When Cyrus Jones was selected by the Patriots in the second round of this year's draft, director of player personnel Nick Caserio made it very clear that the Alabama corner's ability to return punts made him a more highly-valued commodity.
Caserio admitted that when it came time to make a pick at No. 60 overall, there were multiple players on New England's draft board who were graded similarly, but Jones stood out.
"I think the thing that tipped the scales in Cyrus’ favor a little bit," Caserio said, "was his overall versatility -- punt return -- that’s a huge component of what we do and we thought he had the ability."
Caserio's choice of words in that instance was noteworthy given that over the course of the last three years the Patriots have returned on average between two and three punts per game. Last year they returned 47 punts total, which works out to 2.9 per game.
That hardly seems like "a huge component" of any team's overall attack. But the accumulation of those plays over the course of a season is significant. It's a few dozen opportunities for explosive plays, a few dozen chances to shift field position. There may not be many of them, but they can be game-changers.
Jones was as accomplished a punt returner as anyone in this year's draft class, taking four back for touchdowns for the Crimson Tide in 2015 alone.
But the attraction of placing Jones deep to field punts in 2016 and beyond may not be solely based on what he can do with the football in his hands. He may also help take some of the workload off of the shoulders of Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman -- a tangible benefit for Tom Brady's two most dependable targets at the receiver position going into this season.
Amendola and Edelman have been among the game's top punt returners in recent years. Amendola led the league in return average last year with 12.0 yards per return. Meanwhile, Edelman's career return average of 12.0 yards is second behind only Devin Hester (12.1) among active players and seventh-best all-time.
Returning punts is just another unforgiving responsibility for the pair of veteran slot receivers who have made their livelihoods on their willingness to run unforgiving routes across the middle. Skilled as they are as return men, having Jones in the fold could save them from absorbing extra hits on special teams and potentially help keep them healthier deeper into the season.
Just how many hits might Jones' presence save the pair of 30-year-old wideouts coming off of offseason surgeries?
The math isn't perfect because not all punt returns end in bone-jarring collisions. Neither do all receptions. But let's take a quick-and-flawed look at the number of shots Jones may save Edelman and Amendola in 2016.
Over the last three years, including last year when he played in just nine regular-season games, Edelman has returned 70 punts, not including fair catches. That's 1.79 returns for each of the 39 games in which he has played. If that average were to hold true over a 16-game season, that would work out to about 28.6 returns in a year.
For Edelman, who has averaged 6.6 catches per game over the last three years, 28.6 returns in a year is the equivalent of about four games (4.33) of touches as a receiver.
One of the key cogs to New England's passing offense, saving Edelman that many hits over the course of a season might help in keeping him relatively fresh for a longer period of time. Though it would fall well short of guaranteeing his health, pulling Edelman as a returner would certainly reduce his chance of injury.
Even before he was injured last season, it seemed as though the Patriots were set on limiting Edelman's opportunities as a return man. Amendola returned 15 punts through Week 10, the week Edelman was injured against the Giants, which was five more than Edelman had. That breakdown in their shared workload was a shift from 2014 when Amendola (16 regular-season games) returned 16 kicks and Edelman (14 regular-season games) returned 25.
Because it seems like Edelman's return-man role was already shrinking in some respects, Jones' presence may have a more meaningful impact on Amendola in 2016.
Since Amendola's arrival to New England in 2013, he has returned 40 punts, not including fair catches. In 42 games, that works out to 0.95 returns per game.
Since 2014, though, when he began to be utilized as a return man regularly, Amendola has averaged 1.3 returns per game. Over a 16-game season, if that average were to hold true, that would mean 20.8 returns in a year.
For Amendola, who has averaged 3.5 receptions per game over the last three years, 20.8 returns in a year would be the equivalent of almost six games (5.94) of touches as a receiver.
Even if you were to take Amendola's receiving numbers from the 2015 season, when he averaged 4.6 catches per game, 20.8 returns means about 4.5 games worth of receiver touches -- and the potential punishment that comes with them. Taking those returns off of his plate might help Amendola maintain his health longer into the season.
Again, the returns-to-receptions math is far from perfect. But touches are touches, and punt-return touches can have a tendency to end with high-speed crunching hits. If the return-man torch happens to be passed to Jones this season, it could save a pair of his veteran teammates -- both of whom are vital to the function of the offense -- a great deal of wear and tear.
As Caserio pointed out during the draft, though, Jones has a lot of work to do before he's trusted in one of the roles that the team considers to be "huge."
"The guys that have done it have been really good," Caserio explained. "I mean Danny was one of the league leaders last year. Julian who had never done it before, his average is like one of the top punt returners in history.
"That’s a hard, I would say, skill and position to develop so if you have multiple players that can actually handle the ball then you can figure out, 'OK, well maybe we can take his workload and redistribute it somewhere else.'
"In the end we’re going to do what we think is best for the football team. If a guy's not ready to do it then we’re not going to have him do it even if he has the experience and he’s done it. We’re not going to really know . . . Everything they’ve done to this point, like, honestly doesn’t matter. Now they’re going to show up here next week and basically start from scratch. There’s probably going to be some things that [special teams coach] Joe [Judge] and [assistant special teams coach Ray Ventrone] will coach them to do in terms of fielding the ball, handling the ball, may be a little bit different. OK, how do they handle that? How do they read the ball? Can they adjust to our blocking pattern?
"There’s a whole number of things that go into it, and then he’s trying to learn a new position. It’s just a matter of how quickly they can perform the task at a good level relative to another player at that same positon, and then ultimately we’ll figure out whoever’s the best option for us and whoever we think is the best at that time then we’ll go ahead with him in that capacity."