Finding someone to handle kickoffs and punt returns proved quite the adventure in 2013 for Tennessee. Deciding which former Pro Bowl returner handles the job will be the biggest challenge for the Titans this season.
Leon Washington, a two-time Pro Bowler, is competing with Dexter McCluster, a Pro Bowl punt returner himself last season, and Marc Mariani, a Pro Bowler as a rookie.
"At the end of the day, all of those guys are hard workers," special teams coach Nate Kaczor said. "They're quality people, and they've all been very successful. We just root for them on special teams to hope they find a place on the roster."
It's a big difference from last season when Mariani got hurt in the preseason and placed on injured reserve, starting an avalanche of miscues and mistakes. The season opened with a safety on the first kickoff return with a muffed punt later costing Darius Reynaud his job. Another returner bobbled a punt that he recovered and was cut, while a third player was hurt after taking over.
That's when the Titans brought in Washington, and he immediately settled the position down. He just missed a touchdown with a 95-yard kickoff return last December in Denver in his second game with the team. Kaczor compared Washington's performance to a "really good first date."
"Our blockers had been blocking pretty good," Kaczor said. "They all knew the second he walked in the building, 'Hey, that's Leon Washington.' Sometimes that adds a little bit of extra and away we went, and Leon did a really good job for us."
Kaczor also knows McCluster well following his career since the coach worked him out coming out of Mississippi, including last season when the Titans played the Chiefs. Kaczor also watched Mariani's standout rookie season when he coached special teams in Jacksonville.
Washington said it's easy to respect what each has done in the past.
"But this is a new year, It's a new time," Washington said. "The Tennessee Titans need great returners now, so we welcome that. We welcome the competition, and it's a great thing. We're all trying to make each other better."
Washington went to the Pro Bowl in 2008 and 2012. With the Titans last season, he averaged 30.1 yards on kickoff returns and 13 yards on punt returns. McCluster returned two punts for touchdowns last year in Kansas City where he averaged 11.8 yards per return. Both also are working at running back, another crowded position with Shonn Greene and Bishop Sankey.
Mariani, who has missed the past two seasons because of injuries, also is a receiver in a group where Kendall Wright, Justin Hunter and Nate Washington already are the top three. Mariani also brings versatility because he scored TDs off a punt and kickoff return as a rookie in 2010, averaging 11.2 yards per punt return and 24.8 yards on kickoff returns.
"When I was given the opportunity to come back here and when I signed as a free agent this year, I knew the numbers," Mariani said. "It was not a secret. I came back to compete. I came back to prove to everyone that I can play receiver and that I can return the ball like the past and that I am healthy."
McCluster sees the Titans having a great rotation right now with all three of them, with each doing the job in his own style.
"It's going to be fun to feed off of each other and see which route coach (Ken Whisenhunt) goes with this," McCluster said.
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