The value, or lack of value, that the returner brings12 min read
#NFLBeast #NFL #NFLTwitter #NFLUpdate #NFLNews #NFLBlogs
#Denver #Broncos #DenverBroncos #AFC #MileHighReport
By: Joe Mahoney
In the end you want the return guy to “do no harm” to the team
Montrell Washington was drafted in the 5th round of 2022 by the Denver Broncos to fill a hole on the roster that arguably didn’t need to filled, return specialist.
While he showed in college that he had some ability as a WR to catch the ball and as a runner on jet sweeps, he was rarely used as such by the Broncos as a rookie. He had 9 offensive touches in 2022 that gained 32 yards (19 came on one play in week 2) on 78 offensive snaps. He also touched the ball 69 times as a returner, 18 on kickoffs and 51 on punts (32 returned and 19 fair catches). In don’t know how often he caught kickoffs in the endzone for touchbacks.
Expected points (EP) is a way of calculating how much value a change in field position adds. This is done by looking at the chance of scoring a TD on a play from that spot on the field on a given down using all historic plays from that spot on that down. EPB is expected points before the play at that spot and EPA is expected points after (essentially looking at the new spot). Expected points fails to account for possible yards gained or lost such as when a returner decides to field a punt that most likely would have gone for a touchback. Expected points can’t be used on kickoffs, because they don’t have a down (you can’t treat them as 4th down because the chances of the kicking team retaining the ball are miniscule compared to a normal 4th down play and the chances of the kicking team actually scoring are about as good as winning the PowerBall).
EP is great for figuring out the value of a given play other than a kickoff. On Montrell Washington’s five runs this season, the net difference in EP on all five runs was 0.77. That means that he gained about one point for the team by his runs. His 19 yard run against the Texans which moved the ball from the Denver 46 to the Houston 35, gained 1.32 EP (EPA of 3.31, EPB of 1.99). For comparison, his one yard run from the Carolina 7 on 2nd and 3 actually cost the Broncos 0.55 EP (EPB 5.28, EPA 4.73). That means the chances of scoring a TD from the 7 on 2nd down are better than the chances of scoring a TD from the 6 on 3rd down.
On Washington’s four catches the Broncos lost EP (average was -0.46). On his five targets that he didn’t catch, the team lost an average of 0.81 EP. That means that even though those five passes were incomplete, the chances on scoring on the next play (because it would be the next down) decreased.
Let’s move back to his “value” as a punt returner. EP for returners is all about field position because return TDs are so rare now (3 TDs on 951 PRs, 6 TDs on 1013 KORs). Washington’s 32 punt returns gained the team a total of 14.9 EP, although some of this is due to his fumbles – three of which were on returns (two recovered by DEN) and two of which were on scrimmage plays. That muffed punt that was recovered by the Chargers was a huge negative EP play for the Broncos.
In terms of fumbles Washington and Gordon tied for the team lead with five, although Gordon had 115 touches to Washington’s 78. Unlike Gordon, only one of Washington’s fumbles/muffs was recovered by the other team. The Broncos had 26 fumbles in 2022 and ten of them were from two guys who didn’t play QB. On most teams the QB is going to be the guy who leads the team in fumbles, mainly because of stripsacks. Russell Wilson had six fumbles in 2022, but he touched ball on almost every play from scrimmage for Denver while Gordon and Washington combined to touch the ball less than 200 times.
Fumbles (and turnovers in general) are probably the fastest way to lose games in the modern NFL. Turnovers are happening with less and less frequency each year and that makes every turnover all the more painful for the team that just gave the ball away.
I’m guessing that Sean Payton was none too happy about a return guy, in Washington, who has a problem holding onto the ball, who makes questionable decisions and who rarely has long returns. This may have been the main reason that the Broncos just signed Tremon Smith. Sean Payton is a smart man and he understands EP. So my guess is he took one look at the numbers that I looked at last night, spat some choice expletives and decided right then and there that Broncos needed an upgrade at returner.
