Special teams play has always been a big part of the Baltimore Ravens. In a game of field position where every yard matters, the organization has been fortunate to have some of the league’s best on their roster.
From solid punters and kickers to electrifying kick returners, opposing teams know they must prepare for the oft-forgotten third phase of the game.
In 2015, the Ravens boasted the NFL’s top overall special teams unit. They ranked No. 1 in both senior NFL writer Rick Gosselin’s (The Dallas Morning News) annual comprehensive ratings system and the Pro Football Focus rankings.
Looking ahead to training camp, the kicker and punter positions appear set. Justin Tucker may play under the franchise tag, while Sam Koch looks to pick up where he left off after a solid 2015 campaign.
The kick returner/punt returner role, however, might feature a bit of competition this summer.
The Competition for Ravens Punt Returners
Last season, Jerry Rosburg’s special teams punt return average (11.3) ranked third in the NFL. Rookie WR/RS Kaelin Clay took the most reps at the position and averaged 10.6 yards per return (fourth in NFL). Clay also led the team in kickoff return yards and attempts. This year, however, Clay will likely have to fend off a hungry rookie for the punt return role.
Rosburg says that rookie, former Navy QB Keenan Reynolds, has a ways to go before the Ravens are willing to give him the job. “He’s getting as many reps as we can possibly give him,” said Rosburg. “He’s starting from scratch, so it’s a long journey, but what we’ve seen on a daily basis is improvement.”
There are early signs that he’s the leader for the job, though. Reynolds took the most reps at both kick returner and punt returner throughout the team’s three-day mandatory minicamp.
“We give him different situations and different field position situations and as many live drills as we can – live, by that, I mean real punts rather than JUGS punts,” added Rosburg. “So, starting from where he’s starting, I think he’s making really good progress, and he demonstrated that today in practice, I thought.”
The switch from college quarterback to possible kick/punt returner is a challenging one, but Rosburg has overseen that transition before. Prior to his hiring in Baltimore, Rosburg built a successful NFL special teams resume with the Browns (2001-06) and Falcons (2007). It was his stint in Cleveland where he worked with another quarterback turned returner, Josh Cribbs.
“Yes, I would hope that would help,” when asked whether that success could translate to coaching Reynolds. “They’re two completely different guys. There’s been a precedent, though, and we’ve talked to him about it – he’s not the only one. And Josh Cribbs is not the only one.
“There are a number of guys that have come into a situation such as this and made the most of it, because you have to find your way on the field, and the more you can do… We say it all the time: ‘The more you can do.’ And he’s practicing really well on offense from what I’ve seen, and he’s practicing at person-protector on the punt team, he’s practicing at returner, he’s practicing on kickoff coverage.
“So, he’s got to learn all of that. It’s not just the punt returner, because in this league, as you know, with 46 guys dressing for Sunday, if you’re just the punt returner, and that’s all you can do, you better be really good.”
Reynolds has taken that mantra to heart. He has sought help from former NFL star, Brian Mitchell who excelled in his special teams play.
“I don’t know Brian Mitchell like [head coach] John [Harbaugh] knows Brian Mitchell, of course, but I’ve watched him from a distance, and I see Brian as a more powerful, bigger man,” said Rosburg on the two styles of play. “And Keenan, to me, has a lot of change of direction and really good instincts with the ball in his hand. So, that’s what we look to maximize.”
While it won’t draw the attention that other roster spot battles will, the Clay vs. Reynolds competition could be one of the most intriguing battles of training camp.
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