EARTH CITY, Mo. -- There has never been much suspense about which Rams player will handle the team’s punt returning duties in 2013.
Essentially from the time the Rams moved up to No. 8 to select multi-purpose weapon Tavon Austin in April’s draft, that’s one of the jobs that has clearly belonged to him.
Nearly a week and a half from the start of the regular season, the Rams are still figuring out who will handle the kickoffs from a group that includes receiver Chris Givens, running back Isaiah Pead and running back Benny Cunningham.
“I think we’ve got a punt returner,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “And then we’ve got Chris Givens and we know what he can do. I like what Isaiah has done on the practice field, he’s getting better at it and I’m perfectly comfortable with Benny doing it. He got 15 yards on his own, by himself the other night.”
It’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility that Austin could get some work on kick returns and he’d almost certainly be the most dynamic option the franchise has had since Tony Horne in 2000.
For now it seems the Rams would prefer to use Austin only as a punt returner in addition to his role in the offense.
Givens handled the job for most of last year, returning 23 kicks for an average of 23.4 yards. Entering his second season, Givens’ role in the offense has increased substantially and the Rams may prefer not to put him on special teams and risk injury.
Pead would be the most logical candidate considering he’s a backup on offense and does have a little experience, returning 10 kicks for 223 yards as a rookie. He also had ball security issues, coughing up two fumbles on returns against San Francisco, one of which the Niners recovered.
The Rams have given Pead the first crack at the job for most of the preseason, but he has underwhelmed with an average of 19.8 yards on four attempts.
Perhaps the most intriguing option of the group is the player who has had the most to prove in Cunningham. The undrafted rookie out of Middle Tennessee State has only had two opportunities but he’s made them count with gains of 36 and 33 yards.
Cunningham had just one kick return in college but said he did work on it while there. It seems quite likely that Cunningham is going to make the team’s 53-man roster out of camp, but more good work in the return game could certainly cement that spot or even potentially give him a shot to win the job.
“Me being possibly the odd man out, I feel like I have to attack special teams, so that’s something I have been trying to do every day,” Cunningham said. “Wherever I can help the team pretty much just attacking it in practice.”
The constant evolution of the rules regarding kick returns has nearly made it an extinct aspect of the game. When the NFL moved the kickoff spot to the 35 from the 30 in 2011, the amount of touchbacks around the league has increased dramatically.
In 2012, the Rams had just 38 return opportunities, down from 55 in 2011.
Having fewer opportunities does make it a tough spot to evaluate.
“We are doing our best to prepare ourselves as a kickoff return unit to bring it out every time, so we want to make sure everybody is in position, setting up their blocks,” Fisher said.
Although return chances are fewer and farther between, it would serve the Rams well to have more success when they do bring it out. They haven’t had a kickoff return for a touchdown since Chris Johnson (the cornerback) took one 99 yards in 2005.
Of more pressing and recent concern was the overall inability to generate decent field position in 2012.
Givens, Pead and Co. averaged 21 yards per return on their combined 38 attempts last year and the Rams’ average starting field position of the 24.4-yard line ranked second to last in the NFL.
That number gets worse when boiled down to average starting position after a kickoff, as the Rams’ average drive in those situations began at the 20.3-yard line, also 31st in the league.
After starting 56 drives inside their own 20, the Rams often found themselves having to piece together long drives to get points on the board. The offense ran an average of 8.58 plays per scoring drive in 2013, fifth highest in the league.
It is those types of numbers that pushed the Rams to spend large dollars and high draft picks on game-breaking talents such as Austin in the offseason.
While legitimate kick-return opportunities are harder to come by each year, finding a reliable returner would go a long way toward improving field position and eliminating the need to cover almost the whole field to put points on the board.