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Who is Going to Return Kickoffs for Saints in 2011?

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With kickoffs getting moved up to the 35 yard line next season, we should see more touchbacks this season. That'll hopefully mean less injuries to key reserves, as I'd bet a higher percentage of injuries happens on kick returns than any other type of play. I do wonder if the rule change will affect the Saints' roster plans, though.

Courtney Roby has manned the kickoff return chores for the last two full seasons and a third of the season before that. Roby is a dedicated special teamer and he's as valuable to the Saints as a gunner as he is a returner. But do the Saints dedicate a roster spot to an exclusive kick returner now that the league has just rendered the position less important?

In three seasons returning kicks for the Saints, Roby has averaged 25.6 yards per return and has one touchdown. How does that stack up against other returners? Well, it's about middle of the pack, good enough for somewhere between 10th and 15th on any given season. Slightly above average.

Roby is also one of the Saints' best gunners, too, so that is another valuable asset he brings. But, again, it's maybe slightly less useful if we're seeing a much higher percentage of touchbacks on kickoffs. My guess is that in general, if the rosters stay at 53 (which I'm hoping won't be the case) teams around the league will carry at least one less dedicated special teamer. I think most teams would rather carry around two kickers, one of which can blast kickoffs for guaranteed touchbacks even if he struggles with accuracy on placekicks, then carry 2-3 dedicated gunners to make sure the kickoffs don't get returned for touchdowns.

In other words, you're better off getting a guy that doesn't have to kick field goals with an even stronger leg than Garrett Hartley for kickoffs than keeping around Chris Reis, Courtney Roby and Ramon Humber exclusively to cover kicks. That, in turn, also gives the Saints more flexibility to keep a guy like Adrian Arrington who they like a lot but doesn't contribute much on special teams.

So if Roby isn't re-signed, who returns kicks for the Saints? Pierre Thomas, Robert Meachem, Devery Henderson and Lance Moore all have some experience doing that, so those are possibilities. Another possibility is putting Reggie Bush back there, giving him a few more touches per game in the open field. Or the Saints could elect to sign someone else entirely for that purpose.

My guess is the Saints are more likely to use someone that already fills a another role elsewhere because of the diminished importance of the kick returner. The "two birds with one stone" theory is more appealing when you're resigned to your field position starting at the 20. I'd be sad to see Roby go, but his value. in my mind. is diminished by the rule change.

The one wild card in all this is the new CBA. If rosters are expanded, then the decision to keep Roby becomes easier. And let's be clear on one thing: none of those guys will perform as well as Roby returning kicks, or at least it's highly unlikely. And even if the touchbacks increase, it still increases the chances that the person returning kicks may get injured significantly.

I leave you with a two part question:

1. Does the rule change on kickoffs have an impact on Courtney Roby's chances of being on the team in 2011?

2a. If YES, who will return kicks for the Saints in 2011?

2b. If NO, do you then believe the Saints will re-sign Roby?