and rookies alike will be in the competition mix.
“I think we’ll limit it to keeping the offensive linemen out of there,” said Rosburg as he laughed on Monday afternoon. “We’re not going to let any of those guys go out there, but we are going to have a long line when it comes to that time.”
Younger players such as cornerback Asa Jackson, wide receivers Michael Campanaro and DeAndre Carter, and running back Fitz Toussaint figure to receive plenty of opportunities this summer, but Rosburg has also given veteran wideout Steve Smith some reps this spring and will do the same with veteran cornerback Lardarius Webb during training camp. Smith and Webb have shown plenty of ability in the return game throughout their careers, but the Ravens would obviously prefer not to use key veteran starters to return kicks on any kind of a regular basis.
In a perfect world, the Ravens would find someone to return both punts and kickoffs, but versatility will be critical as they’re not looking for a player to solely be a return man. That’s the biggest reason why the organization cut Jones, whose role as a wide receiver all but disappeared as he struggled with drops in his final season in Baltimore.
“You’d like to see a return specialist do both, and also contribute on offense or defense,” Rosburg said. “My personal philosophy is I don’t want just a return specialist. That’s not enough value to the roster. It doesn’t help the team enough.”
While training camp practices provide opportunities for evaluation, limits on contact during special-teams drills make it difficult for Rosburg to truly determine what he has. It’s easy to know what veterans such as Webb or Smith have to offer, but determining whether a rookie free agent like Carter can handle the job is best assessed during preseason games.
Securing the ball and turning upfield is simple enough on a Wednesday afternoon at the team’s Owings Mills training complex in early August, but doing it consistently when it matters is a different story.
“I like to see guys in games,” Rosburg said. “Practice is practice. It’s really valuable [and] it is important. You see what skills guys have, you watch them play, and you get a feel for them. Having said that, there’s nothing like game reps. Handling a crowd [and] handling a game situation is really important. We’ll make the decision based on who is best in preseason.”
Predicting which candidate that might be at this point is anyone’s guess.