Patriots: The Return Game

The New England Patriots continue to shake things up on a roster filled with experience and future talent. The potential upgrade to the special teams unit is surprisingly acute. With both Tim Dwight and Chad Morton poised to become contributors, what does that mean for the players already on the roster?

The Return Game
By Staff

The Patriots have spent much off the offseason adding depth to a solid roster and continued that practice last week when they agreed to terms with return specialist and running back Chad Morton to a one-year deal worth up to $1.2 million.

Morton, 28, was recently released by the Redskins and will compete for a roster spot as a special teamer and possibly a backup runner.

His performance in Washington never reached the heights it did when he was a game-breaking kickoff returner for the Jets in 2002, a year in which he averaged 26 yards per return on 58 attempts with two touchdowns. In two years with Washington, Morton averaged 23.4 yards per kickoff return and had one touchdown. An injury limited him to just 16 returns last year.

He also can return punts and averaged 8.3 yards on 32 punt returns during his two seasons with the Redskins.

His addition to the Patriots roster makes for interesting competition in both the return game as well as at backup running back. Versatile running back Kevin Faulk, who also returns punts, is secure, but second-year man Cedric Cobbs, who did not return a kickoff in his rookie season, will have to show major improvement to retain his roster spot since he is essentially a one-dimensional backup.

Wideout Bethel Johnson, who missed the team's June mini-camp with a foot injury, is the team's primary kickoff returner and will likely retain that role, but Morton could fight for Patrick Pass' role as a backup runner and return man. Pass has returned 34 kicks in his career with a long of only 36 yards and was the team's primary fullback in 2004 - a position that could be assumed by a number of different players including tight ends Benjamin Watson and Daniel Graham, meaning Pass could also be expendable in favor of Morton.

Morton would have to outperform Faulk, Troy Brown and Tim Dwight to assume the Patriots punt return job, an area that grossly under-performed last year. New England averaged just 5.8 yards per punt return in 2004 with Brown averaging a career worst 6.9 yards per attempt and Faulk averaging just 6.7 yards.

Dwight does not want to return kickoffs but will compete as a punt returner and receiver. The Pats are deep at receiver with as many as seven players competing for probably five or six jobs. Dwight could be the odd man out since his performance as a receiver would have be enough to overcome the potential that Johnson and P.K. Sam both have as receivers, and his return efforts would have to be too much to pass up, which is hard to imagine given the presence of Brown, Faulk and now Morton.

PI Note: The message boards have been abuzz with talk of this year being Bethel Johnson's last shot at sticking around. If Johnson can show the glimpses of brilliance like he did against the Cleveland Browns last season in the return game and the Seattle Seahawks as a deep threat, then he'll be around a little longer. Much of the discussion in the forums tends to side against Johnson's chances to make the cut. With P.K. Sam stepping up his game, along with the addition of two more returners, Johnsons' days appear to be limited.


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