A recent signing indicates that the team’s kick and punt returner spots may not be as set as they seemed.
Normally, the signing of a running back whose only rushed for 183 yards on 44 attempts would mean basically nothing to a team’s followers. But the case of Taiwan Jones, who was signed recently, could be something a little different.
Jones is technically a running back, but has made his mark on special teams as a returner for the Oakland Raiders, and even played some snaps at defensive back. Obviously, there’s versatility there, which Sean McDermott seems to crave the most out of any player.
But considering the Bills are pretty set at DB and running back, it looks like Jones’ best bet to crack the 53-man roster is on special teams. That’s where it gets interesting.
The expectation is that wide receiver Brandon Tate will be the guy returning punts and kick-offs for the Buffalo Bills in 2017. That was his role last year, and he was very good at it. So it’s natural to be suspicious about tinkering with a position that worked so well for the team last year.
But Jones might prove to be an even better quantity in that regard. The Bills PR section noted that he led the AFC in kick return yards in 2015. While that was two years ago, it shows there’s potential for Buffalo to get even better in a critical special teams role.
Sean McDermott seems to view him the same way; WKBW’s Joe Buscaglia noted Jones was working in a very specific area on Thursday’s training camp:
"The Bills worked him into the kick return rotation immediately on Thursday, not even a full day after signing him to a contract."
To be fair, Buscaglia also explained that Jones might be getting a look as a pass-catching running back too:
"Jones will have to make the team as a special teams player, but he should be thought of as a direct threat to the longevity of Cedric O’Neal, Joe Banyard, and Jordan Johnson past training camp. That trio really hasn’t done anything to stand out, which creates a void for someone who can offer some versatility, and maybe even some chops in pass catching if they ever need him on offense."
Jones might be used in an offensive capacity, but special teams are where he will make his mark. Which is what brings us to the kick returner battle.
Currently, the Buffalo Bills have Jones, Brandon Tate, Walt Powell and Rashad Ross all returning kicks for the team. Tate has the advantage due to his incumbent status, and while Ross and Powell haven’t made much noise there (quite frankly, Powell’s best bet is to make the team as a receiver with the ability to play kick-off coverage).
Thus, the returner battle will probably come down to Brandon Tate versus Taiwan Jones. With that comparison set up, it’s time to question who would be better at the role.
With Tate, we can go off of his statistics last year, where he was fifth in the league in punt return average (11.6 yards) and ranked seven in kick return average (22.8 yards). Meanwhile, Jones performed well in that role in 2015 but was supplanted by rookie Jalen Richard in 2016. What few times Taiwan did return kicks, he had eight attempts for 112 yards. That averages out to about 14 yards per attempt.
So technically, Jones was better at kick-off returns than Tate last year, but the sample size was very limited for the former. In 2015, Jones returned 31 kicks for 829 yards, an average of 26.7 yards per attempt. A bigger sample size, which indicates he still has a lot to offer on special teams.
One big difference between Jones and Tate? Jones doesn’t return punts, while Tate does. Given how much McDermott craves versatility, that could make the difference here. While Jones may be a tad better at returning kicks that Tate, having to get another person to cover punts would be a waste of a roster spot.
In a way, it comes to mind how the Bills employed kick-off specialist Jordan Gay to do a job that former kicker Dan Carpenter couldn’t do. It was a ridiculous arrangement, and obviously, one that ended as soon as common sense entered One Bills Drive. Doing it again for a different position would be a head scratcher.
Simply put, if Taiwan Jones want to make the team, he might need to display some more of the “versatility” that Sean McDermott wants out of his players.
Who do YOU think will return kicks and punts for the Buffalo Bills this off-season? Leave your comments below!