Every summer leading up to training camp Buffalobills.com asks 25 of the most pressing questions facing the team as they make their final preparations for the upcoming regular season. This year we want your opinion on what the most likely answers to these questions will be. After reading each daily installment as the Bills get set for Year 1 under head coach Doug Marrone, go to the Bills daily fan poll leading up to report day at training camp and vote. You could be eligible to win tickets to night practice. Here is the latest daily installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 28th and the Sept. 8th home opener.
One of the high points of the 2012 season for the Bills was the team's success in the return game. Led by Leodis McKelvin and Brad Smith, Bills returners brought back 42 kicks for a total of 1,136 yards, giving them an average of 27 yards per return—the fourth-highest average in the NFL. With Danny Crossman now manning the helm of the special teams unit and an influx of young talent, the Bills will undoubtedly look to duplicate that success in the 2013 season. The question is will it be one of the veterans holding the primary return role, or will one of the new faces step up and claim the job? Four players have been in the mix through spring practices and will continue the competition in training camp.
Marquise GoodwinWith his oft-mentioned 4.27 speed, Goodwin is the new toy that everyone wants to get a look at and play with. Goodwin found work as a kick returner each of his four years in college at Texas. Setting aside his sophomore season in which he only had four returns, Goodwin brought back 40 kicks for 923 yards or 23.1 yards per return with one touchdown. His return average actually increased with each year of experience, going from 21.8 as a freshman to 22.5 as a sophomore and 25.2 as a senior.
Bills coaches are interested in getting the ball into the speedster's hands in as many ways as possible, so setting him loose as a returner is definitely a possibility. Goodwin himself just hopes to get on the field in any way he can.
"Any way I can get on the field I want to make it my own," said Goodwin. "Whether it be kick returner, punt returner, receiver, any position I can be out on the field to help the team."
T.J. GrahamWhat Goodwin is this year, T.J. Graham was last year—a third-round receiver with track speed and the potential to take anything the distance. With a year of experience under his belt and an offense seemingly tailor-made for his skillset, the second-year receiver has found considerable work through spring practices, including time as a kick returner.
Graham was a prolific return man in college. During his tenure at North Carolina State, Graham returned 137 kicks for 3,153 yards—an ACC career record. His extensive experience and success as a primary kick returner means he is more than capable of handling the role with the Bills.
Though he did not return any kicks in his final season at USC, Woods had great success as the primary returner in his debut season with the Trojans and the spot work he earned as a sophomore. In 2010, Woods had 38 returns for 971 yards and one touchdown—an electrifying 97-yarder to take the lead in high-scoring affair with Minnesota. As a sophomore, Woods returned 17 kicks for 393 yards, which brought his career return average to 24.8 yards per return.
Woods is a versatile talent who is making a push for the second receiver role, and he could now be a factor in the return game.
With 18 returns in 2012, Smith tied for the team lead with Leodis McKelvin. On those 18 returns, Smith averaged 27.6 yards per return and took one 89 yards to the house in a Week 7 matchup with the Tennessee Titans.
Smith's best year as a returner came in 2010 when he was the primary man for the New York Jets. Smith had 50 returns for 1,432 yards and two touchdowns. His 28.6 yards per return that season was the second highest return average of players with 20 or more returns in the entire league. Smith's history of return success in the NFL is one of the biggest reasons the Bills signed him in 2011, so the veteran will be a major presence come training camp.
McKelvin has been dealing with an injury through spring practices, so he has not been able to mix it up with the other returners. As the projected second corner and primary punt returner, returning kicks might be asking a bit much out of the former first-rounder.
Still, McKelvin has consistently brought excitement to the return game in his five seasons so he is worth a mention. With 18 returns last season, McKelvin tied with Brad Smith for the team lead. McKelvin served as the primary kick returner his rookie season, and he led the AFC in return yards with 1,468. His 28.2 yards return average in 2008 was the third highest in the NFL for players with 20 or more returns. In 2012, McKelvin bested his rookie number, averaging 28.3 yards per return.
Though the return battle has many competitors, each brings a history of success to the table. When Week 1 finally arrives, fans can be confident that an explosive talent will be awaiting the kickoff in the end zone of The Ralph.