BOSTON (CBS) — With Julian Edelman and Cyrus Jones out for the season and Danny Amendola unlikely to play on Sunday against the Saints, Bill Belichick has a big decision ahead of him as to who handles punt return duties for the Patriots.
But the head coach doesn’t sound as concerned about it as others.
Speaking to reporters on Friday at Gillette Stadium ahead of the Patriots’ Week 2 showdown with the Saints in New Orleans, Belichick fielded several questions about the team’s punt return situation. Newcomer Phillip Dorsett could be a candidate to handle them, as are safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung. He admitted that the team is essentially holding tryouts for the role.
“You put them back there, see how the handle the ball, coach them a little bit, the flight of the ball, teach them how to read the kick and so forth, how it’s going to break and whether it’s long, short, breaking left or right, whatever it happens to be,” said Belichick. “If they show promise, then keep working with them.”
The punt returner position seems like an urgent need for the Patriots right now, but Belichick appears ready to be more patient about it to find the right player for it. He pointed to Edelman, who famously played quarterback at Kent State and never returned punts until he reached the NFL, as an example of a player who can develop into a reliable, even effective returner.
“I mean look, Edelman never returned punts. He was at the top of the league for pretty much every year that he’s done it. It’s like a lot of other skills. It can be developed,” said Belichick. “It can be improved. It doesn’t mean it happens with everybody, but it could if a player has good skills for it, if he has good judgment, can handle the ball. I mean that’s the biggest thing, is the ball handling.
“Catching the ball and judging the ball, especially here – we’re not playing in a dome – so every kick is a little bit different based on the wind and the way the ball comes off the punters foot and so forth. They’re all a little bit different. That’s a big skill for a punt returner, is just ball judgment, and ball handling, and decision making, whether to catch it, fair catch it, let it go, so forth, plus-ten, plus-five, depending on the hang time and conditions and so forth. There’s a lot. A lot more decision making involved there. So that really is experience. The ball handling is, I’d say, not a natural thing because it can be improved, but to some degree it’s a natural thing.”
It’s clear that Belichick at this point is more concerned about the punt returner’s “judgment” and decision-making than his actual return skills. Based on that, don’t be surprised if he ends up putting McCourty or Chung back there in New Orleans. As far as the punt return role for the rest of the season, the head coach is willing to let players develop and play out over the long term.