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Redskins position battles: Returner

RICHMOND, Va. -- It’s been clear all offseason and it remains that way. Andre Roberts is the favorite to be the Redskins’ returner on both kickoffs and punts.

That’s due partly to his background, his speed and the fact that the Redskins want him to touch the ball as much as possible. After they added DeSean Jackson a few weeks after signing Roberts and he became their third target, it made it more likely that he would end up as the returner.

“That’s not etched in stone,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “We have a lot of work to do before that’s finalized."

Still, Roberts is the early choice. Roberts’ speed entices the Redskins. And even if he plays a lot in three-receiver sets, Gruden said that wouldn’t necessarily impact his role as a returner. The only way that might change is if something happens to one of the starters.

The other part of the equation: his competition. They’re either young, untested or coming off an injury. Also, the Redskins wisely don’t want to use Jackson as a full-time punt returner. There’s no reason to have one of your best weapons get worn down on special teams, but he could end up as a pinch-hitter on occasion. The same is true of veteran receiver Santana Moss, who still has to win a roster spot.

Richard Crawford, who ended 2012 as the punt returner, is coming off a torn ACL and is not guaranteed of a roster spot. If the Redskins keep only five corners, Crawford would be in big trouble (barring injuries to others). If they keep six, he has a shot – especially if he shows a lot as a returner in the preseason. Two years ago, Crawford showed the ability to make the first defender miss on returns. But he must show that again coming off his injury.

That leaves inexperienced players such as second-year Nick Williams, rookie Lache Seastrunk and second-year Chris Thompson. Williams averaged 20.9 yards on nine kick returns last season and returned one punt for no yards (and fumbling another).

Thompson did not return punts in college and learned to do so last summer. Initially he had to learn how to catch a punt. He also had to learn how to read the ball in the air and how to set up blockers against NFL talent. Thompson averaged 20.0 yards on eight kick returns and 5.1 yards on seven punt returns last season before losing the job and eventually being placed on injured reserve.

At Baylor, Seastrunk returned one kick for 13 yards (in 2012) and never returned a punt.