Teams hoping for immediate returns

For every action, it seems there is always a reaction in the NFL, and that was reflected in the uncharacteristically large number of return specialists chosen in this year's draft.

Beginning with the selection of Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush (New Orleans) with the second overall pick, through the final choice in the lottery, Maine wide receiver Kevin McMahan(Oakland), there was an unprecedented grab on prospects with standout return skills.

Players such as defensive backs Danieal Manning of Abilene Christian and Devin Hester of Miami, both chosen by the Chicago Bears in the second round, became priorities. So did guys such as UCLA tailback Maurice Drew (Jacksonville, second round), Florida State wide receiver Willie Reid (Pittsburgh, third round) and LSU wideout Skyler Green (Dallas, fourth round), among others.

So why a sudden emphasis on multitalented prospects teams hope will offer big returns, literally and figuratively, on their investments? Well, for openers, consider this: The league average for punt returns in 2005 was a puny 8.10 yards.

That represents the fifth-lowest punt return average in the NFL since the 1970 merger, and the most anemic since 1979, when the league standard was a measly 7.65 yards. It marked the second consecutive season in which the average dipped below 9 yards, the first time that has occurred since the 1990-91 seasons. And there were only nine punt returns for touchdowns, the fewest since 1991.

Fact is, there were just a combined 21 touchdowns in the league last season on punt and kickoff returns. That is the lowest number of combined kick returns for touchdowns since 1995, when there were 19. But the continuing slippage in punt return average -- last season marked the fifth straight year in which the average declined and the seventh straight in which the NFL norm was less than 10 yards -- was almost certainly responsible for the considerable contingent of return men chosen in the 2006 draft.

Clearly, the shrinking punt return average has garnered attention around the league and inflated the need for electrifying return specialists.

"The [punt return] numbers are a little bit of a concern," said Atlanta Falcons team president and general manager Rich McKay, co-chairman of the NFL's influential competition committee. "They are too low, definitely, and it may be something we have to look at in the near future. We always take a hard look at the kicking game. Six or seven years ago, we talked about some things like not allowing teams to punt the ball out of bounds or not allowing the 'gunners' to leave the line of scrimmage until the ball is kicked. In terms of rules changes, though, there probably isn't a whole lot we can do."

So in this year's draft, obviously, teams sought to change the human element. The glaring shortcoming on punt runbacks was addressed by franchises adding mercurial players they hope can dodge coverage units and run a long way.

Of the top 10 punt return specialists from the 2005 college season who were eligible for the 2006 draft, nine were selected in the seven rounds of the lottery. And that didn't even include Bush, who ranked No. 38 in average punt return in the NCAA statistics.

Indeed, this year's pool of big-time return specialists was arguably the deepest in the last several drafts. The crop included 19 players who scored at least one touchdown on a punt or kickoff return during their college careers. Hester and Manning, the tandem Bears officials are counting on to rectify one of the shabbiest punt return games in the NFL, scored six touchdowns apiece on kick returns in college. So did mighty mite Drew of UCLA, chosen in the second round despite standing just 5 foot 6½. Bush and Green each had four returns for touchdowns.

So deep was the pool of talent this year that the top-rated return man in the 2005 draft, New York Jets' second-round choice Justin Miller, would have ranked behind four to six members of the 2006 class on most draft boards around the league.

"It's a game-changing opportunity, every punt or kickoff return, and it seems like more teams realized that in this draft," said former Olympics moguls skier Jeremy Bloom, chosen by Philadelphia in the fifth round and expected to pump excitement into the Eagles' return units. "It seemed like, once one or two return guys went off the board, the position kind of became a hot commodity. It really exploded."

That's in large part because the punt return numbers from 2005 were so dismal.

Nine teams averaged less than 7 yards per punt return last season. Eleven teams, more than one-third of the NFL franchises, didn't have a single punt return of 30 yards. Of that group, four teams did not register a punt return of longer than 20 yards. The longest return of the season for the Cincinnati Bengals, who posted a pitiful 5.6-yard average, was 13 yards.