As a punt returner, Washington’s best play by EP was his 30-yd (longest of his career) return in October vs the Raiders. AJ Cole punted the ball 62 yards from the Raider 2, Montrell fielded the ball at the Bronco 36 and returned it 30 yards to the Raider 34. The EP for the Raiders at the point on the field (their own 2) on 4th down was -2.49. The EP for the Broncos after was 3.31 The difference between the two values is +5.80, meaning that one play was worth close to six expected points because of the change in field position.
Washington’s worst punt return was the fumble/muff on a punt from JK Scott from the Charger 20 which was muffed and then recovered by the Chargers at the Denver 28. The Chargers EP from the Denver 20 on 4th down was -2.03 (meaning it’s more common for the defense to score on a play where the offense goes for it on 4th down from their own 20 than it is for the offense to score a TD). The Charger EP after the play was 3.71, so the net was +5.74 for the Chargers.
The net result is that the expected points gained by Washington’s best punt return were essentially negated by his worst play on a punt return. Another way to look at this is to say that Washington’s other 30 punt returns gained about 15 EP for the team, or 0.5 EP/PR. If we compare that to a good punt returner, it can be informative.
Avery Williams had the best punt return average among PR guys in 2022 at 16.21 yards per return. Williams only returned 18 punts, but 14 of those went for 10 yards or more. His 18 punt returns gained 50.7 EP for the Falcons. So he got 2.8 EP/PR compared to Washington’s 0.5.
As a kickoff returner the best way to analyze how Montrell Washington did was to look at how often he decided to return kickoffs that were fielded inside the endzone and how well he did on kickoffs that he had to return. I distinctly remember that opposing teams recognized quickly just how bad Trell was as a KO returner and they were purposefully kicking the ball short of the endzone to FORCE HIM to return the ball. This was most apparent in the game against the Ravens. Justin Tucker has one of the strongest legs in the NFL, but he was purposefully kicking the ball so that it would land short of the endzone.
So let’s look at Washington’s 19 kickoff returns, to see where he caught the ball and where the Broncos started their drive after he returned one.
|Location||Detail||KO fielded at|
|CLT 30||Chase McLaughlin kicks off 77 yards, returned by Montrell Washington for 20 yards. Montrell Washington fumbles (forced by Dallis Flowers), recovered by Montrell Washington at DEN-13 (tackle by Dallis Flowers)||-7|
|SEA 35||Jason Myers kicks off 68 yards, returned by Montrell Washington for 14 yards (tackle by Tanner Muse)||-3|
|RAI 35||Daniel Carlson kicks off 65 yards, recovered by Montrell Washington in end zone returned by Montrell Washington for 13 yards (tackle by DJ Turner and Luke Masterson)||0|
|SFO 20||Mitch Wishnowsky kicks off 65 yards, returned by Montrell Washington for 14 yards (tackle by George Odum and Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles). Penalty on Justin Strnad: Offensive Holding, 10 yards (accepted)||0|
|JAX 35||Riley Patterson kicks off 65 yards, returned by Montrell Washington for 20 yards (tackle by Chad Muma)||0|
|SEA 35||Jason Myers kicks off 65 yards, returned by Montrell Washington for 21 yards (tackle by Tanner Muse)||0|
|KAN 35||Harrison Butker kicks off 65 yards, returned by Montrell Washington for 29 yards (tackle by Nazeeh Johnson)||0|
|RAI 35||Daniel Carlson kicks off 64 yards, returned by Montrell Washington for 17 yards (tackle by Matthias Farley and Brandon Bolden)||1|
|HTX 35||Ka’imi Fairbairn kicks off 64 yards, returned by Montrell Washington for 17 yards (tackle by Dare Ogunbowale)||1|
|CRD 35||Matt Prater kicks off 64 yards, returned by Montrell Washington for 19 yards (tackle by Dennis Gardeck)||1|
|RAI 50||Daniel Carlson kicks off 47 yards, returned by Montrell Washington for 11 yards (tackle by Luke Masterson)||3|
|RAV 35||Justin Tucker kicks off 62 yards, returned by Montrell Washington for 15 yards (tackle by Kevon Seymour)||3|
|CAR 35||Eddy Pineiro kicks off 62 yards, returned by Montrell Washington for 25 yards (tackle by Damien Wilson and Sam Franklin)||3|
|SDG 35||JK Scott kicks off 62 yards, returned by Montrell Washington for 26 yards (tackle by Alohi Gilman and Troy Reeder)||3|
|SEA 35||Jason Myers kicks off 61 yards, returned by Montrell Washington for 16 yards (tackle by DeeJay Dallas)||4|
|RAM 50||Matt Gay kicks off 45 yards, returned by Montrell Washington for 29 yards (tackle by Lance McCutcheon)||5|
|RAV 35||Justin Tucker kicks off 59 yards, returned by Montrell Washington for 11 yards (tackle by Daryl Worley)||6|
He only chose to return two kickoffs that were caught in the endzone and one of those was in his first NFL game – so maybe he learned quickly how stupid it is to return those in the NFL. On his two kickoffs where he returned the ball from the Bronco endzone, the Broncos started their drives at the 13 and 11 yard lines, meaning that he cost the team 16 yards of field position by choosing to return those two. He had five kickoffs that landed at the goal line. The Broncos started their drives on those at the 13, 4 (holding penalty), 20, 21 and 29. Meaning that if you factor out the holding penalty, he cost the Broncos only three yards of field position by returning those (assuming that they would have gone for touchbacks had he left them hit the ground). Relative to a touchback he lost 7, and 6 yards then gained 0, 1 and 9 yards. The net is negative three.
