Of all the things the Seattle Seahawks did well last season, returning punts was right up there.
Golden Tate, Seattle’s primary punt returner a year ago, ranked second in the NFL in punt return yardage with 585, trailing only Kansas City’s Dexter McCluster with 686. Tate’s return average of 11.5 yards per kick was the league’s ninth-best mark.
But Tate is gone, having signed an offseason free-agent deal with Detroit, and in his absence the Seahawks used training camp and the preseason to audition prospective replacements.
The good news, according to special-teams coordinator Brian Schneider, is that Seattle has plenty of options.
Often, he said, “you don’t have a lot of guys who can field the ball, and that’s always where it starts. Who can track the ball, who can field the ball and then who can make sure they complete the catch? Because after that, everything else is a bonus.
“But we just have a bunch of guys that can do that. And the bottom line is, we feel really good about anyone we put back there.”
The leading candidates include wide receivers Doug Baldwin, Percy Harvin and Bryan Walters, and defensive backs Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas, though Baldwin and Harvin seem more likely to end up as kickoff returners.
Sherman, an All-Pro cornerback, and Thomas, an All-Pro safety, might seem like risky choices for special-teams play, given their importance to Seattle’s defense. But Schneider takes the approach — and head coach Pete Carroll seems to agree — that special-teams plays are no less meaningful than plays from scrimmage. Indeed, Thomas and Kam Chancellor, another standout in Seattle’s secondary, were the team’s two leading tacklers on kickoffs a year ago.
Thomas has returned punts in the preseason and seems a good bet to continue in that role at least part-time during the regular season, and with a strong endorsement from Schneider.
“You love it when Earl intercepts a ball and runs 80 yards for a touchdown because he’s proven he can do that,” he said. “So you want to get your best players in space and making plays, and (returning kicks) is a great way to do that.”
Equally important, Thomas and some of the other top Seahawks are eager for special-teams duty. “They love it,” Schneider said. “They want that opportunity.”
Very true, Thomas confirmed. “I always say, if you’re playing hard and you’re into it, your chances of getting hurt are limited. And you’ve got to put that stuff in God’s hands. I’m covered. I’m not worried about anything, because I’m covered. God’s got me,” he said.
Walters, meanwhile, has been praised by Carroll for his ability to return punts in the preseason. And unlike Thomas, Walters’ chances of making the team would seem to depend on his ability to fill that role.
“I love (returning punts),” Walters said. “It’s just so fun. You love to get the ball in your hands and with a little bit of open field. … When you catch a punt, you look, you see 5 or 10 yards in front of you, maybe you can make someone miss, and you just go. There’s no better feeling than that.”
Schneider coaches his punt returners “to get their feet under the ball,” so they are not drifting laterally or backward as they prepare to make the catch.
“If you have your feet under you, you’re not wasting time as you’re catching the ball and allowing the coverage team to close on you,” he explained. “Because once you catch the ball, it’s a simple phrase, catch and go. Our goal is to get a first down (with a return of at least 10 yards), because that’s our first offensive series.”
Regardless of who ends up with the job, it will be no easy thing replacing Tate, or at least matching his punt-return stats. Tate was fast, quick, elusive and, after a few strides, often explosive. And those are all ideal traits for a punt returner.
“He was a unique guy,” Schneider said. “Golden was such an exceptional, confident fielder, first of all, and then he was strong and he did everything he could after the catch. Pete gave him some leeway on where to field the ball, and he had some really big returns at key moments.”
So can the Seahawks find one player, or a combination of players, to give them Tate-like returns in 2014?
“No question,” Schneider said. “We have (players with) those playmaking abilities, so we feel really good about that.”