Amid the chaos of the Cam Akers news on Tuesday, the Los Angeles Rams released kick return specialist Nsimba Webster only a week before training camp. Webster, an undrafted free agent from Eastern Washington in 2019, had been a steady presence on the Rams’ return units over the last couple seasons and so this only confirms the notion that Sean McVay is looking for a new player in that role.
Transaction: Rams waived Nsimba Webster.— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) July 20, 2021
Los Angeles has been focused this offseason on improving in the kicking game after finishing among the worst in the NFL in that category in 2020. Following the disappointing results, the Rams demoted John Bonamego from special teams coordinator to a senior assistant role and replaced him with Joe DeCamillis, who had previously held that role with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
DeCamillis is highly regarded for his ability to develop explosive return specialists. Who are his current options at kick and punt returner when the team starts training camp next week at UC Irvine?
The Rams drafted Tutu Atwell out of Louisville in the second round of the 2021 NFL draft. Atwell is one of the fastest players on the team, reportedly running a 4.39 40-yard dash at his pro day. McVay was reportedly “pleased” with Atwell’s early work handling punt return duties during OTAs.
Although Atwell is regarded as a gifted athlete, he is also significantly undersized by NFL standards: 5’9, 155 lbs. And though Atwell may prove to be serviceable on punt returns for Los Angeles this season, his small frame may keep him out of consideration as the team’s kick returner. The rookie hopes to win the trust of coaches and contribute wherever he can. As Kenneth Arthur noted last month, Atwell has proven in the past that he can learn a skill quickly and translate those abilities to the field immediately.
He’s the player most people probably want to see on punt returns in Week 1 and without Webster in the way, it is possible we could see that.
The veteran out of California is entering his 14th NFL season and he has been limited by injuries in recent years. During the 2020 season the speedster only appeared in five contests with the Philadelphia Eagles and he had one punt return for two yards.
The Rams might be planning to rotate Jackson with Atwell on both offense and special teams because the two players are very similar in terms of size and athletic profiles. Atwell’s contributions could help sustain the veteran over the course of a full season and Jackson may be able to handle spot duties in the return game, especially in high-leverage situations. He has a history of impressive playmaking ability:
Throwback 2010: Miracle at the Meadowlands II when DeSean Jackson called game for the @Eagles with a walk-off punt return TD— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) November 14, 2020
: Eagles vs. Giants, Sunday at 1PM ET on FOX pic.twitter.com/1ElsNZXqn8
While Atwell and Jackson are expected to be the main contributors on punt returns, the Rams may need a larger body to handle the more physically demanding kick return duties and Calais spelled Webster in this role at times last season. The second year running back has potential as a playmaker, evident by this 41-yard return last season against the New York Giants and this 101-yard kick return at the NFLPA Bowl last January:
ULL RB Raymond Calais keeps flashing his speed at the NFLPA Bowl. This 101-yard KR TD will catch scouts attention. pic.twitter.com/gN8Vz5Fhqr— Bobby Football (@Rob__Paul) January 19, 2020
The Rams have a history of tasking reserve running backs with kick return duties, as veteran Malcom Brown was a reliable contributor during his six season with Los Angeles. Calais is also expected to compete for playing time on offense as the team looks to replace inured Cam Akers, so his role on returns may be altered slightly if he turns out to be a dynamic player out of the backfield.
Winning teams invest resources and play well on special teams. During the Rams’ last Super Bowl season in 2018, Pharoh Cooper was a dynamic returner and named to the NFL Pro Bowl that year. Los Angeles hopes the hiring of DeCamillis as special teams coordinator and a potential upgrade over Webster at returner helps spark improvements in the kicking game. With training camp approaching next week, this is a position battle worth watching closely.
Who should be the next player up for kick and punt returns?