Which Dolphins players could best fill Jakeem Grant’s returner role?

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If the Miami Dolphins make the decision to part ways with one of their most accomplished returners in team history, the team will have a challenging decision ahead regarding which player is the right one to step into the void that Grant would leave behind. The Dolphins saw Grant’s role as a punt returner shine yet again this past season — as Grant returned a punt for a touchdown against the Rams to mark his third consecutive season and the fourth time in five seasons that Grant ran at least one kick for a score throughout his NFL career.

But Grant was tasked with taking on his biggest role as a receiver yet — he took 370 offensive snaps last season (35%), a career high. And those snaps brought 54 targets on the season, also a career high. But those targets brought more opportunities for Grant to prove he could be a staple of the passing game and drops and misplayed targets were a continuous trend. And with over $4M in new cash due for the upcoming season, Grant’s cost may not be worth the production.

If the Dolphins make that decision, they’ll have plenty of options on who to step into the void. Here are three candidates to return kicks for Miami in 2021 if the team moves on from Grant:

Oct 3, 2020; Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA; Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle (17) runs for a touchdown after catching a long pass from Alabama quarterback Mac Jones (10) at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Alabama defeated A&M 52-24. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby Jr/The Tuscaloosa News via USA TODAY Sports

WR Jaylen Waddle

Waddle’s punt return skills are undeniable — he fielded 38 punts at Alabama over three seasons and averaged 19.3 yards per return with two touchdowns. His kickoff duties are lower in volume but still impressive: he returned 9 kickoffs and averaged 23.8 yards per return there with an additional score from the 2019 season.

But would the Dolphins subject their No. 6 overall pick to a special teams role in addition to whatever he’s hoping to take on offense?

The early signs point to yes. When asked what separated Jaylen Waddle from DeVonta Smith in Miami’s decision to draft the former with the No. 6 overall pick, general manager Chris Grier pointed to two traits:

  • Explosiveness

  • Return ability

“At the end of the day, they’re both really good players and really good kids and very competitive. Just as we went through it, it’s the explosiveness that Waddle gives you as well as the return game, as Brian mentioned; and for us, just that dynamic trait and you can only imagine the texts Brian and I got from people talking about what a great pick and explosive and how this guy is – you guys saw all the comparisons – but for us, it was getting to know the kid and we were really, really happy and knowing how competitive and tough he is,” said Grier.

“They’re both really good players. Devonta is going to be a really good player in this league. For us, it was the explosive playmaking ability and the return ability for us that we really liked.”

But this wasn’t just a Chris Grier vision. Brian Flores was asked about Waddle’s role with the team during that same Thursday night press conference and the role of returner once again came up.

“His role is going to be what he makes it. Based off of all the film we’ve seen, we think he’ll fit inside or outside. We think he’ll add a speed element. Obviously he has some value in the return game,” said Flores.

“I think his versatility is a big part of this. His ability to play inside, play in the slot, play on the perimeter, play in the return game. Again, we’re very, very excited to have him.”

Navy’s Malcolm Perry runs the ball against Kansas State during the AutoZone Liberty Bowl at the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium on Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. Navy went on to win 20-17 on a last second field goal.
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RB/WR Malcolm Perry

Perry returned 40 kickoffs in his college career at Navy, averaging 24.6 yards per return over the 2017 and 2018 seasons. As a late-round selection by the team in 2020, Perry would seemingly have a long-term role with the team but it isn’t apparent whether or not he’ll get a big role as a receiver after the Dolphins infused a number of new talents into the position group this past offseason, including Waddle, Will Fuller and Robert Foster.

It was reported this weekend that Perry is working on his punt return skills by the Miami Herald as well:

“Though he will focus primarily on playing slot receiver this offseason, Perry has the ability to line up at running back or as a Wildcat quarterback. He also is working on his punt return skills.” — Barry Jackson, Miami Herald

Jevon-Holland-Oregon
Jevon-Holland-Oregon

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

SAF Jevon Holland

The No. 36 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft returned 16 punts during his final season with the Ducks in 2019, logging an average of 15.3 yards per return. Holland’s presumed role on defense may disqualify him from commanding this role at the NFL level but at the very least you know he’s capable of fielding kicks if you’re in a pinch.