Steve Smith The Punt Returner?


Has there ever been a 36-year-old NFL punt returner?

Wes Welker returned punts last year at age 33. Atlanta's Devin Hester returned kicks and punts at 32. Indianapolis' Josh Cribbs is 32.

Well, Steve Smith Sr. has proven that age is just a number when it comes to being a receiver. So why not as a returner?

Smith last returned a punt five years ago as a member of the Carolina Panthers. He had six punt returns for an average of 7.7 yards. The last time he was a major piece of the return game was in 2005 – a decade ago – when he returned 27 punts for an average of 10.6 yards.

Smith's career punt return average is 9.3 yards and his kick return average is 24.2 yards. He's scored six touchdowns on returns (four via punts).

With Jacoby Jones now in San Diego and the Ravens searching for his replacement, Smith is a legitimate candidate.

Asked whether he would like to return punts again, Smith said, "absolutely."

"I've been out there practicing, always practicing, giving those guys advice [and] trying to read the ball," Smith said. "So, yes."

For Head Coach John Harbaugh, it comes down to balancing Smith's special teams talent and the threat of him suffering an injury that would keep Smith out of offensive snaps. Smith was the Ravens' top receiver last year, after all.

It's not only injury. If Smith returns punts, it could also limit him at the start of the next offensive series if he's exhausted from the return.

Harbaugh is well aware of those factors. However, it's mighty tempting to see Smith returning punts. He has experience. He's tough to bring down. He fights for extra yardage. Quite simply, he may be the best candidate.

"At some point in time, you put your best players on the field," Harbaugh said. "Punt return is an opportunity in space to make a play, and guys like Steve Smith are pretty good at doing that. So, I like having our best players on the field as much as possible.

"But we'll have to decide that. I don't think it's a given. We'll have to pick our situation and see how we want to do it. We're far from having that answer yet."

Smith suggested that poor blocking is what made him stop returning punts five years ago in Carolina. The blocking in Baltimore has been very strong over the years, however.

"Returning kicks [are] based on blocking, the blocking schemes. That's what took me off of it," he said. "The blocking wasn't there where it used to be. Basically, it's kind of like going to a job [and] they don't want to pay you. 'We can't pay you, but we want you to work.' No, I'm good.

"Blocking is essential. So with the good blocking, it's really easy. It makes it very easy to focus on catching the ball.  When you've got to focus on catching the ball and doing this, doing that, I think that's where it gets too complicated."

Smith said he's not sure if he'll end up taking on the duties in Baltimore, but the possibility is open.

"We'll figure it out," he said. "I think I'll do it at least once or twice, so I'm excited about doing it."

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