As they did last season with specialist Alex Erickson, the Carolina Panthers didn’t address their punt return duties lightly in 2022. They got themselves the real deal when they signed Andre Roberts back in May.
Roberts, who had earned three All-Pro nods and three Pro Bowl selections as a returner, brought a proven track record to the position—a quality that essentially secured him a spot on the team’s 53-man roster. Just one week in, however, the 34-year-old is already off that roster and on the injured reserve.
So, with Roberts set to miss about two months’ time, who’s the next man up? Heck, is that man even on the team right now?
Early indications, at least for this upcoming matchup against the New York Giants, points towards fellow wideouts DJ Moore and Laviska Shenault Jr.—as both were spotted fielding punts in practice on Friday. Plus, the Panthers, with Roberts on the IR, still have just 52 men on their active program—leaving them room for one more addition.
The smart money, though, should be on Moore. As much as you probably don’t want your No. 1 receiver thrown into a high-risk situation, one that can cause yet another injury, the fifth-year veteran is the most experienced punt returner on the squad.
Moore has recorded 12 punt returns in the NFL, with 11 of them coming during his first two seasons. He’s averaged an unspectacular 6.8 yards per take with a career-best run of 16 yards.
If they opt for Shenault Jr., who would be making his team debut in that case, they’re opting for a huge unknown. Although his bread and butter comes with the ball in his hands, he has not registered a punt return between both his professional and collegiate careers.
Shenault Jr.’s only recent experience in such a spot, besides returning a fumbled punt for a 55-yard touchdown at the University of Colorado in 2019, has come between this summer and now. And, quite frankly, the summer didn’t go too well for him there.
While it would be somewhat exciting to see one of Carolina’s newest acquisitions finally out on that field, or even to see a new name enter the fray, perhaps it’s the familiar face that has the edge with so little time left until Sunday. So, hopefully for head coach Matt Rhule, Smith really is on the “positive side of questionable.”