Devin Hester is making a strong argument that he should be considered among the best — if not the best — return specialists in NFL history, having returned more kickoffs and punts for touchdowns (18) … and he's not done, having just turned 29 years old in November.
Whether he is viewed as the best of all time is a matter of debate. What also is suddenly a matter of legitimate debate is whether he is even the best return specialist currently playing in the NFL.
Patrick Peterson, the rookie cornerback chosen with the fifth pick in the 2011 NFL Draft by the Arizona Cardinals — who host the Dallas Cowboys Sunday afternoon — has forced his name into the conversation by tying an NFL record with four punt returns for touchdowns … in just 11 games.
Peterson is big (6 feet, 219 pounds) and exceptionally fast (he clocked a 4.34 in the 40-yard dash on the notoriously slow track at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis). But according to former LSU teammate and current Dallas safety/special teamer Danny McCray, sheer size and foot speed are not the only reasons Peterson has enjoyed so much early success.
"The main thing with him is his strength," McCray said. "He's a big corner — last time I checked he was 215, 216 pounds. He can run right through a lot of tackles."
But McCray admitted that for all of his strength, Peterson's raw speed also sets him apart.
"He still has that 4.3 speed," McCray said. "When he catches the ball, he's really hard to stop. You know everybody else (on opposing coverage teams) is fast … and he's just leaving them."
At LSU, Peterson didn't return many kicks, because the Tigers had one of the top return specialists in the country in lightning-fast Trindon Holliday. As fast as Peterson is, McCray begrudgingly admitted that Holliday — a former Southeastern Conference sprint champion who finished second at the NCAA Track and Field Championship to eventual Olympic sprinter Walter Dix, despite running an absurd 10.02 in the 100-meter dash — was a step (a small step) faster than Peterson. But McCray quickly said Peterson is the better return specialist.
"Trindon was a little faster, I guess — he ran the anchor leg on our (LSU's) sprint relay team," McCray said. "But the difference in speed isn't enormous, and Patrick is so strong."
Sunday's game will mark the first time McCray, the Cowboys' leading tackler on special teams, will play against Peterson. Because of Holliday's presence in Baton Rouge, they barely even went against each other in practice. The two remain close friends, having met for the first time when McCray hosted Peterson on his recruiting visit to LSU.
"Patrick was a very confident person then, and he still is now," McCray said. "He knew then that he wanted to be a great player, and that's what he became. He was the best DB in the country (in 2010).
"I'm not surprised at all (at Peterson's early NFL success). I tell the players here that I have seen him do amazing things on special teams and on defense. I saw him one time (in practice) go up and grab a fade (route) away from (former LSU and current Carolina Panthers wide receiver) Brandon LaFell with one hand, and he made it look so easy. Nothing he does surprises me. He's good an athlete as there is in the NFL, and he's becoming one of the best players … fast."
McCray said he and Peterson have talked as recently as Tuesday.
"I told him, ‘I'm doing all of these interviews this week, but they're not about (the Cowboys) — it's all about you and how we're going to stop you,'" McCray said. "It's not about me stopping him. We have to stop him as a team, and do what (Dallas special teams coach Joe DeCamillis tells us to do. If we do our assignments the way we're supposed to, we'll be OK."
McCray said his friendship with Peterson will not affect the way he approaches the game, or his willingness to dish out a big hit, if the opportunity arises.
"To me, (the chance to tackle Peterson) is the most exciting part of it," McCray said. "Maybe when we visit in the offseason, that will be a story to tell — ‘you didn't score on us.' But it works like this: once we step between those lines, for that three-and-a-half hours, the friendship stops."
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