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NFL Draft: Four kick returners who could offer the Rams more than speed

Sean McVay and Les Snead value athleticism and versatility

NCAA Football: Navy at Houston Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the Los Angeles Rams 2022 draft picks are official, Les Snead and Sean McVay will have five of eight picks in the sixth and seventh rounds. These are the prime areas to stock a roster with developmental talent and special teams contributors. Adding value to special teams is a well-worn path for unheralded rookies to earn their way onto NFL rosters. Young players can show off their athletic and competitive skills while learning and transitioning to the pro game.

Last season, the Rams return game struggled until being sparked by the the mid-season addition of Brandon Powell. LA had previously tried Tutu Atwell, JJ Koski, and Cooper Kupp on punts. Atwell was injured, Koski was shaky, and Kupp was mostly used for fair catch opportunities. On kickoff returns, Jake Funk, Sony Michel, Bennett Skowronek, Buddy Howell, and Koski all had attempts. Funk was injured early and Michel, Skowronek, and Howell all lacked the burst to be long-term options.

Although Powell solidified the the return game, he is not currently on the Rams roster and as an unrestricted free agent, there are no guarantees he will return. His departure would leave LA’s return game in the same situation as the first half of last year. The 2022 NFL Draft offers some interesting candidates that could not only be successful returning kicks, but offer some versatility as well. All four prospects capsulized below can offer value right away and have plus developmental traits that would fit into the Rams team needs.

CB Marcus Jones - Houston 5’ 8” 174 lbs. @ NFL Combine

Most mock drafts have Jones off the board before the Rams first selection, but there is a possibility he could be available. The question becomes, “Do the the Rams want to spend their top draft pick on a slot cornerback who is a playmaking return specialist?”. A good argument could be made for taking a cornerback, but that leaves fans to debate whether Jones is the right choice.

In coverage, Jones has the burst, long speed and agility to be a success in both zone and man coverages. His back pedal is low, smooth, and balanced. From this position he can either read the receiver in man or keep his eyes in the backfield and read the quarterback in zone. If its man, he can break on the wideout’s cut or flip his hips and run with the fastest. In zone, his burst allows him to close his cushion and undercut the pass on under routes or mirror the receiver through his area. If you get near him, he gets sticky and even though he’s short, he battles for contested balls aggressively.

For little guy, he is fully supportive in run defense. He fills aggressively, uses good tackling form, and he doesn’t just push runners out of bounds, he lowers his shoulder. Jones has the pursuit speed to run down ball carriers from behind and rips at the ball on coverage tackles.

Jones was arguably the best returner in college football. His dynamic agility in tight space, explosive burst, and eye/feet coordination make him a threat every time he gets his hands on the ball. There is plenty of tape to show his Uber-athleticism on returns and it is easily translatable to his defensive game, as well.

The Rams have had varying success with small slot corners. Darious Williams has played well overall and is ready to cash in on free agency. Nickell Robey-Coleman had his moments and Lamarcus Joyner played well enough to parlay his time with LA into a nice contract. But none of these players had the game breaking prowess of Marcus Jones. He would make a nice compliment to to the Rams bigger corners, Jalen Ramsey and Robert Rochell.

WR Velus Jones Jr - Tennessee 5’ 11 12 204 lbs. @ Senior Bowl

After a strong Senior Bowl week and a coming out party at the NFL Scouting Combine, Jones is no longer a hidden gem of a return man. Fans and experts who think the Combine is an over-blown media event, don’t take into consideration how much an under-the-radar prospect and can improve his draft status (think money). Jones is an excellent example.

Despite never having previously returned punts, in 2021 Jones finished second in the FBS with a 15.1 yard average. He added 628 yards of kickoff returns for a 27.3 average. All told, he chalked up 1722 yards of all purpose yardage eight touchdowns. On offense he made 62 catches for 807 yards.

Although he needs a lot of work on route running and creating his own separation, Jones’ value lies in his ability with the ball in his hands. At Tennessee, he ran a lot of short routes and screens to take advantage of his playmaking. Once he he gets the ball, he doesn’t let it go, according to James Fragoza at Pro Football Network,

“...Jones’ 3,000+ kick-return yards with no muffed attempts is intriguing in its own right, he is a legitimate offensive weapon. On 162 career targets, Jones recorded just 9 dropped passes...

