One of the reasons put forth the Titans should take a cornerback, and specifically Boise State CB Kyle Wilson, with the #16 overall pick in next month’s NFL draft is Wilson’s experience as a return man provides added value at another area where the Titans ranked among the league’s worst.
This makes a certain kind of sense. After all, the last first round cornerback the Titans selected was both a quality cornerback and an excellent return man before all his off the field stuff ended his time with the Titans. There are, I believe, two major problems with this argument. First, while Wilson does have return experience, it has been as a punt returner, and he only returned a couple kickoffs at Boise State. As Jeff Fisher would gladly tell you, returning punts is the more difficult challenge, but we learned last season that being bad at returning kickoffs also can cost you a game. Second, well, I present to you the following chart:
|Year||Kick Returner||GS||Punt Returner||GS|
|2009||Kenny Britt (24 of 71)||6||Alvin Pearman (19 of 55)||0|
|2008||Chris Carr (35 of 52)||2||Chris Carr (52 of 55)||2|
|2007||Michael Griffin (18 of 52)||10||Chris Davis (43 of 58)||0|
|2006||Bobby Wade (50 of 79)||2||Pacman Jones (37 of 43)||15|
|2005||Pacman Jones (43 of 70)||13||Pacman Jones (37 of 58)||13|
|2004||Jason McAddley (38 of 79)||1||Derrick Mason (36 of 56)||16|
|2003||Jake Schifino (35 of 68)||0||Justin McCareins (46 of 59)||10|
|2002||John Simon (20 of 50)||0||Derrick Mason (21 of 50)||14|
|2001||Derrick Mason (34 of 71)||15||Derrick Mason (39 of 59)||15|
|2000||Derrick Mason (42 of 47)||10||Derrick Mason (68 of 71)||10|
|1999||Derrick Mason (41 of 56)||0||Derrick Mason (41 of 57)||0|
|1998||Mike Archie (42 of 56)||0||Derrick Mason (42 of 55)||0|
|1997||Derrick Mason (26 of 58)||0||Mel Gray (27 of 45)||0|
|1996||Mel Gray (50 of 66)||0||Mel Gray (37 of 47)||0|
|1995||Mel Gray (53 of 64)||0||Mel Gray (50 of 56)||0|
These are the men who’ve served as the Titans’ primary punt and kickoff returner each year in the Jeff Fisher era. The numbers in parentheses are how many of each type of return each player has been responsible for. That “GS” column is how many games the players started that season, and there’s a reason I added it in.
Of the 15 kick return seasons, only 4 times has the kick returner started as many as 10 games, and the last person to do that was Michael Griffin, who did the bulk of his kick returning work at the beginning of the year before he entered the starting lineup. A similar tale was true of Pacman Jones, though to a lesser extent, and also of Derrick Mason, who finally became a starter in his fourth season after spending the first three years as exclusively a return specialist. I think that history makes it clear the Titans strongly prefer not to have a starter as the primary kickoff returner, and am pretty sure Jeff Fisher stated as much with regard to Kenny Britt’s returning kicks.
The story with the punt returners is a little different; Pacman spent 2 years as the primary punt returner while starting, and Mason spent 4 and McCareins spent 1. But, with punt returners, there’s a significant difference between starters Mason and McCareins and a hypothetical starter Kyle Wilson: Mason and McCareins were wide receivers who were sitting on the bench while the defense was on the field, while Wilson has just been on the field playing defense. Jeff Fisher cited this as a cause for concern when Pacman was the Titans’ primary punt returner, and if you look at the list, 12 of the 15 years the job has been handled by a wide receiver and not a defensive back.
This post, plus my argument the Titans should choose DE over CB, probably makes it sound like I’m picking on Wilson. That’s not my intent at all-I think Wilson is a fine player and likely to have a successful NFL career. I just believe the Titans have a bigger positional need at DE this draft is likely to have a good fit for, and their history says that Wilson’s return ability is not as much of a plus factor as you think it is. I would expect instead for the Titans to spend a mid-round draft pick, maybe in the 4th or 5th round, on a wide receiver who could potentially return both punts and kicks and challenge Lavelle Hawkins for the #4 WR job, and if they can’t get that guy, to dredge the post-draft free agent market for a veteran who’ll hopefully work out better than Mark Jones did.