Los Angeles Rams: The Curious Case of the Return Specialist Role

by Jake Ellenbogen
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The Los Angeles Rams have gone through return man after return man only to find out they simply can’t stick to one guy. Now, in 2019 preseason the Rams are giving undrafted rookies a look at the role. Names like Alex Bachman from Wake Forest, N’Simba Webster from Eastern Washington and Johnathan Lloyd from Duke have been talked about in those roles. However, the Rams could also look in the direction of last year’s practice squad receiver Austin Proehl. They could look at former sixth-round pick Mike Thomas. They could even look at a different position group to take over this role. Or they could, of course, go with last year’s starting punt returner JoJo Natson.

The first thing that needs to be said is how many people underrate a return specialists job. Last year, the Los Angeles Rams mainly used defensive back Blake Countess as the kick returner and Natson in the punt return game. The team has tried out receiver Cooper Kupp at punt returner before but that wouldn’t be a smart decision to put him back there coming off an ACL injury. That leaves rookies like Darrell Henderson, David Long or even a player like Donte Deayon as options to return. Before we break down each player and what they bring to the table, let’s take a look at the history of the return game for the Rams.

Los Angeles Rams Return Specialist History

Year/PositionLeading ReturnerReturnsYardsTouchdownsTeam Average Drive Start Position
2018 - KRBlake Countess174170Own 30.4
2018 - PRJoJo Natson262800
Own 30.4
2017 - KRPharoh Cooper349321Own 32.9
2017 - PRPharoh Cooper323990Own 32.9
2016 - KRBenny Cunningham225990Own 27.4
2016 - PRTavon Austin 443360Own 27.4
2015 - KRBenny Cunningham257140Own 27.9
2015 - PRTavon Austin342641Own 27.9
2014 - KRBenny Cunningham359630Own 28.0
2014 - PRTavon Austin353911Own 28.0
2013 - KRTavon Austin183980Own 26.3
2013 - PRTavon Austin332801Own 26.3
2012 - KRChris Givens235390Own 24.4
2012 - PRDanny Amendola171220Own 24.4
2011 - KRJerious Norwood246110Own 26.4
2011 - PRAustin Pettis151390Own 26.4
2010 - KRDanny Amendola5011420Own 30.9
2010 - PRDanny Amendola404520Own 30.9
2009 - KRDanny Amendola6616180Own 28.1
2009 - PRDanny Amendola313600Own 28.1
2008 - KRDante Hall377630Own 27.2
2008 - PRDerek Stanley111010Own 27.2
2007 - KRDante Hall297290Own 28.4
2007 - PRDante Hall192861Own 28.4
2006 - KRWillie Ponder266050Own 28.1
2006 - PRShaun McDonald231720
Own 28.1
2005 - KRChris Johnson388571Own 30.6
2005 - PRDane Looker8690Own 30.6
2004 - KRArlen Harris479510Own 26.0
2004 - PRShaun McDonald301430Own 26.0
2003 - KRArlen Harris5111750Own 34.1
2003 - PRDeJuan Groce191350Own 34.1
2002 - KRTerrence Wilkins4710740Own 32.0
2002 - PRTerrence Wilkins252420Own 32.0
2001 - KRTrung Candidate 367480Own 32.3
2001 - PRAz-Zahir Hakim363300Own 32.3
2000 - KRTony Horne5713791Own 30.6
2000 - PRAz-Zahir Hakim324891Own 30.6
1999 - KRTony Horne308922Own 31.5
1999 - PRAz-Zahir Hakim444611Own 31.5

It’s safe to say the Los Angeles Rams are more likely to find success when they possess an above-average return game. It’s also safe to say that the Rams must have seen a dip in confidence from Pharoh Cooper to let go of him after such a great season. Yes, he did arguably give away the playoff game in 2017 but he still returned in 2018 and was eventually cut. It’s not to say Natson isn’t good but I don’t quite see a “lock” to make the roster either. Some are rallying around Natson because he’s very similar to the type of player Tavon Austin was but with production. If you look at Austin’s stats, it’s easy to see why fans would jump at the first sign of production.

