Training Camp Battle Preview: Kick Returner

In 2005, Darren Sproles electrified Chargers fans with his big plays on special teams, finishing with six kickoff returns of 40-plus yards. In 2006, Sproles was injured in the preseason and replaced by Michael Turner, who went on to finish No. 4 in the league with an average of 26.5 yards per return. Now, both are healthy and ready to compete for a starting assignment.

Darren Sproles is the personification of every cliché about quickness. He is quicker than a hiccup; he can stop on a dime; and he can take it to the house faster than you can say "touchdown."

Not only is Sproles fast, but his 5-foot-6, 181-lb. body is compactly built. That makes him difficult to knock him off balance, and even more challenging to locate for would-be tacklers.

"As long as I'm on the field, I'm happy. That's how I see it," Sproles said.

Michael Turner (5 foot 10, 237 lbs.) has a completely different style but gets similarly positive results. He is a bruising, north-and-south type who runs decisively and punishes any tacklers that get in his way.

Turner is steadier than Sproles and does a better job protecting the football. However, he is unlikely to outrace the entire coverage team on his way to the end zone.

"I will probably be on the field more on offense than last year," Turner said. "Special teams is still my focus. If you want to contribute, you play special teams."

Turner and Sproles are both excellent return men, so other factors will be considered before deciding who puts his heels on the goal line for the opening kickoff. One issue is money, especially after Turner was given the highest possible tender this offseason before signing a one-year deal for approximately $2.4 million. After giving Turner a hefty raise, the Chargers may be reluctant to rid him of one of his primary responsibilities.

Another aspect of the decision-making process will be Sproles ability to win the punt returner job. Sproles struggled to field punts cleanly in 2005 and -- although he looked better in last year's training camp -- has yet to prove his progress in a game situation.

If Sproles can make the same impact returning punts as he does returning kickoffs, the Chargers will keep him as a return specialist and allow Turner to focus on his offensive duties. However, if Sproles does not distinguish himself as the top option for returning punts, the team will cut him and allow Turner to return kickoffs, with first-round pick Craig Davis fielding punts.


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