Who should return kicks and punts for the New York Giants in 2021?

New York Giants, Jabrill Peppers
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The New York Giants possessed an inconsistent special teams unit in 2020. This was a surprise, being that the team’s rookie head coach Joe Judge has extensive experience coaching special teams. Judge was the special teams assistant for the New England Patriots from 2009 to 2014 before becoming the special teams coordinator in 2015 and manning that position through 2019.

In 2020, Judge was hired as the head coach of the New York Giants. This was a surprising hiring as the Patriots’ long-time special teams expert was anything but a household name. Joe Judge put together an impressive coaching staff in his first season, but left the special teams unit the same. Thomas McGaughey remained the team’s special teams coordinator.

Understanding the amount of attention Judge gives the special teams unit, many expected the Giants to have one of the best units in the NFL last season. However, expectations were not exactly met as the Giants’ special teams were in the middle of the pack. One area where the Giants struggled to find consistency was in the return game.

Running back Dion Lewis served as the primary kick returner last season, though he is no longer with the Giants so the team will need to find a capable replacement. Jabrill Peppers and Darius Slayton returned the bulk of the punts last season, but the Giants might now have a better option on the roster.

The punt returner

In 2021, the Giants should make a switch at punt returner. As exciting as it is to see Jabrill Peppers field punts, it is also a bit of a risk. Jabrill has struggled with some injuries in his career, one of which was suffered on a punt return. Peppers returned 15 punts in 2020, averaging a solid 12.5 yards per return.

Darius Slayton was the more efficient punt returner in 2020, returning 9 punts at an average of 21 yards per return. Slayton could see more opportunities as the punt returner this season since his role as a wide receiver is bound to reduce with the additions of Kenny Golladay and Kadarius Toney. But that new addition, Kadarius Toney, would likely make the most sense as the Giants’ new punt returner.

Kadarius Toney returned punts and kicks during his career at the University of Florida. He averaged 21.6 yards per return on kick returns and 11.3 yards per return on punt returns. In 2020, Toney returned 11 punts for 139 yards (12.6) and 1 touchdown. Toney is a tackle-breaking machine and a threat to take the ball to the house on any given play. He is the Giants’ best punt returner on the roster for those reasons and he should field the majority of punts this season.

Kick returner

As mentioned, Kadarius Toney is impossible to tackle. Toney forced a missed tackle on 35% of touches since 2018, first amongst all draft-eligible receivers in the 2021 NFL Draft class (PFF). This will be applicable to punt returns and kick returns, too. Toney is a solid option for the Giants as a kick returner, though the dangers of the kick return game might encourage the Giants to keep him out of that position. Instead, the Giants might opt to go with a career return specialist in 2021.

The New York Giants signed running back Corey Clement this offseason. Clement has experience as an NFL veteran returning kicks and contributing on special teams. He has averaged 25.1 yards per return on kick returns in his career. As a backup, Clement makes sense to return kicks for the Giants since he is not expected to play a major role in the team’s offense. Corey Clement could focus solely on special teams and contribute as a reliable kick returner.

Whether Kadarius Toney or Corey Clement earns the kick-returning role remains to be seen. Both players should be considered for the position, among other players on the Giants’ roster. Sixth-round rookie running back Gary Brightwell could be another intriguing option for the Giants. The goal for the New York Giants will be to promote a player who is reliable, durable, and explosive to the kick returner position. Luckily, they have a few options on their roster that fit the bill.

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