Here are the starting field positions for the Broncos after Washington returned a kickoff: 4 (holding), 11, 13, 13, 14, 17, 18, 18, 18, 20, 20, 20, 21, 28, 29, 29, 34.
On his kickoff returns that he HAD TO return because they were purposefully kicked short, the Broncos started their drives at the 14, 17, 18, 18, 18, 20, 20, 28, 29, and 34. So the calculus from the opposing special teams coach was fairly simple – force Washington to return the ball and the Broncos are most likely going to start their drive inside their own 20. The Broncos only “won” the field position battle on three of those ten kickoffs.
For comparison, Tremon Smith also returned 19 kickoffs in 2022. Smith, who has mostly returned kickoffs during his career, has only 9 career punt returns. Smith only averaged 21.9 yds per KOR with a long of 32 (Washington averaged 18.9) in 2022, but he did have a 98 yard KOR in 2021 for a TD. On Smith’s 19 KORs in 2022, the Texans started their drives at the spots shown in the table below:
|Detail||fielded at||returned to|
|Jason Sanders kicks off 69 yards, returned by Tremon Smith for 14 yards (tackle by Justin Bethel and Clayton Fejedelem)||-4||10|
|Daniel Carlson kicks off 60 yards, returned by Tremon Smith for 11 yards (tackle by Ameer Abdullah)||5||16|
|Jason Sanders kicks off 68 yards, returned by Tremon Smith for 19 yards (tackle by Clayton Fejedelem and Jevon Holland)||-3||16|
|Chase McLaughlin kicks off 67 yards, returned by Tremon Smith for 19 yards (tackle by Cameron McGrone)||-2||17|
|Randy Bullock kicks off 66 yards, returned by Tremon Smith for 19 yards (tackle by Hassan Haskins)||-1||18|
|Daniel Carlson kicks off 70 yards, returned by Tremon Smith for 25 yards (tackle by Brandon Bolden and Darien Butler)||-5||20|
|Riley Patterson kicks off 67 yards, returned by Tremon Smith for 28 yards (tackle by Chad Muma)||-2||22|
|Riley Patterson kicks off 62 yards, returned by Tremon Smith for 20 yards (tackle by Andrew Wingard)||3||23|
|Daniel Carlson kicks off 60 yards, returned by Tremon Smith for 19 yards (tackle by Ameer Abdullah)||5||24|
|Cade York kicks off 62 yards, returned by Tremon Smith for 21 yards (tackle by Greedy Williams and A.J. Green)||3||24|
|Brandon McManus kicks off 63 yards, returned by Tremon Smith for 22 yards (tackle by Delarrin Turner-Yell)||2||24|
|Randy Bullock kicks off 60 yards, returned by Tremon Smith for 20 yards (tackle by Hassan Haskins)||5||25|
|Riley Patterson kicks off 64 yards, returned by Tremon Smith for 24 yards (tackle by Shaquille Quarterman and Daniel Thomas)||1||25|
|Daniel Carlson kicks off 62 yards, returned by Tremon Smith for 23 yards (tackle by Matthias Farley)||3||26|
|Riley Patterson kicks off 59 yards, returned by Tremon Smith for 20 yards (tackle by Caleb Johnson)||6||26|
|Dustin Hopkins kicks off 61 yards, returned by Tremon Smith for 24 yards (tackle by Nick Niemann and Dustin Hopkins)||4||28|
|Randy Bullock kicks off 63 yards, returned by Tremon Smith for 26 yards (tackle by Andrew Adams)||2||28|
|Riley Patterson kicks off 65 yards, returned by Tremon Smith for 31 yards (tackle by Chris Claybrooks)||0||31|
|Graham Gano kicks off 59 yards, returned by Tremon Smith for 32 yards (tackle by Julian Love and Gary Brightwell)||6||38|
Note that only five of 19 Texans drives started at worse than the 20 when Simon chose to return a kickoff, but similar to Washington, only two of their drives started at better than their own 30 (Trell got us one). So Simon didn’t break off any long KORs in 2022, similar to Washington, but he also had very few where he failed to progress the ball much farther than the 10.
