As Kyric McGowan tracked a punt falling through the morning sun, he ever so slightly extended his right arm to make the catch. To Washington Commanders special teams coordinator Nate Kaczor, that wouldn’t do.
“The bottom line is, regardless of what it looks like, you have to catch [the ball] and secure it,” Kaczor said Friday. “But the tracking of the football gives the rest of your skill set a chance to kick in.”
At training camp, the hunt for the Commanders’ next returner is on. Last year, DeAndre Carter kept Washington among the NFL’s best in kickoff returns. The team ranked third in the league at 25.1 yards per kick return, but Carter was so-so on punt returns, averaging 8.4. After Carter’s departure to the Los Angeles Chargers in free agency, Kaczor believes the ideal starter would be a dual returner for punts and kickoffs, a job Washington hasn’t had locked down since Andre Roberts in 2014.
“It takes some pressure off you trying to find another guy,” Coach Ron Rivera said. “It helps you also when you’ve got to have your 48-guy list for game day.”
Though Kaczor echoed that same pragmatism, he also wants to identify multiple players with the tools to return kicks and punts. He has tested newly signed veteran Alex Erickson, second-year wide receiver Dax Milne, undrafted rookies McGowan and Jequez Ezzard, practice squad wide receiver Marken Michel and even Jahan Dotson, the wide receiver who was the Commanders’ first-round draft pick.
Among the group auditioning for a shot, Erickson, a return specialist and wideout who signed with Washington this offseason, has the most experience at the pro level.
As an undrafted rookie with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2016, Erickson led the NFL in kick return yards (810) and spent three years as the Bengals’ dual returner. In 2019, he transitioned primarily to punt duties, and he has returned 20-plus punts in every season of his career.
The 29-year-old said he sees the value of having an experienced returner among a group of young candidates vying for the job.
“The guys are young, they’re hungry, they want to know the position, and so I’m just an open book,” he added. “I relied a lot on older guys when I was a rookie and the younger guy.”
Dotson is the biggest-name rookie in the mix. He was an electric punt returner at Penn State and Kaczor lauded his potential to be a great punt returner and first-team wideout, but Rivera has erred on the side of caution when discussing Dotson’s chances of playing on special teams.
“Jahan has an opportunity to be an integral part of what we do already [offensively],” Rivera said Friday. “He’s shown some flashes … so we’ve got to be very, very, very diligent, very smart about [how we use him] as we go through this process.”
Milne is another option, and Rivera has complimented his dual returner potential in the past. In Ashburn, Milne has taken wide receiver reps with the first and second teams, and competing at returner could be another way to secure a roster spot.
“I feel really comfortable going back there and catching punts and kick returns,” said Milne, who returned just 12 punts and two kicks for a total of 92 yards in three years at Brigham Young. “Whatever the team needs me to do, I’ll do it.”
Ezzard also presents a compelling case. The wide receiver earned first-team honors in the Western Athletic Conference last year as a wideout and a returner.
“It’s just my athleticism, being able to make a play whenever I can,” he said of his skills. “But I’m still out here trying to adapt to everything and make the best of my opportunities when they come.”
McGowan and Michel are longer shots at the role. McGowan went undrafted after stints at Northwestern and Georgia Tech, and Michel — brother of Dolphins running back Sony Michel — has bounced around NFL practice squads and the Canadian Football League since 2016.
But Kaczor is watching those down-roster players who might be able to use strong return skills to secure a spot on the team. The next starting returner is somewhere at training camp, and so are two or three guys who would do the job at a moment’s notice.
“Whenever the personnel department comes up and we start talking about making decisions, [the question becomes] how much of a chance does this guy have to make the team on offense?” Kaczor said. “Can he return? … Or this guy doesn’t have as good of a chance to make it on [offense or defense]; is he good enough as a returner to warrant a roster spot? That’s the secret sauce behind it all.”