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2016 Baltimore Ravens Punt and Kick Returner Options

Special teams will be a strength regardless of who is chosen as the primary return man

David Richard/AP

Kicker Justin Tucker and punter Sam Koch are among the very best in the league at their positions.  The Ravens also have a very strong core of special teams performers between linebackers Albert McClellan, Zachary Orr and Arthur Brown, tight end Crockett Gillmore, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, wide receiver Kamar Aiken and defensive backs Terrence Brooks, Anthony Levine Sr. and Matt Elam.  Rookies Kamalei Correa, Matt Judon and Tavon Young should also be able to contribute on the special teams coverage and blocking units.

This excellent personnel combined with the coaching prowess of the Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg and head coach John Harbaugh should give the Ravens an advantage in the special teams phases for every game of the 2016 season, home or away.  Selecting a dynamic returner could take the return units from good to great and have a tangible impact on the Ravens win-loss record.  At this point in the offseason, the competition is wide open and there are multiple options for the return jobs:

Kaelin Clay emerged as the Ravens primary return man over the last seven games of the 2015 season.  He fielded 23 punt return for a 10.6 yard average and one touchdown.  He also brought back 14 kickoff returns at 24.5 yards a pop.  Clay needs to show consistent play-making in the return game to make the final roster at the crowded receiver position.

Michael Campanaro had three punt returns for a 16.3 yard average in 2015.  He also had three kickoff returns with a 16.3 yard average last season.  The oft-injured receiver is nursing yet another injury this offseason and the upcoming training camp may prove to be his final chance to earn a lasting place in the NFL.

Justin Forsett has a good deal of experience as a return man.  Over his career, Forsett has returned 46 punts at an average clip of 8.1 yards and 39 kickoff returns for 22.9 yards on average.  Forsett is not guaranteed to be the lead back in 2016, so the coaches may decide to increase his value by giving him some returner reps.  Forsett has a similar body type and skill set to Darren Sproles, the highly productive return specialist.

Javorius Allen had a few opportunities as kickoff returner last season but did not record any statistics.  Allen does not have much experience as a returner but his elusiveness in the open field that he displayed while catching passes out of the backfield would seem to translate well to return duty.

Keenan Reynolds, the rookie 6th rounder is making a transition from college quarterback to receiver and returner.  He has the sure hands and short area quickness to excel as a return man, and is working with former Eagles star return man Brian Mitchell.

Chris Moore, another rookie receiver, returned eleven kickoffs in college, with a 27.8 yard average in his senior season.  He is more of a long strider in the Jacoby Jones mold.  Moore has been getting reps as a kick returner in the offseason mini camps and could earn the kick returner job if a roster crunch prevents the Ravens from carrying a return specialist who does not provide much value to offense or defense.

Kenneth Dixon, the dynamic rookie running back did not return kicks or punts in college.  But he has the good hands and shiftiness that the position requires.  He could see time as the second deep man on kickoff returns.

Maurice Canady, a 7th round rookie cornerback, returned five punts last season resulting in a 25.2 yard average and a touchdown.  Considered a long shot to make the roster by some, the position he plays may give him an advantage over the receivers competing for the return job as the front office looks to bolster depth in the secondary.

Veterans Steve Smith Sr. and Lardarius Webb are both accomplished returners with extensive experience at the NFL level.  However, their advanced ages and injury histories make it unlikely they will be called upon to help on special teams, except for the occasional fair catch or season defining opportunity.  It is also possible that Ozzie Newsome will bring in another veteran to compete for the returner job later in the offseason.

Touchbacks are on the rise league wide, and the Ravens themselves had the opponents attempt to return a kickoff less than 15% of the time in 2015.  This means that punt return ability is more valuable than kick return ability.  Clay is probably the early leader for the job, but he will be challenged in training camp.

The returner position is one of the best places on a crowded roster for a young player to earn a spot on the team. It is also an opportunity for the Ravens to take their special teams advantage to the next level.  In 2015, the Ravens produced the 7th best kickoff return average and the 3rd best punt return average in the league.  If one of the players competing at returner can elevate his game, there is nothing stopping the Ravens from boasting the best return game in the NFL next season.