While the decision before the 2011 season to move kickoffs from the 30 to the 35-yard line was largely done to drastically increase the number of touchbacks, the value of an elite return man hasn’t exactly diminished around the NFL.
And heading into the 2013 free agency period, count the Arizona Cardinals among the teams interested in potentially adding one of the game’s most electrifying kick returners.
According to Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Josh Cribbs likely won’t be back with the Cleveland Browns after eight seasons with the organization, and the Cardinals are one of five teams (Cowboys, 49ers, Giants and Patriots) expressing interest in the return specialist/wide receiver.
Although any interest in Cribbs is purely speculative at this point, the Cardinals are likely more intrigued with the three-time Pro Bowler’s special teams skills than his pass-catching abilities. The team after all just released Early Doucet Saturday in an effort to avoid paying the veteran wide receiver almost $2 million next season.
While Cribbs has played more on the offensive side of the football in recent years (career-high 41 catches and four touchdowns in 2011), the undrafted free agent out of Kent State has made a name for himself in the league almost exclusively on special teams.
In eight seasons, Cribbs already holds the NFL record — along with Leon Washington — for the most kick return touchdowns (8) in a career. He is also one of two players in league history to have two return touchdowns in a game of over 100 yards and one of nine players to have two return touchdowns in the same game.
Cribbs has amassed more than 1,000 kick return yards in six of his eight seasons with the Browns and per season averages more than 1,250 yards on kickoffs alone.
While at age 29 the perception might be that Cribbs is slowing down, the two-time All-Pro made a third trip to Hawaii last season and ranked No. 4 in the league in kick return average (27.4 yards/return).
To put his 2012 season in perspective, Cribbs amassed more yardage on kickoffs (1,178) than the Cardinals’ top two return men — William Powell (507) and LaRod Stephens-Howling (405) — did combined.
Although Cribbs has put up historic numbers during his NFL career, he might not be the perfect fit in Arizona, given that he also served as the Browns’ punt returner during the past six seasons.
While Patrick Peterson, Arizona’s primary punt returner, suffered a bit of a sophomore slump (8.4 yards/return) in 2012, the former LSU star earned the first of his two trips to the Pro Bowl after an electrifying rookie campaign in which he tied the NFL record for most punt return touchdowns (4) in a single season. It seems unlikely that Bruce Arians and Amos Jones would simply give up on Peterson after one down year.
It’s an interesting development, nonetheless, and one that will likely play itself out quickly once free agency officially begins on Tuesday.
It should be noted that Cribbs has never played in the postseason and each of the other four teams reportedly interested in his services had records of .500 or better in 2012.