Several Tennessee Titans players and members of the coaching staff met with the media on Thursday ahead of Sunday’s critical divisional showdown against the Indianapolis Colts. One of the more intriguing talking points emerged when special teams coordinator Craig Aukerman admitted that rookie receiver Kyle Philips may receive another opportunity to return punts for the Titans. Let’s examine the possibility.
#Titans' Aukerman: I think there is still an opportunity for Kyle Philips to return to PR duties. We'll see when that comes.— John Glennon (@glennonsports) October 20, 2022
Philips has been physically hampered since suffering a shoulder injury in Tennessee’s Week 1 defeat to the New York Giants. Philips logged 18 offensive snaps against the Washington Commanders in Week 5. He’s currently not carrying any injury designation on the practice report. A return to a full workload against the Colts may be on the horizon. That may extend to punt returns, per Aukerman.
Philips initially won the punt return job through impressive showings in the role throughout training camp and the preseason. During the regular season, Philips has returned five punts for a total of 62 yards (with an explosive long of 46 in Week 1). Philips’ average of 12.4 yards per punt return ranks third across the league (minimum five returns). The problem? Philips lost two fumbles across Tennessee’s first two contests and hasn’t been in the role since (with injury perhaps partially to blame, although lack of ball security no doubt played a bigger role).
The Titans have struggled to fill the role since Philips fumbled (literally) it away. Safety Amani Hooker received a short opportunity, but bobbled a return out of bounds. Starting wide receiver Robert Woods has since been in the role, but Woods has more fair catches (4) than actual returns (2). Woods was a list-ditch resort as a sure-handed option, and the Titans have likely instructed him to call for fair catches more frequently to avoid exposing their No. 1 receiver to injury. Keeping Woods healthy became even more important once rookie first-round pass-catcher Treylon Burks went on IR.
Sophomore receiver Racey McMath could eventually provide the Titans with an alternative option in the return game, but McMath remains on IR with a hip injury. McMath is still several weeks away from opening his practice window and returning. Practice squad receiver Mason Kinsey returned three punts for 35 yards (a solid 11.7 yards per return) in Tennessee’s preseason finale, but Kinsey has yet to receive a call-up to the game day roster.
Rookie running back Hassan Haskins has impressed on kickoff duties (seven attempts for 174 yards, 24.9 yards per return), but the jobs are different altogether, and Haskins has yet to receive an opportunity on punts. Nothing tangible indicates that will change anytime soon. Haskins didn’t return punts collegiately at Michigan.
The Titans have an intriguing decision to make. Philips is easily their most explosive returner, but it means little if careless ball security continues to be a part of his evaluation. Woods provides a steadying presence, but has been miscast into the role out of sheer desperation. None of the alternative options seem particularly appetizing. The best case scenario includes Philips improving his ball security and returning to the job.