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Ravens' 2012 Draft: Who's the Best Kick Returner Available?

A bit of a surprise this season, the Baltimore Ravens’ special teams unit severely underachieved all year, mainly with kick returns. For a team with a head coach that’s a former special teams coordinator, it was surprising to see the Ravens struggle all season long. The Ravens finished 9th overall on kick returns: 42 returns/1,047 yards/24.9 yards-per-return average/0 TDs/4 fumbles.

The Ravens’ main kick returner, David Reed, had a tough go of it all season. Reed, the soon-to-be 3rd year wide receiver/kick returner didn’t have a good season as the Ravens’ chief return man, and it only got worse as the season wore on, fumbling a total of three times and then eventually suffering an ACL injury which kept him sidelined from late December on through the end of the season. Not only did Reed’s injury hinder the special teams unit from being more dangerous on the field, it also left the Ravens searching desperately for capable replacements such as veteran safety, Tom Zbikowski.

On the punt return side of things, the Ravens performed much better, but it could have also come at a very, very big cost. Primary punt returner, Lardarius Webb, had a stellar season for the Ravens’ defense this year and is cementing himself as one of the best cornerbacks in the entire NFL. Many are arguing that Webb should not continue to return punts next season as he is becoming too valuable to the Ravens’ secondary, and I agree. Returning kicks is one of the most violent phases or plays in any given football game because players are running full speed and colliding with one-another. On punt returns, the Ravens’ regular season numbers played out like this: 36 returns/345 yards/9.6 yards-per-return average/1 TD/3 fumbles.

With David Reed’s status unknown heading into the start of the 2012 season and Lardarius Webb’s emergence as a #1 cornerback, the Ravens should look to this year’s draft for a full-time kick/punt returner. The upcoming draft has very solid depth at the wide receiver position throughout every round, and several of these mutli-purpose WR/KR/PRs could help upgrade the Ravens’ receiving group and kick returning positions all in one shot.

(After the "Jump", see a list of some of the best KR/PR that are headed for the 2012 NFL Draft in April)

There are several soon-to-be NFL draftees that could fill the Ravens’ need for a kick returner. The up-side to a lot of these players is that they can fulfill both a need for special teams as well as maybe becoming another deep-threat option for quarterback, Joe Flacco, since the current offense being run in Baltimore calls for several burners.

Without further ado, here are a few collegiate stand-outs to keep your eyes on:

Joe Adams: WR/KR/PR

Adams is absolutely on my draft wish list this year. The 2011 SEC Special Teams Player of the Year, Adams served as a wide-out and punt returner while at University of Arkansas. The versatile WR/KR has had a stellar 4 year career at Arkansas registering 164 receptions/ 2,410 yards/17 touchdowns. As a punt returner between his junior and senior seasons, he had 62 returns/570 yards/5 TDs. Adams may not be the tall physical wide-out that the Ravens’ offense lacks, but he makes up for his smaller stature by being gifted with elite speed. In addition, Adams has good hands, vision, and runs routes very well. With the ball in his hands, he absolutley has the ability to score any time and could become a great slot receiver and deep threat in the NFL. As a kick returner, he would be able to boost the Ravens’ special teams unit by adding an explosive dimension that opposing teams always have to focus on. Adams had a great Senior Bowl outing, and if he shows well at the Combine, his stock could rise from 3rd-4th round pick up into the 2nd round range, which may be too high for the Ravens to consider taking him. Nonetheless, I’m hoping that the Ravens find a way to get Adams into purple and black next year.

Marquis Maze: WR/KR/PR

Maze is another multi-purpose collegiate stand-out that did it all for Alabama. Although Maze is another shorter wide-out listed at about 5-8 186 lbs, where he lacks in height, he makes up for it with speed. Maze has been clocked as low as 4.38 seconds on a 40-yard dash and was a productive wide-out while in college. In 2011 as a WR Maze totaled: 56 catches/627 yards/1 TD. As a punt returner he averaged over 13 yards-per-return and as a kick returner he averaged 28.5 yards-per-return. In should be noted that Maze most likely won’t run at the Combine due to a hamstring injury that he suffered in the BCS title game, but is expected to be fully healthy for Alabama’s pro day workouts. As a small and shifty wide receiver, Maze projects as a slot receiver and someone that can be a steady deep-threat for any team that selects him. As it stands now, Maze is expected to be selected between the 5th-6th rounds of the 2012 draft.

Ryan Broyles: WR/KR/PR

Broyles could become a late round steal due to an ACL injury suffered this past November. Due to the injury, it’s unknown how much Broyles will be able to showcase his skills to teams and the injury and lack of showing what he has to offer could kill his draft stock. If this were to happen, Broyles could be one of the best value picks in the late rounds. The former Oklahoma receiver had a fantastic college career in which he posted: 349 catches/4,586 yards/45 touchdowns. As a punt returner, he tallied: 108 returns/1,194 yards/11.1 yards-per-return average/2 TDs. Yet another projected slot receiver, Broyles is listed at 5-11 185 lbs and while healthy can run the 40 yard dash between 4.4-4.5 seconds. His on field production while in college speaks for itself, but teams will be cautious with Broyles due to the ACL injury and thus it’s possible that if Broyles had been healthy heading into the draft, he could have been valued in perhaps the 2nd round, but now projects as a 3rd-4th round pick. If everything heals properly, Broyles has the hands, speed, route running ability, and versatility to become a productive player at the next level.

T.Y. Hilton: WR/KR/PR

Hilton is another versatile player that’s a projected mid-round selection. At Florida International, Hilton was able to showcase his versatility by playing as a wide receiver, kick returner, and punt returner. In his 2011 season, Hilton produced: 72 catches/1,038 yards/7 TDs. As a kick returner he totaled: 18 returns/548 yards/30.4 yards-per-return average and as a punt returner, he totaled: 8 returns/186 yards/23 yards-per-return average/1 TD. With such high return averages and 5 total returns for touchdowns, Hilton could become a great role player at the next level as a deep threat on offense as well as return specialist for special teams. He currently is projected to be chosen in or around the 3rd round of the up-coming draft. As a very multi-dimensional player, teams may place high value on Hilton who will be able to fill many needs for just about any team because he can just do so much.

With David Reed’s status and health heading into next season uncertain, I’m hopeful that the Ravens will be able to snag one of these multi-purpose players in the 2012 NFL draft. It could be so beneficial for the Ravens to add a new dimension to the overall team by having a true return specialist with home-run threat ability. Not only would someone like any of the above mentioned be able to take over for Reed, they could also take Lardarius Webb out of the equation for returning punts now that he is becoming more and more valuable to the defense’s overall success.

Also, the truth of the matter is that no one knows what’s on the horizon for current Ravens wide receiver, Lee Evans. It is quite possible that Evans, who had an extremely disappointing, injury riddled season, could be cut as free agency draws closer every day. If the Ravens decide to part ways with Evans, many of these wide-outs listed here could be able to provide the same thing that Evans was supposed to for the Ravens: speed. With younger, cheaper, and more versatile options through this draft, the Ravens may already have their eyes on Evans’ replacement. Only time will tell.

Who would you like to see returning kicks for the Ravens next year? Tell me your thoughts in the comments section below!