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Can Kenjon Barner Solve Patriots' Punt Return Problems?

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- The Patriots made a series of moves on Tuesday, signing a pair of wide receivers as well as running back Kenjon Barner. While it's unclear -- doubtful, even -- that any of the players makes an impact on the Patriots this season, it's Barner who should have an opportunity to fill a rather important role for the team immediately.

That's because last year as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, Barner returned 27 punts. He did fairly well, too, averaging 8.9 yards per return -- good enough for the 11th-best mark in the NFL. It was essentially the first year in the NFL that Barner returned punts, as he had returned just three punts from 2013-16.

This figures to have been a consideration for the Patriots, who wasted no time in cutting Riley McCarron on Monday, a day after his muffed punt vs. Houston forced the Patriots to play a much tighter game than needed to be played. With no other obvious punt returners on the roster -- Patrick Chung has three career punt returns to his name -- it's not out of the realm of possibility that Barner lands a role on special teams as soon as this weekend in Jacksonville.

If Barner gets the role and succeeds in it, it seems like a job he could keep for the rest of the year. Julian Edelman's been among the best punt returners in football for years, but when he returns from suspension in Week 5, it's possible the Patriots may want to limit the damage inflicted on their 32-year-old receiver who's coming off a torn ACL. Considering Edelman's importance to the offense, such a philosophy may be sensible.

And with Jeremy Hill being lost for the season, Barner figures to have some chance to carve out at least a partial role on offense. That task may be a bit more difficult than earning punt return duties, on account of the talented backs already on the depth chart in James White, Rex Burkhead and (presumably soon) Sony Michel. Barner did turn in a 72-yard rushing performance on just five carries this preseason against Miami, and he rushed for 93 yards on 15 carries through the preseason for Carolina this summer. He's never had a significant role on offense in his career, but he seems like a candidate to fill the role that was lost when Brandon Bolden was cut and then signed with Miami.

Barner had a standout senior season at Oregon way back in 2013, when he rushed for 1,767 yards and 21 touchdowns and had another 256 receiving yards plus two receiving touchdowns. He earned that opportunity on offense by standing out on special teams in his first two years at Oregon, when he returned 54 kicks with a 23-yard average and when he returned 23 punts with an 11.7-yard return average and one touchdown.

Eagles Kenjon Barner punt return for touchdown 08/22/2015 by Sportback Jack on YouTube
Kenjon Barner returns a punt for a touchdown against by Jared Light on YouTube

Last year, Barner's best week as a punt returner came against Arizona in Week 5. He returned his first punt of the day 19 yards, and his second return of the game went for 76 yards. He added a 15-yard return later in the game, finishing with the three returns for 110 yards. He also had a 16-yard rush on the day.

As the Patriots have learned in recent years, the role of punt returner is no easy thing to ace. Chris Harper made one mistake in 2015, and he was cut the next day. Cyrus Jones struggled so mightily in his rookie season that the team didn't hesitate to release him prior to year three, despite spending a second-round pick on him. And after employing McCarron on the practice squad for a calendar year, the Patriots immediately cut him after misplaying one single punt in a Patriots win.

Clearly, the Patriots place a value on the job. And with Danny Amendola long gone and Edelman still sidelined with the suspension, the opportunity awaits for Barner to seize the position.

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