Obviously, his 4.31 forty speed is eye-popping, but he’s not a scatback. Jones has the size, strength, and contact balance to to prosper against NFL defenses. I think he could project as WR#4 if he progresses in upgrading his route tree. Even with his rounding off routes, his burst and speed would make him a tough matchup on crossing and drag patterns.

In the LA receiver room, Jones would have plenty of time to work on route running and could earn his keep as a kick returner and in specific rotational situations. He has become a bit of a draft darling, so It’s unlikely for him to be around for the Rams fifth, sixth and seventh rounds picks. If the LA wants him, they will have to take him in round four.

Tennessee v Florida Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

RB Trestan Ebner - Baylor 5’ 11” 206 lbs. @ NFL Combine

A converted high school wide receiver, Ebner could offer a three-pronged value skillset to the Rams. Over 58 college games, in a rotational backfield role, he rushed 343 times for 1690 yards and caught 127 passes for 1515 yards, totaling 29 touchdowns. He also returned 47 kickoffs for 1187 yards (25.3 avg.) and became Baylor’s punt returner in 2021, returning 19 for 154 yards.

In the run game, Ebner’s wide zone experience is a scheme fit for the Rams attack. He’s at his best when when he is decisive, puts his foot down and cuts through gaps. He has good burst and stellar long speed. He needs work on ball security and consistently getting vertical, he sometimes runs like a receiver, trying to get outside. Being patient is one thing, but dancing and hesitancy is not going to play in the NFL. I have read experts who say he’s a poor blocker, but in the small amount of 2021 tape I watched, he was willing and although not stellar, was certainly serviceable.

As a receiver, Ebner offers route versatility out of the backfield. He is built more like a wideout than a back and can be split wide, not just as a decoy or check down, he has the potential to have a complete route tree. Good hands, catches away from his body, and makes a quick transition from catch to turn and run.

Ebner is not your typical punt returner, he is not a darting mighty mite who sharply cuts at full speed, but he’s only got one years worth of punt experience. He does look like a kickoff returner, with good vision, instincts, and speed. Two speeds really, reading speed and then explosive long speed. Ran 4.43 at NFL Scouting Combine.

The Rams do have injury questions in the running back room. They will need, at least, to entertain the idea of drafting a back. Trestan Ebner is a late round/undrafted option who has running, receiving, and returner skills. He was also on the punt block unit at Baylor.

WR Britain Covey - Utah 5’ 8” 170 lbs. @ Utah football official site

I like to always add a long shot. Covey is 24 years old and has been at Utah since 2015 using a red shirt season and religious mission during his tenure. His production as a returner/receiver was solid. Over 47 games in Utah’s fast-paced, multiple offense, he caught 184 passes for 2011 yards and five touchdowns and added 364 yards rushing. Where Covey stood out was as a dual threat returner. He returned 33 kickoffs for 838 yards and 92 punts for 1092 yards, totaling five touchdowns.

Covey has good hands, catches away from his body, and doesn’t fear the middle. He ran a lot of short to mid depth routes in school. Projects to be an NFL slot guy, but in the Sean McVay offense where receiver versatility is paramount, he has experience down the sidelines. He can create separation with burst and quick feet, in any direction. Of course, because of his size, there will always be questions about durability and whether or or not he can handle press coverages and the physicality of NFL cornerbacks.

He is fun to watch with the ball in his hands. Very good long speed and stellar burst, Covey can make cuts in multiple directions from a standing start or at full speed. He has good vision in the open field, follows blockers and has good contact balance. He’s not going to break a lot of tackles, but bounces off contact and stays gathered up and moving forward.

Most likely goes undrafted because of his size, age and lack of ceiling. He can be polished up technically, but with Britain Covey, what you see is what you get. He fits into the Rams because of his return game and playmaking ability. He’s been an Academic All-American and is hugely competitive.

Who will return kicks in 2022?

If the Rams don’t re-sign Brandon Powell, there will be a void in the return game. There are surely a few retreads that could be enlisted or maybe someone who got reps last year will step up. But with all the late round picks, why not choose some low risk/high reward developmental players? Techniques can be taught and turn average athletes into serviceable contributors, but speed, agility and open-field running are natural abilities that can change the game.