In the weeks and even month leading up to Arizona Cardinals training camp 2009, it looked as if there would be a fierce battle for the team's kick returner job. With the incumbent starter, J.J. Arrington, departing via free agency over the summer, most expected some combination of rookies to battle for the job and ultimately a roster spot, but that's not how the competition has played out so far. Through the first weekend of camp, four days and six practices, Steve Breaston has emerged as not only the front runner at punt returner but also at kick returner, a job that he reliquished early last season after struggling. Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt has almost gone as far as saying that both jobs are Breaston's lose rather than a job that is truly up for grabs. The one thing that seems to seperate Breaston from other guys like Antrel Rolle, LaRod Stephens-Howling or Michael Ray Garvin is Breaston's ability to hold onto the ball. In two seasons that have included 75 punt returns and 95 kick returns, he has yet to fumble the football. That's quite rare for a position most often manned by diminiutive players (35 different players fumbled the ball just last year on either a kick or punt return). Are Breaston's sure hands enough to win him both jobs and is that the best situation for the team? We'll take a look at each candidate.
Steve Breaston: Breaston was a fifth round pick in 2007, not because he was a great reciever but instead because he was a gifted returner. He averaged over 12 yards per punt return and 28.1 yards per kickoff return as a senior at Michigan and his skills instantly translated to the NFL. During the 2007 season, he was tenth in the league with a punt return average of 9.4 (minimum 20 returns) and only Devin Hester had more return yardage. His production as a returner fell off though in 2008 as his role with the offense increased. His punt return average fell to 7.2 and his kickoff average, which wasn't great to begin with, fell from 22.4 to 20.2. Breaston's strength has always been as a punt returner, which is my most fans thought that there would be an open competition at kick returner, but you've got wonder how his return production will be effected by his ever increasing role in the offense. If you travel back to Whiz's days in Pittsburgh you can find times when the Steelers were plagued by return men who couldn't hold onto the ball though and with having such a productive offense he might choose a sure handed returner over a less reliable but more dymanic one.
Antrel Rolle: Rolle's a wild card in this scene because his play making ability with the ball in his hands in undeniable, but his unpredictability throws a dark cloud over the entire situation. Not only is Rolle invaluable to the defense as the starting, and only experienced, free safety, but the team has also seem him badly twist an ankle during his only punt return during preseason last year. Whiz and special teams coach Kevin Spencer have hinted at the notion that Rolle could be a 'situational' punt returner when Breaston is winded or even when a big return is needed. Whiz has seen the not-so-sure handed Santonio Holmes in a similar role during his time in Pittsburgh. Rolle was a dangerous punt returner during his time at Miami and I wouldn't be surprised at all to see him back fielding a punt once or twice this coming season.
LaRod Stephens-Howling: LSH wasn't considered a return specialist during his time at the University of Pittsbugh but once he was drafted it was assumed by many that he'd at least compete at one of the return spots. He's got the straight line speed and shiftiness, as well as the size, to excel in a return role but so far his exposure seems to limited to kick return. His speed makes him comparable to Arrington, who was an improvement in the kick return department last season, but his inexperience at the position might not instill the confidence that the coaching staff is looking for in a sure-handed returner.
Michael Ray Garvin: MRG, a world class sprinter, has more than enough speed to excel as a kick returner and he made a name for himself at Florida State in that role. He averaged more than 30 yards per kick returner as a senior and finished the season with the second most all purpose yards on the entire team. Garvin might end up being the most dynamic kick returner on the team but he'll have to be considerably better than his competition because special teams are the only way that he helps the Cardinals in 2009.
There are other names who could get a shot at the kick return spot, including Chris Wells and Jason Wright but that might not be a long term solution. Still though, Whiz was with the Steelers when they had 245 pound backup running back Najeh Davenport returning kicks so anything is a possibility. In the end, I'm not sure that there is a long term solution right now. LSH and MRG may have a future in that role but Whiz seems to be taking the conservative route with Breaston considering that he knows exactly what to expect from him. With an offense capable of scoring from anywhere on the field, a yard or four on a return might be worth that risk. Is Breaston the best option or would you prefer a more dynamic returner? Does this eliminate the chances of LSH or MRG making the roster?