The Rams found the most success at the kick return spot with Benny Cunningham, Pharoh Cooper and Tony Horne who is arguably their best return man since the Greatest Show on Turf days. It’s also important to keep in mind that the numbers of today as far as average starting position are skewed by the touchback rule change that was implemented in the last few years. That rule change took a touchback from being placed at the 20-yard-line to being placed at the 25-yard-line. That also makes the league’s preferred range of average kick return yards around the 25 mark. Whereas back in the day, the average was the 20-yard-line.

As far as punt returning goes, the Rams best punt returners since the Greatest Show on Turf would likely be Az-Zahir Hakim and Pharoh Cooper. Natson started strong and flashed big-game potential but all in all, he leveled out to end the season. Hakim had his worst moment with the “Hakim dropped the ball.” experience in the wild card game versus the New Orleans Saints. Cooper, of course, had multiple turnovers in the Rams first playoff game in Los Angeles in years, They all struggled but Hakim moved on, Cooper is in Arizona now and Natson is fighting to remain in his role moving forward.

Best-Case Options

WR N’Simba Webster

Webster only had one return in the preseason but was the team leader with 28 yards in the game. Webster instantly popped on the kick return, someone that has no hesitation and is a quick reader and processor of team blocking. He made his presence felt in the passing game as well which will bode well for his argument to make the roster. Going back to his days with Eastern Washington, Webster only fielded four punts for 73 yards and a touchdown for his career. However, in the kick return game Webster tallied 1,114 yards on 48 total career returns. He isn’t the fastest, however, Webster could bode well in the return game with his overall awareness and athleticism.

WR Alex Bachman

Bachman finished his first preseason game with one kickoff return for 15 yards. He has the speed to man the position but Bachman has very minimal experience returning either punts and kicks. He’s going to have to do it to make the roster but it’s worth noting at Wake Forest, Bachman only had seven punt returns and seven kick returns in his career. He’s one of those guys where you take the athleticism and the overall talent then you try and make it work. Will Bachman make it work? I’m not sure, but I do know he’s going to be a finalist.

WR Austin Proehl

Proehl is a player I like a lot and we’ve talked about a lot on this site. However, like Bachman, he also hasn’t had the experience as a returner. Proehl during his time at North Carolina only returned punts and when he did, it was very rare. Proehl returned a measly six career punts in college. With the Los Angeles Rams, last preseason game Proehl returned a punt six yards and returned a kickoff 15 yards. He’s considered in the mix but if Proehl wants to make the roster he is going to have to show more in the return game.

WR JoJo Natson

The favorite to win the job is of course Natson. However, as shown above, I don’t think Natson deserves to be handed the return gig. I would imagine if Webster continues to flash in the preseason, there is a good chance he will make this battle a lot more interesting than initially anticipated. Natson can move, he’s quick and he doesn’t hesitate in his movement with the ball. Natson is extremely limited in the passing game. He’s very small and tends to be a tad streaky as a returner. Many believe Natson is great and should easily be the returner but bear in mind that Pharoh Cooper was way more efficient as shown above and he’s not even on the roster.

I don’t think the Rams are 100 percent sold on Natson and he’s going to have to earn it this preseason. Webster’s all-around ability as a contributor in the special teams game, return game or on offense is not something to take lightly. Natson needs to show more.

Darkhorse Candidates

RB Darrell Henderson

Now, with all of the buzz about Todd Gurley‘s knee and the fact the Rams took a running back in the third round. It would seem kind of asinine to put Henderson in a spot where he is most likely to get hurt. While Henderson did gain some experience college, he wasn’t as effective as you would assume. Henderson took 25 kick returns while at Memphis and only amounted to just 19.5 yards per return. There’s no doubt Henderson could find more success in the NFL but the track record isn’t the best.

