Examining punt return options

In placing Julian Edelman on injured reserve, the Patriots not only lost their third wide receiver, but a valuable special teams player and a top punt return option.

Edelman had soared to near the top of the NFL's leaders in punt return average, trailing only Leodis McKelvin of the Bills in average yards per punt return with a 15.5 mark.

With Edelman out, the Patriots have Wes Welker as a natural fill-in to be the top punt returner, as he has handled nine returns thus far in 2012 and has shown over the course of his career that he's a capable returner.

But the team will also have to look into another punt returner as insurance for Welker, and given his integral offensive role, they may want to rest Welker on some returns to preserve him.

No player other than Welker and Edelman has fielded a punt for the Patriots in 2012, but here's a sampling of those who could be called upon in a reserve role.

Wide receiver Donte' Stallworth. Stallworth was signed on Tuesday, and he could be used to fill both Edelman's offensive role and chip in on special teams. We saw him work as a returner in the preseason, something he's done at times during his 10-year career. He has very good speed and is elusive in the open field.

Running back Danny Woodhead. Though Woodhead has never handled a punt in his NFL career, he's a sure-handed, reliable player with very good short-area quickness and agility.

Running back Brandon Bolden. Bolden is likely to be added to the 53-man roster by next Tuesday, when an exemption the team was given coming off of his suspension is lifted. He was used as a punt returner during the preseason, although he had trouble handling a couple of punts. Based off of that, it doesn't seem likely, but it's a name to put on the radar.

Tight end Aaron Hernandez. If Hernandez had not suffered an ankle injury earlier this season and if fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski weren't currently injured, this one might have some legs. Even though Hernandez showed an ability to return punts in the preseason, it doesn't seem like the team would turn to him on special teams at this juncture. Like Bolden, however, it's a name to keep in mind.