This is the eighth of a series on 10 key questions facing the Buffalo Bills entering training camp. Read the rest of the series here.
The Buffalo Bills' offense can use all the help it can get in 2018.
The quarterback is new. The offensive line is rebuilt. The wide receiving corps is unproven, at best.
Getting more help from the kickoff and punt return game would be a welcome boost for the Bills' attack.
It's not too much to ask because the return game was no means great in 2017.
The Bills ranked 12th in punt return average and 24th in kickoff return average. Buffalo was the only team in the NFL that didn't have a single kickoff return of 30 or more yards last year.
Brandon Tate handled both punt and kickoff return duties last year but he was not brought back.
So both jobs are wide open and will be decided in training camp and preseason.
Sixth-round draft pick Ray-Ray McCloud might be the Bills' best hope for a game-breaking addition to the return game. He ranked seventh in the nation in punt returns for Clemson last season and had a 77-yard return for a touchdown.
McCloud, whose running style is reminiscent of former Bills return star Roscoe Parrish, was a star running back in high school and embraces the return duties.
"Running back came naturally to me, just being able to read holes and be explosive," he said. "That carried over for me in college and I’ve been able to explode through little creases during punt returns and being comfortable back there."
It will be important for McCloud to show sure-handedness in training camp.
"The more you can do, the better off you are and obviously, for us at least, we put a big emphasis on special teams," said Bills coach Sean McDermott. "So you see a situation like Ray-Ray, the ability to play both line of scrimmage a little bit as well as along the special teams situation for us and add value there."
Fourth-year veteran Kaelin Clay, eighth-year veteran Jeremy Kerley and rookie Austin Proehl were among the other candidates fielding punts in the spring.
Clay, who spent the first six weeks of last season on the Bills' roster, has bounced around five teams over the past three seasons. He has returned 42 punts and had a nice year returning kickoffs for Baltimore in 2015, averaging 24.5 yards. But he's an underdog to crack the Bills' wideout roster entering camp.
Kerley has 171 career punt returns and looks like a solid fallback option if a young candidate doesn't impress. But in the last five years, he never has averaged better than the Bills' 8.8-yard average of last season.
The Bills were forced to use Micah Hyde at times late last season as a fill-in when they needed a sure-handed returner. At the least, Kerley's addition to the roster should prevent Hyde from being forced into that duty.
Proehl saw limited duty on punt returns at North Carolina.
While Tate averaged a healthy 9.65 yards per punt return (sixth in the NFL), the Bills had only two punt returns of 20-plus yards (13 teams had more).
The kickoff return competition will be complicated by the fact the Bills, like all NFL teams, will be adjusting to the new rules that drastically change the coverage and return formations. Preventing coverage teams from getting a running start at the kick could make for more big returns and make the play more significant.
Eighth-year veteran Travaris Cadet, who arguably has the slight inside track on the No. 3 running back job, ranked seventh in the NFL on kickoff returns for the Saints in 2012 with a 26.5-yard average. Taiwan Jones, who will try to beat out Cadet in the backfield, ranked seventh in the NFL for the Raiders in 2015 at 26.7. Special teams could be the deciding factor between those two for a roster spot.