On top of all of this, it’s potentially the heir to the Gurley throne being sacrificed to take part in the most dangerous play in the sport. I’m very skeptical on Henderson in the return game. He will do plenty in the offensive game whether it’s rushing or receiving for it all to be worth it.

WR Mike Thomas

Thomas is really on the teeter-totter in regards to making this roster. This might be the year he gets upended. However, what would boost his argument to the coaching staff to stick on the team is his return game. The Rams did not use Thomas in the return game in the preseason, however, the Southern Mississippi product returned 41 kicks for 936 yards and a touchdown in college. The confidence to do it in the NFL might not be there but he’s shown the ability to do it in the past.

If the Los Angeles Rams start looking for their returner, Thomas could get a shot and run away with it. It’s all up to the coaching staff at the end of the day though.

CB Donte Deayon

I know, the love for Donte Deayon expressed this preseason has been practically overwhelming. However, hear me out, Deayon is a former returner going back to his days at Boise State. Deayon returned 30 punts for 251 yards in college, he’s not the best returner ever but he is an option as a darkhorse candidate. As for Deayon, we mentioned how Thomas needs to improve his stock, Deayon could use another reason to make the roster. If Deayon worked in the return game, the Rams would have to consider keeping the slot cornerback.

Worst-Case but Realistic Options

RB John Kelly

Kelly is a player whose stock has seemingly risen all of training camp. The idea that Kelly would be a returner seems ridiculous but it’s one the Rams could mull if they have to. The Tennessee product never returned a kick or a punt in college and he probably shouldn’t return any in the NFL. The thing with Kelly is the fact he’s so elusive at making guys miss but he lacks the long speed to thrive as a returner and hit that second level. When you are the returner, you have to be able to use your speed and elusiveness find and hit a crease. Kelly doesn’t have the consistent speed and that is exactly why I would give the idea of him returning, a no.

WR Cooper Kupp

Kupp is coming off an ACL tear that ended his season prematurely last year. He’s back, he honestly looks as good as ever and maybe even better. However, the idea of placing a guy that is a huge focal point of your offense on return duties is just not a smart move. I used to cringe when I saw Antonio Brown out there to return punts for the Steelers. I’m not even a Steelers fan. Now, the Rams would be throwing Kupp out there in again, one of the most dangerous plays in football and for what? A few extra yards? Hard pass. I still can see it happening though.

If Kupp wasn’t such a big part of the offense his track record as a returner from Eastern Washington would have been enough to become the returner. He took 25 punts for 426 yards and three touchdowns. Kupp would be a threat in the return game, but is the risk too big to hold out for the reward?

CB Nickell Robey-Coleman

Another big part of the team is Nickell Robey-Coleman. He gave a minuscule amount of work in the return game to the USC Trojans back in college but he has returned before. He’s taken back three touchdowns on defense. NRC is not expected to be the returner but then again, neither was Blake Countess, who ended up being the starting kick returner all season. Robey-Coleman could be a shot in the dark to find a spark in the return game if need be. I wouldn’t like this move because Robey-Coleman is technically a starter for this team and again, it’s so hard placing a guy with that big of a role in a situation that dangerous.

Who wins the job?

In the end, I think it’s going to be between N’Simba Webster and JoJo Natson for the role. I think the Rams like Natson a lot. However, I tend to lean towards the idea the Los Angeles Rams will shock big time in their cut down. I think this is one of those cut-down decisions that will shock many. Webster, not Natson will be the returner. I believe Webster will get the kick return duties and the Rams will look to Cooper Kupp to return punts. I’m hoping that is not the case but I can see Kupp returning punts next year. The Rams could easily go with Webster as both the punt returner or kick returner as well. I don’t think the Rams can afford to keep seven receivers and that is why I think KhaDarel Hodge and Webster are the final two that make the roster.

It wouldn’t shock me if Natson made the roster over Webster but right now, I’m going for the upset with Webster making the final receiver spot and becoming the returner.

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