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Raiders preview 2023: Will return game get going in new NFL world?

Kick and punt returns need spark, but perhaps rule change dampens impact

Washington Football Team v Las Vegas Raiders
Veteran wide receiver DeAndre Carter (1), seen here returning a punt against the Las Vegas Raiders in 2021, is a prime candidate for kick and punt return duties in Las Vegas this coming season.
Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images

The Silver & Black boasts a set of electrifying return men in its storied history. Names like Tim Brown, George Atkinson, Jacoby Ford, Claude “Hoot” Gibson, and Johnnie Lee Higgins torched opponents in the return game.

But most recently, the Las Vegas Raiders special teams unit is more renowned for the exploits of the place kicker and punter in Daniel Carlson and AJ Cole III, respectively. The duo have the kicking game on lock and arguably the best 1-2 punch at the two position groups in the league.

However, it’s diminishing returns for both kickoff and punt return action for the Silver & Black. Not since Ford (2010-2013), Higgins (2007-2010), and Philip Buchanon (2002-2004) have the Raiders fielded feared return men. Ford was the kick return blazer, Higgins and Buchanon the home-run punt return threats. While touchdowns are certainly nice from return men, positive field position is equally valuable and that’s been hit and miss for the Silver & Black as of late.

Heading into 2023, however, the Raiders aren’t short on competition. A slew of veterans along with a pure-speed rookie that bring optimism to the unit.

The Competition:

  • Ameer Abdullah: Running back, 5-9, 203, 30, nine-year veteran
  • DeAndre Carter: Wide receiver, 5-foot-8, 188 pounds, 30 years old, six-year veteran
  • Hunter Renfrow: Wide receiver, 5-10, 185, 27, five-year veteran
  • Keelan Cole Sr.: Wide receiver, 6-1, 194, 30, seven-year veteran
  • DJ Turner: Wide receiver, 5-9, 205, 26, two-year veteran
  • Tre Tucker: Wide receiver, 5-9, 185, 22, rookie
NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Las Vegas Raiders
Veteran running back Ameer Abdullah served as the Las Vegas Raiders primary kickoff return man last season. He could land the same role this coming year, albeit with more competition.
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Of that group above, its Abdullah who has the most experience returning kickoffs. With 142 returns under his belt (for 3,487 yards, but zero touchdowns), the veteran tailback is a kick returner dating back to his rookie season in 2015 with the Detroit Lions. He fielded 26 kickoffs this past season for Las Vegas for 543 yards and zero scores. The longest return of his career was a 104-yarder in his rookie season (how that wasn’t a touchdown is shocking) and his longest last season as the Raiders prime kickoff return man was 33 yards.

Carter is the second-most experienced kickoff returner in that group with 107 for 2,382 yards and one touchdown. That lone score came in 2021 with the Washington Commanders (also Carter’s best season fielding kickoffs as he had 36 for 904 yards and a robust 25.1 yards average per return). The veteran wideout had 26 returns for 497 yards in 2022 with the Los Angeles Chargers.

Then there’s 2023 NFL Draft third-round pick Tucker. The 100th overall selection (the pick the Raiders got in the trade that sent tight end Darren Waller to the New York Giants) provided electricity as Cincinnati’s kickoff returner with 67 returns for 1,670 yards and two touchdowns during his four-year stint with the Bearcats.

Expect that trio to mix it up good for the primary duties for the Raiders this coming season. Tucker provides a different element with his 4.37-timed speed than his veteran counterparts, but is a neophyte to the pro game. Cole and Turner are the other two who have experience returning kicks, but have done so sparingly in their respective, careers.

That all said, the league’s rule change to place the ball at the 25-yard line following fair catches on kickoffs may diminish the kick return game altogether. That rule is in place for only one year with the NFL citing “player safety” as the reason for the change.

There’s no such rule change for punt returns, however.

Carter and Renfrow lead the charge there as the most experienced punt returners. The former has 108 career punt returns under his belt for 1,062 yards and no scores (long of 42), while the latter fielded 70 punts for 680 yards and no scores (long of 41). Carter had more returns in 2022 (29 for 339 and a long of 28 yards) with the Chargers while Renfrow’s opportunities were limited (11 returns, 74 yards, long of 17) due to injury.

Expect a healthy Renfrow to get a shot, along with Carter and potentially Tucker. Cole and Tucker are likely to be in the mix too as they fielded punts last season.

Best Option(s): Carter, Abdullah, and Tucker returning kickoffs. Renfrow, Carter, Tucker, fielding punts. Steeped in the New England Patriots way, Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler aren’t going to shy away from putting the best players in the return game — no matter how valuable they are on offense or defense. Thus, having Carter, Abdullah and Tucker compete for primary kick return duties will result in the best player landing the gig. Ditto for letting Renfrow, Carter, Tucker, and any other player duking it out for punt return duties.