During the New England Patriots 2008 Training Camp, there are going to be many position battles: Starting Corner, Nickel Corner, Inside Linebacker, 3rd Wide Receiver, and more. And while not quite as contentious as Jessica Alba vs Scarlet Johannson is, few will be as hotly contested as the role of kick and punt returner.
Special teams are always a priority of Coach Belichick, and last year was no exception. Patriot punt-returners averaged 9.4 yards per return, while their opponents only managed 5.4 yards. Wes Welker led the team with a 10.0 average, while Troy Brown and Chad Jackson also returned a few punts. The kick-returners fared just as well, averaging 25.2 yards per return against 22.4 for their opponents. Ellis Hobbs averaged 26.0 for the Patriots, including a 108 yard touchdown return, while Welker and Jackson also contributed. Willie Andrews, who has subsequently been released, also returned some kicks.
This year, the Patriots have a myriad of choices at the return position. During training camp, no less than seven Patriots have lined up to return kicks: Lamont Jordan, Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk, Matthew Slater, C.J. Jones, Terrence Wheatley, and Chad Jackson. Ellis Hobbs and Wes Welker have yet to practice returns as of yet.
According to Reiss’ Pieces, Slater “seems to have a knack for the return spot, combining instinct and acceleration as the hole opens.” At UCLA, Slater was a jack-of-all-trades, returning the ball as well as seeing spot duty at wideout and cornerback.
Patriot coaches have to be hoping that Matthew Slater, who was the Patriots 5th round pick in 2008, is their guy. Wheatley, Jackson, Hobbs, and Welker all might be starters at some point during the season, while the newly acquired Jordan, Faulk, and Morris will be needed to provide depth at the RB position. C.J. Jones is more of a practice squad player, but if Slater doesn’t work out, he may get the nod.