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Patriots looking for happy returns

Posted by Adam Kilgore, Globe Staff  November 19, 2009 01:35 PM

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During his college career at Colorado, Terrence Wheatley returned 56 kickoffs for 1,350 yards, an average of 24.1 yards. But he did not return kicks his rookie season for the Patriots. They had Ellis Hobbs, one of the best kick returners in the league.

This year, the Patriots are still trying to replace Hobbs, whom they traded to the Philadelphia Eagles for two fifth-round draft choices this offseason. Wheatley became the latest candidate Sunday, lining up deep against the Colts but not catching any kicks, instead blocking for Matt Slater.

“It was pretty exciting,” Wheatley said. “That was something that we had talked about. It’s nice to be back there again. It’s really pretty simple: Make sure you catch the ball, don’t drop it. And then just follow your blocks and run hard.”

Last year, Hobbs -- who is out for the season with a neck injury -- gained 28.5 yards per return, best in the NFL among players with at least 20 attempts. As a team the Patriots averaged 25.2 yards, third best in the NFL, and gained at least 40 yards seven times.

Kick returns are by no means a glaring problem for the Patriots this season, but they fall in the middle of the pack. The Patriots have averaged 23.8 yards on kick returns while taking back only one more than 40 yards, a 52-yarder by running back Laurence Maroney. All but nine teams have returned a kick longer than 52 yards.

Without Hobbs, the Patriots have settled into something of a return-by-committee operation. Part of that is because of injuries. Rookies Brandon Tate and Julian Edelman were both at one point counted on to return kick. Edelman is back but can’t reliably catch kicks because of his broken forearm. Tate is out for the season with a knee injury.

Injuries have had an indirect impact, too. Laurence Maroney has arguably been their best kick returner. But injuries to Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris have thrust him into a greater role in the backfield, rendering him unable to return kicks.

The Patriots needed a kick returner that they activated Wheatley, who has been inactive for six games this season. He got the nod Sunday night over Shawn Springs, which came as a surprise until Wheatley lined up deep -- he was the choice, apparently, because of his value on special teams.

“It’s really not my call,” Wheatley said. “All I can do is really keep doing what I’ve been doing every day. If they feel like they need me, then they need me. Whenever they feel like they need me, I’m ready to go. If they feel like they don’t, they don’t.”

Here is the full breakdown for the Patriots return men, not including squib kicks:

Laurence Maroney920823.152
Julian Edelman715722.432
Kevin Faulk61442432
Brandon Tate410626.534
Matt Slater38227.331

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