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Who will handle return duties for the Rams?

At this early stage, Sean McVay has many solid options

NFL: OCT 31 Rams at Texans
Tutu Atwell cuts upfield hard
Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Head Coach Sean McVay has a plethora of solid options when it come to deciding which player or players will man the kick returner positions for the 2022 Los Angeles Rams. There are three main candidates, but there are four holdovers from last year and two newcomers with return experience.

Last season, both the punt return (PR) and kickoff return (KO) units struggled early in the season, but really improved down the stretch and throughout the playoffs. With experienced players coming back, a few healed from injury, and some rookies trying to make a pro career, Special Teams Coordinator Joe DeCamillis must decide amongst their varied skills. Will he go with experience? The hands guy? Or will it be the flashy, speed guy?

The units and how they ranked in 2021

Punt returns

The Rams had 19 punt returns last season (28th) for 215 yards (18th), a 11.3 yard average per return (5th) with one touchdown (1st). The team had 26 fair catches, which was the 2nd most and ranked them 30th. Last season, LA’s punt return game was not very good until Brandon Powell joined the team in week nine. In the first eight games, they totaled 84 return yards . Overall, these numbers would seem to put the Rams in the somewhere towards the middle of the NFL pack, but really coming around down the stretch. One outlet, The Football Outsiders, ranked LA’s punt return game as third overall.

Kickoff returns

It was returner-by-committee until Powell secured the role. Seven different players logged returns last season. The Rams had 34 returns (16th) for 686 yards (21st), a 20.2 yard average (23rd) with no touchdowns. Only three players, Sony Michel (22.5), Jake Funk (22.0), and Powell (26.0) were over 20 yards per return. Powell’s numbers were inflated by a 61 yard return and without it, his average mirrored the Rams team number (20.2). Football Outsiders pegged the Rams kick return game at 26th in the NFL.

Meet the candidates

Wide receiver Brandon Powell

Powell’s is a great story. Since 2018, he had bounced around through four teams, the Detroit Lions, Atlanta Falcons, Buffalo Bills, and Miami Dolphins before he was signed to the Rams practice squad last November.

His arrival revived a moribund return game. In the final six regular season games, he returned six punts for 133 yards, a 22.17 yard average and one touchdown. In the playoffs, it was nine returns for 104 yards and a 11.56 average. His KO returns were adequate, he had a long return in his opening game versus the Jacksonville Jaguars and over the season and playoffs he tallied 13 returns for 296 yard at an average of 22.7 yards.

So his effort and production would seem to warrant the “man to beat” tag. But that might not end up being the case. He may very well be in a fierce roster battle. Why?

  • Atwell is a second round pick, the Rams are going to put him on the field until plays his way off. Right or wrong, this is simply reality.
  • The Rams have a history of using “one year wonders” in the past, Von Miller, Eric Weddle and Sony Michel last year, Clay Matthews in 2019, Jojo Natson got parts of 2019-18. in the Super Bowl year of 2018 it was CJ Anderson, Ndamukong Suh, and Sam Shields, and finally in 2017, it was Sammy Watkins and Conner Barwin.
  • Powell made the return game fun again for Rams fans and gave the impression that any kick could be the one he takes to the house. but other than the two long runs, his numbers were just average.
  • He will be hard pressed to earn any snaps other than as a returner. If Cooper Kupp is going to handle punts that need to be fair caught within the 15 yard line, it only magnifies the lack of snaps.
NFC Wild Card Playoffs - Arizona Cardinals v Los Angeles Rams
Brandon Powell split two defenders
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Wide receiver Tutu Atwell

The #1 returner role was, for the most part, gifted to Atwell last year. In a perfect world, he would have learned how to be a professional wide receiver game and use his natural athleticism as a KO and PR.

There were glimpses of that ability in preseason games, but when the regular season began he only garnered 10 offensive snaps, 10 punt returns, and five KO returns. He battled health issues and went out for the season in week eight with shoulder surgery.

Atwell seems to have been working out hard during the off season, he looks cut and rock solid, but he is never going to be a big guy, he came out of school at 5’9 165 lbs. Reports are that he is approaching camp with a chip on his shoulder and is impressing both coaches and teammates. He has to be considered the favorite to be the primary returner.

Running back Raymond Calais

In 2020, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers released Calais in final cuts and added him to their practice squad, the Rams poached him and signed him to their gameday roster. He was active in four games for LA and was the primary KO returner in those efforts. He tallied 7 returns for 152 yards, a 21.7 average.

Last season, he was off to a good start in preseason, making some nice returns and seeing action out of the backfield. But a broken foot and a berth on the Injured Reserve List would scuttle his season.

In 2022, there are two big if’s. IF he can stay healthy and IF he can contribute on another unit, Calais can make the team and be a value. He is fast with good vision and the ability to cut at speed, so playing in the backfield rotation is not out of the question, particularly, with the unit’s injury history and he did return a couple punt in last years preseason games. As last years season progressed, the Rams special teams gunners improved, so breaking in there will be difficult.

Los Angeles Chargers v Los Angeles Rams
Raymond Calais directs traffic down the sideline
Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

Wide receiver JJ Koski

Koski played in four games last season. The good news is that he saw action as both a KO and punt returner last year, as well as 40 other special teams snaps. The bad news is that he looked shaky on the NFL stage and had a fumble in only eight total touches. The Rams depth at his positions, wide receiver and returner, most likely mean another year on the practice squad.

Cornerback Duron Lowe

Over his three college seasons, beginning at Texas-El Paso and finishing at Liberty, Lowe returned 27 KO for 718 yards, a 26.6 average and two touchdowns. He will really have to show out in camp and/or the preseason games to even have a shot at the 53. To be honest, the Rams are so deep with youngsters in the secondary, even nabbing a practice squad berth would be a major accomplishment.

So, who will return kicks in 2022?

Duron Lowe is just too much of a long shot and JJ Koski probably missed out on his big chance last year. If Koski had looked stable in his few attempts last season, maybe we could make a case for him. Hard to imagine a scenario where another team would poach either of these players.

As much as I love his story and the excitement he has provided, Brandon Powell could easily be the odd man out. He is much better at returning punts than kickoffs. Powell has bounced around on practice squads since he came into the league. It may be his future as well, the veteran guy who can come in midseason and spark a team.

I think that Raymond Calais has better potential on kickoffs and can offer snaps/value at other positions. With him, it boils down to injuries. He’s a smaller guy who runs aggressively and needs to learn how to situationally protect his frame. I like the potential value he can offer over the long run.

Tutu Atwell has the draft status/pedigree edge. You don’t draft a speedy, big play guy at #57 and not try to get him the ball in space. While fans should hold his feet to the fire, for the same reasons, Atwell does have skillset to contribute in the NFL and hopefully he has learned from his rookie mistakes.

The X factor is whether Copper Kupp is going to field punts that are deep in Rams territory. If he does, it is imperative that whomever the Rams decide on as the primary kick returner/s, must be able to add value on additional units.