Had Williams not fumbled two separate punt returns, perhaps we are talking about a miraculous turnaround by the Super Bowl champion Niners. But that, unfortunately, is not the case.
In order to win in the NFL, the special-teams unit must deliver. The kick returners, punters, tacklers and kickers must all be able to efficiently complete their respective jobs.
The Carolina Panthers, however, didn’t have anything that even resembled an effective special-teams unit in 2011.
According to FootballOutsiders.com, Carolina’s special teams ranked last in the NFL in overall efficiency. The punt returners averaged just 5.5 yards per return (30th) and the kickoff returners combined for an average of 23.7 yards per runback (16th).
Carolina’s kicking game was also disappointing. Olindo Mare converted just 22 of his 28 field-goal attempts. Mare was 6-of-9 on field goals ranging from 30-39 yards and 0-of-2 on kicks of 50 or more yards.
Punter Jason Baker was even more ineffective than Mare. He ranked 29th in average yards per punt, 32nd in net and 27th in punts kicked inside the 20. Baker has since been let go by the team.
So how should the Panthers look to address their special teams in the 2012 NFL Draft?
Here are a few names that could surface come late April.
Ryan Broyles, WR, Oklahoma
Oklahoma’s Ryan Broyles is probably the most intriguing prospect on this list. The 5’10”, 188-pound Sooner consistently proved his worth as both a wide receiver and punt returner.
It’s pretty difficult to argue that Broyles isn’t the most efficient receiver in this draft class. Here are his numbers from his sophomore, junior and senior seasons:
2011: 83 receptions, 1,157 yards, 10 touchdowns;
2010: 131 receptions, 1,622 yards, 14 touchdowns;
2009: 89 receptions, 1,120 yards, 15 touchdowns.
Broyles has great speed, runs precise routes and has reliable hands.
As a punt returner, the Oklahoma product has averaged 11.2 yards and scored two touchdowns in his 89 career returns. Given his size and his speed as well as his effectiveness as a receiver and punt returner, it’s hard not to compare Broyles’ game to that of Wes Welker‘s.
Broyles is projected to go in rounds three to five. I’m sure the front office would have no problem picking up Broyles, a weapon for special teams and for quarterback Cam Newton, in the fourth or fifth.
Jayron Hosley, CB-PR, Virginia Tech
It’s no secret the Panthers also will be looking to add to their secondary through the NFL draft. Hosley, if available, could kill two birds with one stone.
I’ll start with Hosley’s return abilities. Last season a Virginia Tech, Hosley ranked third in the nation in yards per punt return, averaging 16.9. He didn’t return a punt for a touchdown, but his 4.47 time in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine proves he has that kind of game-breaking potential.
Not only is Hosley one of the special team prospects in the draft, but he is also one of the top corners on the board. Hosley racked up 59 tackles, three interceptions and two forced fumbles, and broke up 12 passes.
In order to grab Hosley, the Panthers must do so in the second round. Unless the front office acquires a third-round pick prior to the second day of the draft, there’s little hope that Hosley would last into the fourth round.
Joe Adams, WR-PR, Arkansas
If Carolina is looking to add a punt returner, Arkansas’ Joe Adams would be a great option. Just as with Hosley, Adams is also effective at his primary position.
As a wide receiver in 2011, Adams had 54 catches for 652 yards and three touchdowns. He had 50 catches for 813 yards and six touchdowns in 2010, and 29 catches for 568 yards and seven touchdowns in 2009.
As a punt returner, Adams is known for one very big play. His punt return for a touchdown against Tennessee last season was nothing short of amazing. He seemed to shake off the entire Volunteers’ punt team en route to the end zone.
Adams led the nation with four punt returns for touchdowns and was tied with Hosley for the third-highest average per return.
The Razorback projects as a third- to fourth-round selection. The Panthers may be able to grab him in the fourth, or perhaps the fifth if they’re lucky.
Adams would provide a dynamic special teams’ presence and a relatively solid target for Newton.
Bryan Anger, P, California
After releasing Jason Baker after seven seasons in Charlotte, it seems likely the Panthers will be investing a sixth- or seventh-round selection in a punter. It may not be a popular choice, but the team currently has no punters on the roster.
One of the nation’s best punters last season was the California’s Bryan Anger. Regarded as the draft’s top prospect at the position, Anger is a strong candidate to replace Baker.
Anger averaged 44.3 yards per punt. Eighteen of those were 50 or more yards. He also pinned 19 punts inside the 20-yard line.
Shawn Powell, P, Florida State
Powell led the nation with an average of 47.0 yards per punt attempt in 2011.
Kyle Martens, P, Rice
Martens averaged 43.6 yards per punt last season. He had four punts of 60 or more yards and pinned 20 kicks inside the 20.
Josh Robinson, CB-PR, Central Florida (second- to third-round projection)
Marquis Maze, WR-PR, Alabama (fifth- to sixth-round projection)
Risard Matthews, WR-PR, Nevada (sixth- to seventh-round projection)