It’s become an annual story line at the start of training camp.
Who’s going to return kicks and punts for the Ravens?
Since Jacoby Jones’ impressive three-year run from 2012-14 that included a trip to the Pro Bowl and a standout performance in Super Bowl XLVII, the only constant at the return specialist spot has been uncertainty. In fact, the only player even resembling continuity in the return game has been reserve wide receiver Chris Moore, who’s more often been used as a Plan B option at kick returner than as the answer.
With previous return specialist De’Anthony Thomas opting out of the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic last month, general manager Eric DeCosta officially added veteran running back Kenjon Barner to the return mix on Wednesday. The 30-year-old returned 35 punts for 267 yards and a touchdown and 17 kickoffs for 406 yards playing for Atlanta last year, but the 5-foot-9, 195-pound Barner is now with his sixth different NFL organization — he had two stints with Philadelphia and three separate runs with Carolina — and fumbled four times in his only season with the Falcons.
A lack of ball security is something for which head coach John Harbaugh has had little patience in the past.
“What we saw in Kenjon, it just gives us another opportunity to bring in another guy, a veteran guy that has some experience,” special teams coach Chris Horton said. “That is a spot that we’re lacking, so it just gives us a little bit of an insurance policy. And I think that’s one thing that we are going to be working on; we’re going to be working on making sure that he can catch the ball [and] he can hang onto the ball, so we can be productive in that phase.”
Barner is far from a roster lock as Moore and second-year running back Justice Hill remain in the kick return mix and rookie wide receiver James Proche is expected to receive an extended look as Baltimore’s punt returner and also returned kicks in his collegiate career at SMU. Horton praised Proche’s quickness and ability to “hit it and get it” after catching the ball, and Harbaugh has gone as far as suggesting the punt return job could be the sixth-round pick’s to lose.
Of course, the cancellation of the four preseason games eliminates the valuable live-game opportunities to evaluate returners, creating another challenge for the competitors and the coaches evaluating them.
“I think it is going to be my job and the job of my assistants of just making sure that we put [Proche] in those game-like situations,” Horton said, “so when he is our guy and he wins that job, he’s been put in those situations to go out there and say, ‘You know what? Game 1 — this is our guy.’ It’s not easy coming in from college [and] catching turn-over balls, but he has great ball skills, he’s been working, and he’s getting better every day.”