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Raiders 0utlook 2022: Figuring out the return game

Hunter Renfrow is best option as Raiders punt returner; kick returner up in the air

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Cleveland Browns
Wide receiver Hunter Renfrow is the Las Vegas Raiders best option as punt returner. Expect him to stick in that role this coming season.
Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

Hunter Renfrow’s ability to diagnose the fake, sprint and lay the lumber to dislodge the ball against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 4 alone cements him as the punt returner for the Las Vegas Raiders.

That may sound in jest, it is partially, but the slot dynamo is still the Silver & Black’s best option as the punt return specialist — his ability to sniff out and eradicate a fake punt not withstanding.

Taking Renfrow of the punt return duties to keep him out of harm’s way and preserve him for his important role as a chain-moving reliable slot receiver is something I’ve written about in the past. However, upon further review, I’m going to take that back — for two reasons.

  1. The arrival and presence of Davante Adams changed the landscape of my initial thought. Because before landing Adams, the Raiders top two receiving options were Renfrow and tight end Darren Waller. Getting Adams in Silver & Black opens it up for Renfrow to remain a mainstay inside at the slot on offense and as the primary punt returner on special teams.
  2. The New England way was to use the best player available to man return duties. Case in point: Julian Edelman. As he was blossoming into and became a big-time weapon on offense, the similarly built to Renfrow wide receiver was the Patriots prime return man.

Hence, Renfrow sticks in the role. Yes, Renfrow developed into a reliable big-time weapon as a receiver after hauling in a team-leading 103 passes for 1,038 yards and nine touchdowns this past season. But the 26-year-old Clemson product also finished tied for third in the NFL in punt returns with 31 this past season. The receiver racked up 303 yards on those returns with a long of 41 yards. Of punt returners who had 30 or more returns, he finished tied with the best yards per return, 9.8, in the league last year. It’s hard to take that kind of production off a special teams unit that wants to flip the field.

Which leads us to the other return spot: Kickoffs. Unlike Renfrow, the Raiders don’t have a clear-favorite incumbent for the kick return gig. Receiving running back Jalen Richard — who had the most kick returns last season with 11 (227 yards and a long of 32) — is gone but Vegas has tailback Kenyan Drake (10 returns, 192 yards, long of 31) and wide receiver Tyron Johnson (eight for 156, long of 34) back and likely in the mix.

NFL: Washington Football Team at Las Vegas Raiders
Running back Kenyan Drake got snaps as a kick returner in 2021 and could be an option to assume the mantle this coming season.
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Of those two, Johnson is the faster player having run a 4.36 clocked 40-yard dash. Drake is no slouch, though, with 4.45 timed speed. Both players have flashed their get-away jets throughout their careers at their respective positions. And both are likely to get their shot at claiming the kick return gig this offseason over the course of organized team activities (OTAs) and mandatory training camp.

While the NFL’s rule changes on kickoffs, due in large part to player safety, has almost relegated the kick return-game moot — 61 percent of the kickoffs in 2021 resulted in touchbacks — having a player who can start the offense beyond the 25-yard line is always a plus.

The new running back by committee approach Raiders head coach and play caller Josh McDaniels is installing in Vegas plays well into Drake multi-tasking as a tailback and special teamer. While there will still be a lead back, the carries at halfback are going to be dispersed in manner where touches are aplenty for the active running backs on game days.

Flip to Johnson and the Raiders wide receiver room and it gets interesting. McDaniels isn’t known to deploy multiple wide receiver sets and on the surface, Davante Adams is locked in as the No. 1 wide out, Hunter Renfrow as the slot receiver and perhaps Keelan Cole as the other outside receiver filling out the 1-2-3 spots.

Many coaches and players have said, the best way to ensure you’re on the 53-man roster and active on gamedays is to standout on special teams and this is where Johnson can use his speed to make an impact as a return man or gunner.

Los Angeles Chargers v Las Vegas Raiders
Wide receiver Tyron Johnson also returned kicks for the Raiders last season. He’s also an option to do the same this coming year.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Outside of Drake and Johnson, another intriguing option is undrafted free agent Justin Hall. Matt Holder did an excellent job laying out how the Ball State product can make an impact on offense due to his YAC mastery, but that same vision and explosion can serve equally as well as kick returner.

Hall fielded 11 kickoffs this past season for Ball State and returned them for 380 yards (a smooth 34.5 yards average per return) and even housed one of the returns for six. He also fielded 10 punts and returned them for 120 yards (a 12 yard average). If the 5-foot-9, 186-pounder can catch the eyes of both McDaniels and Raiders special teams boss Tom McMahon, that’ll increase Hall’s chances of sticking in Silver & Black.