Welcome to Overreaction Of The Week, my over the top, uninhibited, Baltimore sports-fan takes on this week’s Baltimore sports activity.
To put it mildly, the Ravens haven’t had much success in the return game this year. While Janarion Grant and Tim White showed flashes of their ability to make explosive plays, they just weren’t safe enough with the ball. Ball security is job security, and as a result of their mishandled punts and kicks, they’re no longer on the Ravens active roster. Enter Cyrus Jones, back for the first time, into the returner role. He too has fumbling problems, but hopes to settle into the role and give the Ravens some consistency at the position. So, what gives? Why haven’t the Ravens been able to fill this underrated role?
Sometimes, the Ravens make decisions out of fear. Fear of giving up a big play, see the overly soft prevent defenses at the end of games in years past. Fear of giving the ball up, see conservative play calling on offense that forces the team to punt anyways. In the case of the punt returner issue, it’s fear of injury to a key player. That is the key that has held the Ravens back from an explosive return game since Jacoby Jones departure.
Since Jacoby Jones’ departure in 2014, the Ravens have lacked a true home run hitter in the return game. Sure, they have robust numbers in their return yardage on kickoffs, but there hasn’t been anyone that struck fear into a coverage team’s heart. Part of that is because the Ravens haven’t invested much into the position as far as free agents and draft picks go. This year, the competition was between the aforementioned Grant and White, both undrafted free agents. Talented as they may be, they went undrafted for a reason. Other than White and Grant, after Jacoby Jones, the main kick and punt returners have been Michael Campanaro (7th round pick), Chris Moore (4th round pick), Devin Hester (elderly version), and Kaelin Clay (6th round pick, signed as free agent). As you can see, other than Chris Moore, the Ravens have kind of pieced low draft picks and scrap heap free agents to fill this position. Even in Moore‘s case, he wasn’t really known for his return abilities in college. The Ravens have seemingly ignored such an underrated, potentially pivotal position and it has shown.
My main point, is that the Ravens have had players that can fill the void, but haven’t taken advantage. Even on the roster now, they’re not willing to use Chris Moore as the kick returner, where he had success last year. He’s the team’s 4th wide receiver. They’re not willing to use Willie Snead as a punt returner because he’s the team’s 3rd wide receiver. These are sure-handed, proven players that could have successfully filled the returner role, but it seems they’re considered too important to the offense to risk injury on special teams. I don’t agree with this sentiment at all. If you play to not lose, guess what ends up happening? If you manage your personnel to avoid injury to your top players, guess who doesn’t get the ball in their hands? By keeping your important players out of the returner role, you take away the opportunity for them to get the ball in their hands a few times each game. Though it is not a problem specific to the Ravens, they don’t seem to be willing to allow their best playmakers the opportunity to make plays in the return game.
Looking around the league this year, there are a few key players that return punts and/or kicks for their teams. The ones that stand out to me are Jabrill Peppers (Browns starting Safety), Tyreke Hill (Chiefs #1 Wide Receiver, and Odell Beckham Jr. (Giants #1 Wide Receiver). It’s clear here, that these teams are looking to get their most explosive players the ball at any chance they can get. I will readily admit that the Ravens don’t have any one player of their caliber. But the idea can be scaled down to players like Snead and Moore for the Ravens. I don’t think anyone will argue that Snead or Moore are more important to the Ravens than Peppers, Hill, or Beckham are to their respective teams. Yet, there they are, with the ball in their hands and making plays.
Maybe you’re thinking that’s only three guys in today’s league, but remember when DeSean Jackson beat the Giants on a punt return as time expired? Still not enough? What about Antonio Brown not so long ago for the Steelers? If we go a little farther back, I’ll note Deion Sanders, Tim Brown, and Herschel Walker.
It’s not some mad scientist idea to stick a key player back there as the returner. The Ravens even put Ed Reed back there in key situations. While it does pose an injury risk, I think getting the ball in the hands of your best play makers is the way to go.
Now let’s get back to Cyrus Jones, after whom this article is named. This is already his second stint with the Ravens this year, I’m hoping this one is a little longer lived. At Alabama, he was one of the most dangerous return men in the country and he also provides the added benefit of adding depth at corner. However, he has fumble problems of his own.
I’m always wary of players that the Patriots get rid of. They have an incredible knack for walking away from a player just as their production on the field wanes. Here’s my even bigger concern with Jones, he’s been let go by the Patriots twice! However, if you haven’t noticed, the Ravens are pretty good at finding bargains (John Brown, for example). Maybe the Ravens have uncovered a diamond in the rough here. Cyrus Jones is from Baltimore and may feel more comfortable around home. Perhaps he’ll like being around his ‘Bama comrades. The Ravens can only hope he can hang onto the ball, and even make some big plays.
The shuffle at such a key position is never a good thing. If Jones can bring consistency to the return game, he’ll have overachieved compared to his predecessors. Hopefully the hometown kid can succeed, or else it’s time to have some proven players take the reins.