With the addition of Kendall Wright, there was some speculation that he could possibly contribute in the return game. We've seen the importance of returns dwindle in the last year as the NFL instituted rule changes, but I would be interested to see what Wright can do back there. Regardless, this post isn't about advocating for Kendall Wright to be the primary return man; it's to delve into the debate about using a roster spot on a kick returner who doesn't contribute elsewhere.
Let's first start with Mariani's numbers, and split it up into kick returns and punt returns.
2010: 60 returns, 1530 yards, 25.5 Y/R (yards per return), 1 TD.
2011: 32 returns, 748 yards, 23.4 Y/R, 0 TD.
2010: 27 returns, 329 yards, 12.2 Y/R, 1 TD.
2011: 46 returns, 490 yards, 10.7 Y/R, 1 TD.
I wasn't all that interested in the 2010 numbers, but wanted to show them because they indicate the lessening importance of the return game, specifically kick offs. Mariani's numbers were basically cut in half because of the rule changes. I was surprised to see his punt return numbers actually increase this year.
Now I wanted to look and see how his numbers stacked up against the rest of the league. Mariani returned on average 2 kickoffs per game, for a total of 46.8 yards. In order to compare him against the rest of the league, I set the qualifying requirement of returning at least 16 kicks in 16 games. Mariani placed 27th out of 36 returners when sorted by yards per return. Even if you raise the bar to say 18 returns, Mariani would still finish 21st out of 29. He is below average amongst his fellow returners.
Unfortunately, there were so many numbers that I couldn't calculate a weighted average on my calculator. If we were to replace Mariani with even the 18th returner (currently Josh Cribbs), we would gain on average 3.18 yards per game from kickoffs (assuming we continue Mariani's pace of 2 returns per game). The difference between Percy Harvin, the leader on that chart, and Mariani, is an average of 17.24 yards per game. These numbers tell us two things. If we replace Mariani with an average returner, our return game will either stay the same or slightly improve. If we find a great return man, we would receive a substantial boost in the return game. From this data, it seems that Mariani should not be kept solely as a return man.
Now we'll do the same comparison for punt returns. Mariani saw an increased role this year as the punt returner, and his results were quite good. He seems to excel at this spot. He returned an average of 2.875 punts per game for an average of 10.7 yards. That average was good enough to push him over the midway point on the list, as he finished 12th out of 29 returners. The middle men on the list though have averages only slightly less that Mariani's, with Darren Sproles and Lardarius Webb finishing with 10.14 and 10.03 Y/P, respectively. If we replaced Mariani with an average punt returner, it's likely our punt return game would only drop off slightly.
So what does this sum up to? Assuming we don't replace Mariani with someone completely incompetent (I'm looking at you Ryan Mouton), it's likely we could replace Mariani and not see a drastic change positively or negatively in the return game. So I ask you, is it worth it to use a roster spot on a player like Mariani? I'd rather we find someone that can do more than just return duty.