Antwaan Randle El May Have Some Company Fielding Punts This Season for the Redskins

Antwaan Randle El called for a fair catch on 21 of 60 punts last season.
Antwaan Randle El called for a fair catch on 21 of 60 punts last season. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
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By Paul Tenorio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 3, 2009

On the far end of the field during the Washington Redskins' first special teams practice on Saturday afternoon, a group of players rotated fielding punts under the watchful eye of special teams coach Danny Smith.

Conspicuously missing from the group, however, was the one man the Redskins expect to be back there when the regular season starts Sept. 13 at Giants Stadium: wide receiver Antwaan Randle El.

Though Randle El enters the season as the starter and will handle the bulk of the returns, his lack of production since leaving the Pittsburgh Steelers and coming to Washington as a free agent in 2006 has opened the possibility that a new face could unseat him as the full-time returner.

Smith at least acknowledged that while remaining faithful to Randle El, who came to the Redskins with a reputation of being one of the NFL's most dangerous punt returners, he may not be the only one returning punts.

"El is going to be the guy, but I think you'll see a little more by committee," Smith said. "So who that committee is going to be, let's see how the roster comes out with guys like Dominique Dorsey, with guys like [Anthony] Alridge. . . . There [are] a lot of guys in the mix. Again, my job is going to be in the preseason to see if one of those guys is capable of doing that."

While Smith stopped short of criticizing Randle El, there is no doubt about the lack of production in an area so critical to field position.

Randle El called for a fair catch on 21 of the 60 punts he fielded last season, tops in the NFL, and averaged just 6.5 yards per return -- ranking 21st of 26 players with at least 20 returns. Randle El also often left more yards on the field to be gained, and coverage was not necessarily the problem, he admitted.

"It's not a whole problem with coverage," said Randle El, who is entering his eighth season. "I used to make stuff happen and coverage wouldn't really be there, the blocking would not be there a whole lot. And the first two years we had really good teams and last year we were struggling a little bit more there, but for the most part I had an opportunity to get the yards we need. It's not so much the touchdowns but just the actual yards."

Randle El had averaged 9.48 yards per return in his first four seasons when he came to Washington after winning a Super Bowl with the Steelers. But after netting 8.8 yards per return, including an 87-yard touchdown, in his first season with the Redskins, the numbers have declined sharply the last two seasons.

Randle El averaged just 6.1 yards per return in 2007 and last season tripled his number of fair catches from seven to 21 -- eight more than any other season in his career -- while only slightly increasing his return average to 6.5.

Now, for the first time since coming to Washington, Randle El will be pushed by several young players as well as by the threat of Santana Moss or DeAngelo Hall going in at key points.

It's a fact of which Randle El is aware, though he said coaches have not told him that he may be replaced.

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