The Broncos only returned 24 kickoffs in 2022: Washington had 18, Tyrie Cleveland and Eric Saubert both had 2 while Marlon Mack and Jalen Virgil each had one. Believe it or not, Cleveland was actually worse than Washington as a returner. His two returns went for 8 and 10 yards (both vs the Titans) and Denver started their two drives on those at the 28 (fielded at the 18 returned for 8) and 25 (fielded at the 15 returned for 10). Washington’s 29 yard KOR was the best by a Bronco in 2022. That was the worst “long return” by any team in the league. The next worst was the Dolphins who had a long KOR of 31. Literally half the league had a KOR of 50 or more.
As a kickoff returner I don’t know that Simon in 2023 will have more potential for a long returns than Washington would, but Simon does have two really long KORs during his NFL career (the 98 yd TD in 2021 and a 97 yard one as a rookie for the Chiefs that did not end in a TD). The Texans best KOR in 2022 came from Demond King who returned exactly one kickoff (for 50 yards). What I do know is that Simon currently does not have the problem holding onto the ball that Washington had as a rookie. Simon has 103 returns in his NFL career and hasn’t muffed or fumbled one since 2019 (he has three muff/fumbles in his career). It is interesting to note that Simon had to learn to take care of the ball on his returns. He fumbled three times in his first two NFL seasons and hasn’t fumbled since. So there is hope that Washington could get over his fumble problems, but sadly for him, his fumble problems might stem from his tiny hands – no way to fix that. Similar to Trindon Holliday, who also was a very elusive returner for the Broncos, Montrell has tiny hands by NFL standards. Holiday was listed as 5’5” 162 pounds. Washington is listed (generously) as 5’10” 170. Since he didn’t get a combine invite, we may never know how tall he actually is, but maybe he just looks short in this photo standing next to Patrick Surtain and Elijah Garcia who are 6’2” and 6’5” respectively. Essang Bassey is also listed as 5’10” and he doesn’t appear to be much shorter than Bassey (if at all) in this photo – but the perspective is difficult since some games are farther from the camera than the others.
I would be surprised if Washington makes the 53-man roster in 2023. The move to sign Simon along with Trell losing the return job once Can’t Hackett and Dwayne Stukes were fired does not bode well for Washington’s future on the team. He could still surprise in training camp with his ability as a speedy deep threat similar to K.J. Hamler, but Hamler has proven that he can ran NFL quality routes and catch deep passes in an NFL game. Washington has not (yet). Remember in game 16 Kendall Hinton returned punts and Marlon Mack returned kickoffs. In game 17 Brandon Johnson and Freddie Swain returned punts. So even our interim head coach realized how bad Washington was as our return guy.
Montrell didn’t really get used on offense as a rookie and he lost his return spots at the end of the season after Stukes was out of the picture. Simon’s singing means he won’t be the 2023 kickoff return guy and I’d wager that he will have to really impress in training camp to earn the punt returner job and/or a wide receiver spot on Sean Payton’s 2023 Broncos.
Originally posted on Mile High Report