Redskins now have options in the return game

Josh Wilson, Andre Roberts

Andre Roberts figures to get the first crack at punt return duties. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

A year after struggling to find anyone capable of effectively returning punts, the Washington Redskins now find themselves with a couple of improved options.

The signings of Andre Roberts and DeSean Jackson have upgraded the wide receiving unit, but both players also pose a threat returning kicks. Now, head coach Jay Gruden and special teams coordinator Ben Kotwica, during this spring’s offseason workouts and in training camp late this summer, must decide how to use them.

The Redskins started last season by using Chris Thompson as the punt returner. He hadn’t fielded punts since high school — where he admitted he would let the ball bounce and then just use his speed and quickness to scoop it up and get up field — and a limited bit of action as a freshman in college.

Thompson had a 69-yard punt return for a touchdown in the preseason, but through four regular-season games, he struggled as he learned on the fly before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. Washington then pressed Josh Morgan into duty, and he too struggled. He had seen action as a kick returner early in his career, but never as a punt returner. Nick Williams briefly got a shot, but wasn’t effective. Santana Moss did a serviceable job, but didn’t pose much of a threat.

Things have changed for the better this offseason.

Gruden said last week at the league meetings that the Redskins believe Roberts can help in this capacity. As a junior at The Citadel in 2008, he led the nation, averaging 21.1 yards per return, and as a senior, Roberts ranked fifth with a 15.5-yard average.

As a rookie in Arizona, Roberts averaged 7.5 yards a punt return and 23.3 yards per kick return. The next three seasons, he only saw occasional action in the return game. But the Redskins are interested in seeing what he has to offer.

“He hasn’t been asked to return a lot of points because they have Patrick Peterson and the Honey Badger [Tyrann Mathieu],” Gruden said. “But we might ask him to get back there and return some punts also. Very versatile guy, and I’m expecting big things from him.”

Jackson, meanwhile, has more extensive experience.  He returned 50 punts as a rookie, averaging 8.8 yards per attempt with a long of 68 for a touchdown. The following year, his attempts decreased as he returned only 29 punts. But his effectiveness increased as he averaged 15.2 yards per run back and recorded two touchdowns with a long of 85.

As his role on offense expanded, the Eagles limited Jackson’s punt return duties. In 2010, he returned 20 punts for an average of 11.6 yards. In 2011 he averaged 6.7 yards on 17 returns. In an injury-shortened 2012, Jackson had only one return for a loss of three yards. Last season, he returned 14 punts for an average of 5.1 yards an attempt.

Because of his value on offense, where he will start opposite Pierre Garcon, Jackson doesn’t seem likely to receive the full-time punt return duties. But a scenario in which Roberts – who will serve as the third receiver and have a lighter offensive load – handles the bulk of these duties, and some Jackson sprinkled in here and there definitely seems like a strong possibility.

It remains to be seen if Washington will use Roberts on kick returns as well. But Thompson and other young guys such as Aldrick Robinson, Evan Royster, Nick Williams and Niles Paul possibly could compete for those duties as they fight for roster spots.

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