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January 23, 2008

Return ability drives some up draft charts

More Senior Bowl Coverage

MOBILE, Ala. Call it the "Devin Hester Effect."

The Chicago Bears took a calculated gamble two years ago by drafting Hester in the second round almost entirely because of his kick-return skills. Hester has responded by returning four punts and seven kickoffs for touchdowns in his first two seasons.

Now teams across the NFL are searching for players with similar game-changing ability on special teams.

That's a big reason the Miami Dolphins took Ohio State wide receiver/return man Ted Ginn Jr. with the ninth overall pick last year when they instead could have selected Notre Dame's Brady Quinn as their quarterback of the future.

And it helps explain why Troy cornerback Leodis McKelvin could get taken as early as the first round in April. McKelvin returned seven punts for touchdowns in his college career, including three during his stellar senior season.

"There are some issues with him playing corner," said Frank Coyle of www.draftinsiders.com, referring to questions about McKelvin's technique and level of competition in college. "But he's going to come in and return punts and kicks and do it well. So I think that in itself has to move him up one or two rounds."

Coyle rates McKelvin as the No. 43 overall prospect in this draft class, and other draft boards have him going late in the first round. Boise State offensive tackle Ryan Clady, UCF running back Kevin Smith and Houston wide receiver Donnie Avery another potential special-teams demon are the only non-"Big Six" league players rated ahead of McKelvin.

McKelvin isn't in Hester's class as a returner. Who is? But he just might come in and deliver the same kind of impact that Joshua Cribbs has made with the Cleveland Browns.

A former undrafted free agent out of Kent State, Cribbs - who played quarterback in college - has returned four kickoffs and one punt for touchdowns in the past three seasons. He led the NFL with a kickoff return average of 30.7 this season and already is the Browns' career record-holder in career kickoff return touchdowns and kick-return average (26.6).

McKelvin admits he enjoyed seeing the special-teams exploits of Cribbs and Hester while watching NFL games each Sunday. After all, every time one of them reached the end zone, it probably meant a few more dollars in McKelvin's pocket.

"What they're doing now is going to help me a lot," McKelvin said.

McKelvin isn't the only senior who should benefit from the NFL's increased emphasis on special teams. The days of return men with Cribbs' potential going undrafted probably have ended for the foreseeable future.

Utah State wide receiver Kevin Robinson isn't in Mobile this week, but he should catch the eye of any NFL scout looking for an elite returner.

Robinson averaged 16.2 yards on 401 touches to set an NCAA career record for all-purpose yards per play. He led the nation in punt return average (18.9) this past season, ranked sixth in kickoff returns (29.3) and scored two touchdowns one on a punt return and one on a reception in last week's East-West Shrine Game.

While Robinson won't be playing in the Senior Bowl, there a few other potential NFL return men joining McKelvin in Mobile.

Avery and Purdue wide receiver Dorien Bryant each returned kickoffs for touchdowns this past season. Notre Dame safety Tom Zbikowski scored on three career punt returns, and Virginia Tech wide receiver Eddie Royal returned two punts for scores in '07. East Carolina running back Chris Johnson ranked 18th in the nation in kick-return average this season and set an NCAA bowl record with 408 all-purpose yards in the Pirates' Hawaii Bowl upset of Boise State.

"What Devin Hester is doing is opening up for a whole bunch of smaller return-type guys," Bryant said. "Hopefully I can do a little bit more on the receiving end, too, but that's definitely opened up a lot of eyes to smaller-type guys who can return punts and kicks."

The opportunities are even greater for outstanding kick returners who also find other ways to help their teams win.

Hester never was a full-time starter at Miami and still hasn't found a permanent home on offense or defense for the Bears, though they certainly aren't regretting their decision to draft him. Cribbs, now a wide receiver, has caught just 14 passes in his three-year career.

Johnson has wondered how the success of Hester and Cribbs might help his own pro prospects, but he also believes he could offer NFL teams an even greater dimension.

"I look at those guys, and they really don't have a primary position," Johnson said. "And I've got a primary position. To have (special teams) as an asset is going to make my draft stock even higher."

Although it's a bit of a stretch to think any of the rookie return men could experience the immediate success on special teams that Hester and Cribbs have enjoyed, the Senior Bowl kick returners also might contribute to an NFL team on offense or defense.

Avery caught 91 passes for Houston this past season, while Bryant had 87 receptions in each of the past two years. Johnson rushed for 1,423 yards and caught 37 passes for East Carolina in '07. McKelvin has the combination of size and speed to develop into a solid NFL cornerback once he gains experience against top-level competition.

In fact, McKelvin already proved he could deliver against high-quality foes by scoring on a 74-yard punt return, forcing a fumble and breaking up three passes in Troy's 41-23 upset of Oklahoma State.

"He's got a lot of energy and enjoys the game," Oklahoma State wide receiver Adarius Bowman said. "That's the biggest thing about him. He plays every down. Since I've been playing college ball, he's one of the best corners I've gone up against in terms of playing from the first quarter to the fourth."

But no matter how well these guys play on offense or defense, it's their game-changing ability on special teams that could separate them from the pack.

That's particularly true of McKelvin, who is generally regarded as the top return man in this draft class. McKelvin led his team with 1,022 all-purpose yards last fall despite not taking a snap on offense.

Wherever McKelvin ends up in the NFL, he ought to shake Cribbs' hand or buy Hester a dinner the first time his team faces the Browns or Bears. After all, those two guys are going to end up helping McKelvin make more money than if he'd entered the league a couple of years earlier.

"Those guys can change field position," McKelvin said. "I'm doing it in college. They're doing it in the pros, and more teams are going to look for that. I thank them."

More Senior Bowl Coverage

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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