By Patrick Magoon
For some players on the Carolina Panthers roster, special teams experience could be their ticket to earning more playing time.
Last season, the Panthers rotated several players in and out of the punt return position. In the past, players such as Steve Smith, Ted Ginn, Christian McCaffrey, Brenton Bersin, Kaelin Clay, and Fozzy Whittaker took turns returning punts on special teams. This year, Fozzy Whittaker was expected to yield a majority of punts before suffering an ACL injury during off season workouts.
Now younger talent will have the opportunity to showcase their skills on special teams. It is unlikely that McCaffrey will return more punts than he did last year. After all, he will be busy with his expected larger workload at running back. Rivera hopes McCaffrey can carry the ball 200 or more times this year.
“Everybody forgets when he was in college he ran between the tackles more than anybody and he touched the ball more than anybody,” Rivera said, via ESPN.com. “So I don’t see why not.”
So, who else will be given the opportunity to return punts? Here, I have compiled a list of some of the top special teams kick return candidates for 2018.
Curtis Samuel (WR) – Samuel is one of the more experienced punt returners on the roster. Last season he returned ten punts for 221 yards. His longest return was 33 yards. At Ohio State, Samuel averaged 22.1 yards per return. While he hasn’t scored a touchdown on special teams, his breakaway speed is useful. If he can stay healthy, I fully expect him to handle a majority of punt returns.
Damiere Byrd (WR) – Byrd didn’t get to finish last season, but he was arguably the most successful punt returner. He averaged 32.7 yards on seven returns. Of course, you can never forget his epic 103-yard return TD against Tampa Bay late last season.
Kenjon Barner (RB) – Barner has been reunited with the Carolina Panthers after playing for the Philadelphia Eagles the last three seasons. The Super Bowl champion has a lot of potential to return punts on special teams. During the Eagles postseason run last year, Barner averaged twenty-four yards per return, up from just under twenty yards per return during the 2017 regular season. With Whittaker sidelined for the year, Barner could potentially be the No. 3 running back on the depth chart.