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Raiders free agency preview: Return specialists

Braxton Berrios, Jakeem Grant can ignite Raiders’ lackluster kick return group

Syndication: The Record
Braxton Berrios, right, sported a robust 30.4 average on kickoff returns this past season. His speed and shiftiness would be a welcome addition to the Raiders return unit.
Kevin R. Wexler-NorthJersey.com / USA TODAY NETWORK

Special team’s boss inherits quite the kick squad in the desert. The battery of Trent Sieg, place kicker Daniel Carlson, and punter A.J. Cole III were difference makers for the Las Vegas Raiders in 2021.

Don’t expect that to change.

What the McMahon doesn’t have, however, is a dynamic impact return man. Now, this isn’t to throw shade on slot wide receiver Hunter Renfrow who’s had a heck of a performance as the punt returner. But with Renfrow ascending to primetime-weapon status in the offense, Las Vegas would be wise to institute a preservation doctrine on their slot receiver by no longer make him available to take the hits on special teams.

Let’s look at the kickoff return performance by the Raiders this past season. Be it the lack opportunities (i.e. touchbacks), what Vegas got out of returning kickoffs was miniscule at best. Running back Jalen Richard had the most returns with 11 for 227 yards (20.6 yards per return average with a long of 32 yards. Fellow tailback Kenyan Drake was second with 10 returns for 192 yards (19.2) and a long of 31. Wide receiver Tyron Johnson was third with eight returns for 156 yards (19.50 and a long of 34. Not electrifying numbers, by any means.

Fortunately for the Raiders, two scintillating return men are hitting the market as unrestricted free agents: Wide receivers Braxton Barrios and Jakeem Grant. The pair have the speed and vision to be the perfect defibrillation for what’s been a flat-lined Raiders return unit.

Syndication: PackersNews
Jakeem Grant returns a punt for a 97-yard touchdown against the Packers this past season. Grant could take over as punt return in Las Vegas and that’ll allow normal return man Hunter Renfrow to focus on wide receiver and save his body from return hits.
Wm. Glasheen/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin / USA TODAY NETWORK

The 26-year-old Barrios was both the New York Jets’ and NFL’s top kickoff return man in terms of yards per return at a robust 30.4 this past season. He tied for the longest kick return last season (102 yards) and finished with 852 yards and a touchdown on 28 kickoff returns, which earned him first-team All Pro honors. Barrios also contributed 201 yards on 15 punt returns (13.4 yards per return) with a long of 28. Barrios also got more work in as a wide receiver in the Jets’ offense in 2021 garnering 65 targets and hauling in 46 of those throws for 431 yards and two touchdowns. He also scored two more touchdowns carrying the ball out of the backfield.

That all said, Barrios wouldn’t be a one-trick pony who is relegated purely to return man. Ditto for Grant, who is likely to be a hot commodity like Barrios when free agency officially kicks off this coming week.

If the Raiders don’t want to expose Renfrow to the big hits that come with punt-return responsibilities, Grant is the dude you get to replace Hunter. Grant post the longest punt return in the league this past season housing a boot 97 yards — one of the longest returns for a score in NFL history.

In all, Grant fielded 26 punts for 309 yards (second-best 11.9 yards per return). In comparison, Renfrow returned 31 punts for 303 yards (9.8 average) with a long of 41 yards. Grant also fielded kickoffs and finished with 23 returns for 539 yards (23.4 per return) with a long of 34. Unlike Barrios, however, Grant’s progress as a wide receiver hasn’t been as successful as he was only targeted 17 times, catching 11 of those throws for 132 yards and two touchdowns with both the Miami Dolphins and Chicago Bears in 2021.

Still, while he may be more suited solely to special teams, Grant is going to draw plenty of interest for his field-flipping ability as a returner, just like Barrios. And with the AFC West suddenly becoming a quarterback-laden division, field position is going to be a critical thing for the Raiders.

Might as well make a run at the two return specialist who can exponentially help in that department.