And then there was Chicago, which had a 9.1-yard average that was a full yard better than the league standard. The Bears ranked among the NFL's top 10 and were one of eight franchises to record a touchdown on a punt return (Pittsburgh had two, both by since-departed Antwaan Randle El), but could barely find a return man capable of catching the ball cleanly. The Chicago punt returners totaled 11 fumbles and/or muffs, including nine by wide receiver Bobby Wade, whose inability to field the ball eventually earned the three-year veteran a pink slip.

The Bears chose Manning with the 10th pick in the second round as much for his abilities as a defensive back, one able to line up at safety or cornerback, as for his scintillating return skills. But the selection of Hester 15 slots later in the second round was a pick aimed primarily at addressing the punt return pratfalls of a year ago. Hester essentially has no position -- the Hurricanes' coaches tried him as a wide receiver, a tailback and a cornerback, and the Bears list him at the last of those three -- but if he can add a boost to the Chicago return game, it won't matter.

"I know what to do with the ball in my hands," said Hester, who averaged 14.2 yards on punt returns in 2005 and 17.7 yards per touch over the course of his career. "I know I can help an offense by getting it a lot better field position. The return part of the game means a lot to me."

It also could mean a lot to a Bears offense that ranked 29th in the league last season and, despite a glowing 11-5 record and NFC North championship, scored the fifth fewest points in the NFL. So it is hardly surprising that general manager Jerry Angelo, coach Lovie Smith and special teams assistant Dave Toub placed so much emphasis on the return game in last month's draft.

"We went from a position where we were basically searching for a guy last year to where we have two excellent young return men now," Toub said. "We didn't have a guy pretty much all through last year. Now it gives us more opportunities, and we're excited about that."

There are several more teams excited by the possibilities their new punt return specialists might provide in 2006. In addition to the players cited earlier, the rookie class of specialists includes dynamic return men such as Cory Rodgers of TCU (Green Bay, fourth round), Wisconsin's Brandon Williams (San Francisco, third round), Adam Jennings of Fresno State (Atlanta, sixth round), Justin Phinisee of Oregon (Tampa Bay, seventh round) and Boston College's Will Blackmon (Green Bay, fourth round).

As accomplished as those return men were in college, however, they will have to step up their games to deal with the NFL's ever-shrinking punt return average. But why is the league's punt return average, which between 1992 and 2003 registered 10 yards or more in three seasons and never slipped to less than 9 yards, suddenly in such a perilous decline?

"I think punters have bought in more now to the importance of net average," said Buffalo Bills assistant head coach Bobby April, one of the NFL's premier special teams mentors. "A guy like [former longtime NFL punter] Dan Stryzinski, he basically eliminated the punt return game by forcing so many fair catches every year. And guys see the wisdom of that.

"Plus, as special teams coaches, we're getting so much more practice time devoted to the kicking game than we ever did in the past. It's certainly not any revolutionary changes in technique or mechanics or, for that matter, coaching. And, let's face it, in an athletic matchup between the return man and a cover guy, who's going to win? So you work harder at, get a guy to punt the ball more for net than gross average, and these are the results. I mean, no one ever wants to give a return guy any space."

April's contentions were echoed by several other special teams coaches this week. But a look deep inside the numbers indicates not only that punters and coverage teams are doing a much better job but also that the punt return specialists in the league simply might not be as good as they once were. Certainly, they aren't taking full advantage of the opportunities provided them.

For the 2005 season, 20.3 percent of the league's 2,511 punts resulted in fair catches, eliminating the chance of a return. But that number -- although the highest since the 2000 season, when 22.5 percent of punts resulted in a fair catch -- is not significantly higher than the rate in most seasons. More notable is that there were runbacks on 49.9 percent of the punts, the highest quota since 50 percent of the punts were returned in 1991. So it isn't as if return men aren't getting chances to make big plays.

In fact, they got 1,252 chances during the '05 season, and they scored touchdowns on less than 1 percent of those punt returns.

Whether the rookie punt return specialists entering the league can turn their teams' reactions to the current trend into action remains to be seen. Most of them aren't bashful about suggesting they can revive the quickly disappearing big play in the punt return game, however.

"Just a little bit of space, a missed tackle, one [coverage player] out of his lane, a low punt or whatever … and I'm going to go a long way," Hester said.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.