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Competition for Ravens' primary kick and punt returners is wide open

Griff Whalen has spent time with five different NFL teams since 2012. So witnessing nine different players returning kicks during a recent practice at the Ravens' training facility was not shocking.

But it did confirm that the team's search for a primary return specialist is wide open.

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"It's common to have a bunch of guys taking reps," said Whalen, a wide receiver who was signed by the team on July 21. "The difference is that there's no designated starter. So there's open competition for the starting position and the backup position. But that's not that unusual either. Some teams kind of know who their returner is and others don't. So it's not that unusual. There are a lot of guys back there taking reps. I think they just want to get eyes on as many guys as they can and see who they like as a fit."

The Ravens have not had a featured returner since Jacoby Jones in 2014. Last season, Devin Hester Sr., the NFL's all-time leader in return touchdowns, played in 12 games before being released in favor of Michael Campanaro.

Campanaro, who finished the season as the primary punt returner, made his training camp debut Tuesday morning. He had been on the team's physically unable to perform list for the first four days of camp because of a sprained toe sustained during offseason workouts.

On Thursday, C.J. Board, Chris Moore, Bobby Rainey, Keenan Reynolds, Lardarius Webb, Whalen, Danny Woodhead, and rookies Taquan Mizzell and Tim White returned kickoffs. The day before, Board, Mizzell, Reynolds, Whalen and White handled punts.

"We have options," special teams coordinator and associate head coach Jerry Rosburg said Saturday. "That is what training camp is for though. It is good to have options. It is like any training camp. It is competitive. Practices are competitive, and they want to get out there and show what they can do. The repetitions in the preseason games will be very valuable."

The Ravens, however, have not shied away from addressing the position. They put in a claim last week for former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver and returner Lucky Whitehead, according to ESPN, but he was picked up by the New York Jets.

Recent NFL trends suggest that returns might not be as significant as they once were. After the league approved a measure to move the kickoff line from the 30-yard line to the 35 and shift the touchback from the 20 to the 25, teams returned 39.3 percent of kickoffs last season compared to 41.1 percent in 2015. The number of touchbacks rose from 56 percent in 2015 to 57.6 percent last season.

That change, along with better directional kicks by the current generation of NFL punters, contributed to record lows for the Ravens. Their 28 kick returns and 636 kick return yards last season were six fewer and 221 shy, respectively, than the previous lows set in 2015. Their 32 punt returns tied a previous low set in 2014 and their 246 punt return yards were 44 short of the mark established in 2009.

All this — combined with concerns about fumbling the ball and ensuring player safety — raises the question of whether finding a primary return specialist is as much of a need as it once was. For Rosburg, there is no debate.

"I think those guys are really valuable," he said. "I think the play is very valuable. I would not for a second diminish the value of what our guys are doing. Now, in the scope of the game, if somebody wants to look at it that way, that is fine. But our guys, we do not look at it that way at all. We think what we are doing is really, really important."

Whalen, who has averaged 24.2 yards on kick returns and 8.2 yards on punt returns in his career, said the trend to limit returns has actually raised the importance of returns.

"You might get fewer chances, and I feel like it makes the decision-making back there more important just because it's not as straightforward," he said. "There's more options, more things to think about. You've got directional punts and directional kickoffs. You can try and pop the kickoff up and pin them back or you can just kick it out of the back of the end zone. So you've just got to be aware of more things and be on the same page as your coordinator and know what you want to do in different situations. So I think there's more decision making and different opportunities."

And returns are viewed as significant for younger players like Mizzell, who are seeking to carve out a niche on teams.

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"The open return job just gives me a lot of hope, and all I can ask for is an opportunity," said Mizzell, an undrafted rookie who returned kicks and punts at Virginia. "So once that time presents itself and I get an opportunity, I'm going to give it everything that I've got to show them that I feel like I'm the guy that belongs back there to make a play."

The Ravens still have more than a month before the Sept. 10 season opener at the Cincinnati Bengals, when they have to settle on a primary return specialist or two. But Rosburg agreed that he would prefer to know the identity of that player or two now rather than later.

"I think everybody would like to know who their quarterback is," he said. "Everybody would like to know who their left tackle is. Everybody would like to know who their corners are. Everybody would like to know who their pass rushers are. Everybody would like to know everything about their team and have it all solved, but that is not reality. Everybody has issues, and our issue right now is finding the returner amongst the masses."

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