Barner may prove to be Patriots' most important Tuesday signing

Tom E. Curran
NBC Sports Boston

Plenty of air was expelled discussing the Patriots signing of Corey Coleman on Tuesday. Maybe the 15th pick in the 2016 draft latches on fast and never looks back; maybe he'll be gone by Saturday. It's a dice roll.

The more certain and impactful transaction the team made Tuesday was signing running back Kenjon Barner.

With Jeremy Hill lost for the season thanks to a torn ACL, the Patriots needed another back. Barner is 5-foot-9, 190; Hill is 6-2, 225. There's a style difference there and Barner isn't going to replace the between-the-tackles potency that Hill brought.

But he can return punts. And the Patriots are desperately seeking someone to do that. Barner's career has taken him from Carolina (a sixth-round pick out of Oregon in 2013) to Philadelphia to the Chargers back to Philadelphia last year where he replaced Darren Sproles as the Eagles return man then back to Carolina, which released him at the end of August.

Barner finished the 2017 regular season with 57 rushing yards, one rushing touchdown, 56 receiving yards, 10 kick returns for 194 net yards, and 27 punt returns for 240 net yards. He's more than just a fielder of punts (here's a 76-yarder against the Cardinals) . . . 

. . . and he's got good awareness on special teams (here he is literally dragging a fallen teammate away from a bouncing punt to guard against a turnover) . . .

The cynical but predictable response to this is: "If he's so good, why's he out of work?"

The answer? Because he's a short, 27-year-old changeup back with good receiving skills and special teams skills. He's not electrifying. Just steady. The demand for that is soft.

But steady is what the Patriots need. Sticking Riley McCarron back to return punts in the opener was asking for it. He never looked steady in training camp or the preseason and the Patriots paid for it as McCarron fair-caught one punt at the 6 and -- even worse -- muffed a punt that led to a fourth-quarter Texans touchdown.

There's an argument that the team should have kept Cyrus Jones solely to return punts. At least he looked like he looked like he knew what he was doing. But Jones' five fumbles in 2016 left scarring that never healed.  

Barner has a chance to make plays and open eyes here the way he did in Philadelphia. 

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