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Camp Countdown: Who will be the primary kick returner?

Posted Jul 1, 2014

Special teams coordinator Danny Crossman may have an open competition for a primary kick returner and a handful of candidates are vying for the role.


Every summer leading up to training camp buffalobills.com examines 25 of the more pertinent issues facing the team as they make their final preparations for the upcoming regular season. This year we wanted to focus on a few different areas that impact the team off the field in addition to what takes place on the field. From now until report day at training camp we’ll address these subjects one at a time. Here now is the latest daily installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 18 and the Sept. 7 opener at Chicago.

Last season the Bills kick return game had one of the fastest players in the league bringing the ball back in Marquise Goodwin. There were others who pitched in - T.J Graham and Leodis McKelvin - but no matter who had the ball in their hands the results were not what the coaching staff was looking for. Buffalo finished 27th in average drive start (20.7 yard line) and 29th in kick return average. Special teams coordinator Danny Crossman is expected to have an open competition for the role of primary kick returner and there are a handful of candidates, including C.J. Spiller and Sammy Watkins, vying for the role.

1 – Marquise Goodwin

Goodwin’s 107-yard kick return for a touchdown in the preseason opener last summer essentially cemented the job for him in 2013. Appearing in 12 games as a rookie Goodwin had 16 of the team’s 23 kick returns and averaged a team-best 21.9 yards a return and tied for a team long with a 28-yard return.

Goodwin has world class speed and only needs a crease to plant and take it all the way. Fighting through tackles however, is not a strength so unless the holes are clean it can prove tough for the speedy wideout to maintain his speed throughout a return if coverage players get a hand or an arm on him. Plans for Goodwin on offense may also impact how much the second-year receiver is a consideration for returns.

2 – T.J. Graham

With the offseason additions of Sammy Watkins and Mike Williams the team’s receiver room is a lot more crowded. Graham got a good deal of playing time on offense last season, but this summer he’ll need to show he can be a solid contributor on special teams to enhance his value. The return game is where he will need to shine. He had just one kick return last season, but does have sprinter speed.

Graham will have to turn in some big returns when given the opportunity in the preseason to prove he can handle the job.

3 – Leodis McKelvin

McKelvin has largely been the Bills punt returner in his pro career, but he was getting reps in the spring practice for kick return as well. There’s no denying that McKelvin is a proven return man. In fact since he entered the league in 2008, he still ranks seventh in the league in cumulative kick return average (26.5) from 2008-2013.

His full time duties at cornerback and presumably on punt return might remove him from the competition, but coach Crossman was giving him the same look as everyone else in the spring practices.

4 – C.J. Spiller

He was a dynamic return man in his college days at Clemson and saw some return work early in his career with the Bills. Now that opportunity may resurface. Spiller was returning kicks in practice in the spring, and at least for now it appears he’s part of the competition.

He hasn’t returned a kick or punt for the Bills since 2011, but perhaps with more depth at running back Buffalo is more willing to put Spiller out there in the hopes that his game breaking ability can provide a shot in the arm to the kick return unit.

5 – Sammy Watkins

He wasn’t seeing too many return opportunities in practice this spring, likely due to the importance of Watkins getting a handle on the offense first and foremost.

Watkins returned 60 kicks in his college career and averaged almost 23 yards a return (22.9) with one touchdown to his credit. No one needs to explain the elusive weapon that Watkins can be with the ball in his hands, but will the primary need to be a difference maker on offense pull him from this competition?

Goodwin is the odds on favorite to retain the job he earned as a rookie in 2013, but there are viable competitors for the role listed here. Three of the four other players however, are projected as starters on offense or defense and those circumstances might play the biggest role in determining who ultimately lands the job.