When Marc Mariani basically had his leg snapped like a twig against the Arizona Cardinals back in August, many thought it spelled doom for the return game. I'll admit that I had grown rather fond of #83 bringing out kicks for the team as well, despite his sometimes too conservative approach to the return game.
Enter journeyman Darius Reynaud. As a senior at Hahnville High School in Boutte, Louisianna, Reynaud obviously excelled at football. Despite showing incredible production against top high school competition and elite athleticism, only received offers from Indiana and West Virginia, choosing to play for the latter. If you're like me and consider yourself a casual college football, you know that West Virginia was an absolute hotbed of freakishly explosive athletes in the mid-late 2000's. Chris Henry, Pat White, Steve Slaton, Noel Devine, and more recently, Geno Smith and Tavon Austin have earned the school a reputation for producing playmakers. Reynaud made a name for himself here, finishing in the top five in school history in receptions and receiving touchdowns. On draft day, he was largely ignored again, despite being named to the All-Conference team twice and putting up impressive numbers at the combine. He signed onto the practice squad with the Minnesota Vikings where he was converted to running back. There he languished for two seasons until he was then shipped to New York with Sage Rosenfels and cut on September 3, 2011. That's where the Titans come in. He was signed on January 7, 2012, just months after being cut by the defending world champions.
Flash forward a few months. Even though we're only five games into 2012, the Titans have improved dramatically on the 23.4 average kick return yardage from 2011, good for 19th in the league, to 28.1 yards per return, good for sixth in football and ahead of star return men like Devin Hester, Randall Cobb, and Joe McKnight. In fact, Reynaud leads all of football in total yards from kickoffs (by a yard, but still). Granted, 105 of his 617 yards came on one play that was blocked basically to perfection (immortalized forever by Taylor Thompson's crushing block on some foolish mortal who attempted to lay a hit on him), but the point stands, Darius Reynaud is getting things done and had been a bright spot for a team that has played pretty terrible football so far. In fact, Reynaud is posting a higher average than Mariani did in his magical rookie season when he was elected to the Pro Bowl.
I don't know how much of this is sustainable given that a lot of his eye-poppingly good production seems to have come from that aforementioned 105 yard return against the Lions, but so far, the Titans haven't missed Mariani at all. This begs the question "just how important is the return man in today's NFL, especially with the kickoff being phased out more and more?" My theory is the same as it's ever been: players who are only kick returners are not worth a roster spot. In Reynaud, we have a guy who hasn't been able to stick with any NFL team he's ever played for. Yes, part of this could be oversight on the part of those teams, but it could also be that compared to other NFL players, Darius Reynaud is not a standout. He is still better at football than you or I will probably ever be at anything, but among his peers, he's no great shakes. Yet still, he is dominating many statistical categories among return men.
My preferred direction would be to find a player whose value isn't entirely tied to their ability to return kicks like Mariani (we can argue all day about whether or not he'll ever be a receiver) and Reynaud. An ideal situation would be like the one that the Saints have with their return ace also being a solid piece of their offense in Darren Sproles. Sproles was quietly one of the most productive and efficient players in the NFL last year because of his effectiveness in the run, pass, and return game. Now, of course there isn't just a Darren Sproles copy lying around somewhere, but I'd even settle for a Randall Cobb type who at least contributes something to another facet of the game.
For now, it may seem as though quibbling over a single roster spot (except Quinn Johnson's) is petty, but this is the NFL, good teams are good not only because they have elite players but also in part because they have guys on the bench who serve numerous roles on the team and are extremely versatile, maximizing the number of talents on the the team is the name of the game, and reserving a roster spot for someone who can only take kicks back, especially when we see how easy it is to replace a player like that.