Devin Hester and the Chicago Bears proved to the NFL the value of a dangerous kick returner. Every time he touches the ball, the crowd holds their breath and waits for the magic. Here he goes. And then he does. In 2006, Hester scored on three punts, two kick-offs, and one missed field goal. He carried the offensively defunct, Rex Grossman led Bears to the Super Bowl that season AND scored a touchdown on the opening kick-off when he got there. Four years after a heartbreaking loss at the hands of Hester--the same game as the infamous Dennis Green meltdown--the Arizona Cardinals finally heeded the Bears advice and drafted a home run threat of their own in Patrick Peterson. And what followed? Four touchdowns--one of which a 99 yard punt return to singlehandedly beat the St. Louis Rams in overtime--a Pro Bowl selection, and an 8-8 record for a Arizona team which could just have easily been 5-11.
On roster, the Bengals have two legitimate options for the kick returner position: Brandon Tate and Pac-Man Jones. There are also potential draftees which could fill the position, so let's take a look at the possible options:
It's Tate's job to lose at this point. Tate led the NFL in punts returned last season (51) and finished with the third most kicks returned (42). Of those 93 returns, he fumbled only three times.
From a statistical standpoint, Brandon Tate had a good season in 2011. His 10.6 yards per return among punt returners was roughly average, and he was one of 16 players to return a punt for a touchdown. Tate returned five punts for more than 20 yards--no other player with at least 38 returns had less than seven. That previous number is really the telling statistic. Tate is solid but by no means a game changer, so a 20 yard return is truly a gift. You know what you're getting with him. He'll catch it and run forward--sometimes it works out. He may even break a tackle or two, who knows.
ADAM "PAC-MAN" JONES
If Cincinnati was not dangerously thin at cornerback towards the end of last season, Pac-Man may have been given a chance to win the position from Tate. Being as that was not the case and Cincinnati could ill-afford a Pac-Man injury, he didn't get much time with the special teams. But 2012 is a new year. Leon Hall will be back from injury (hopefully), and the Bengals signed free agent Jason Allen and will, in all likelihood, pick up at least one more cornerback at this year's NFL Draft. If all goes according to plan, cornerback depth can no longer be the alibi for Pac-Man's lack of reps as a kick/punt returner.
The Tennessee Titans drafted Jones sixth overall in 2005 with the hope of him becoming their dynamic kick/punt return threat, and in 2006 he showed signs of becoming just that: 12.9 yard per punt average, three touchdowns, and six returns of over 20 yards on only 34 returns.
Could Jones once again become the home run threat he was in 2006?--you know, before he got arrested and suspended and got in all those fights. Six years is a long time, and Pac-Man has had his share of injuries (hamstring, neck) in that time period. More time on the field means a higher risk of injury, and the main question remains, can Cincinnati afford to lose Pac-Man Jones?
DRAFT PROSPECTS: Joe Adams, WR, Arkansas
Adams is the cream of the crop when it comes to kick/punt returners in this year's draft class. Four touchdowns in 33 returns this past season. Against Tennessee, he did this! Against Kansas State, he did this. At the combine he measured at 5'11'', 179lbs, and ran a 4.55 40 yard dash, but he plays faster than 4.55...did you watch the videos? His speed and kick/punt return ability have him rising up draft boards. Sports Illustrated draft guru Tony Pauline has Adams as his 8th best wide receiver and projects him as a 2nd round pick. Mel Kiper Jr., however, did not have Adams selected in his latest two round mock draft. Add those two opinions up and the result is a late 2nd round draft pick--right where the Bengals will be sitting.
Adams is more of a slot receiver and technically does not fill the Bengals needs on the offensive side of the ball. The point here, however, is that he is not filling a hole, but instead adding an entire new dimension to the team. Tate and Jones are solid options, but Adams can become the returner Cincinnati never had. Plus, Who Dey nation is all in on Armon Binns, so drafting a No. 2 receiver should already be a moot point.
From Deion Sanders to Brian Mitchell to Dante Hall, the kick/punt return game has always been important. But in today's NFL, the position's stock is at an all time high. The offensive isn't working, the quarterback isn't having his best day, but all you need is to force one punt, and who knows. Devin Hester strikes fear into opposing coaches. He changes the whole game plan. Kick to him, and you play the odds he won't take it to the house. Kick away from him, and the Bears get terrific field position all day long. With a game changer like Hester or Peterson, there's no strategy except to pick your poison.
Brandon Tate is the boring, safe pick. Pac-Man Jones is the risk-reward pick. Joe Adams is the unbelievable, radical, wait, Mike Brown did WHAT! pick. Is he a reach in the second round? Maybe. But Hester was considered a reach in the 2nd round too...and every team should be looking to find the next Devin Hester.