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When the Saints signed Ted Ginn Jr, many saw him a pseudo-replacement for Brandin Cooks, now of the New England Patriots. Ginn was seen as a guy who can help recreate some of the benefits Cooks brought to the offense by having the speed to run by corners and take the top off the defense. However, Ginn’s biggest benefit to the team might not be offensively, it might be through his contributions to the return game.
Please note, this will get a little analytical at times. Different starting field positions result in different drive statistics. I’m pulling these statistics from http://www.bcftoys.com/ .
The Saints have recently had an anemic kick return game. Last season, the team averaged just 16.5 yards per kickoff return. Translation: Unless the other team was kicking the ball to the 9 yard line, the Saints would’ve received better field position simply starting the drive with a touchback. However, there’s some benefit in returning kicks even if it statistically results in worse starting field position. There’s not much of a difference in starting from the 25 or 22/23 (only about .1-.15 fewer points per drive). But if you have a guy who, every couple of games, can bust out a return for a touchdown or can flip the field by returning one to midfield or the opposing 40, then you’re looking at an extra 2-2.5 points for that drive which is significant and potentially game-changing. However, last year’s Saints team did not have those types of game-breaking returns. It had one return go for over 30 yards all year, a 31 yard return by Tim Hightower.
Enter Ted Ginn Jr.
Since the NFL moved the kickoff spot to the 35, Ginn has averaged 23.4 yards per return. That’s 7 yards more per return than the Saints were getting last year. How significant is that? On average, a typical return that goes 7 yards further results in .2-.25 more points for that drive. And that game-breaking returner the Saints have lacked? Ginn has season longs of 102, 31, 38, 43, and 59 since the kickoff was moved up. Ginn has that ability to flip momentum after a score and give the Saints great field position they have desperately lacked.
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The Saints (and Ginn) have been returning about 2 kickoffs per game. Over a game, that’s .4-.5 extra points the Saints offense is getting just from receiving better field position. And that’s not all. About 45-50% of drives following kickoffs end in punts. Those 7 extra yards attained by Ginn on kickoffs will put the opposing team in slightly worse field position. If one drive following a Ginn return per game results in a punt, that next drive by the opponent is, on average, scoring .2-.25 fewer points than they would be with last year’s Saints’ return game. So now Ginn is giving the offense .4-.5 more points and saving the Saints defense .2-.25 points just on kickoffs.
That simply covers kickoff returns. What about Ginn as a punt returner? Ginn is an elite punt returner in addition to his skills as a kickoff returner. Last year, the Saints averaged 9.6 yards per punt return. Unlike the kickoff game where there was no explosion, Tommylee Lewis did have an electrifying 59 yard return. Ginn, however, has surpassed Lewis and the Saints in general over his career. Ginn has a 10.5 yards per punt return average.
In his career, Ginn has 4 punt return touchdowns and longs including 37, 38, 41, 55, 71, 78, and 87 yards so he is not for lack of explosion. If anything, he’ll provide even more explosion in the punt return game. In general, you can count on an extra yard or so from Ginn than the Saints received last year which would score the Saints about .035 extra points per possession due to the slightly better field position. Since Ginn and the Saints usually return about 2 punts per game, that’s about .07 extra points Ginn is contributing from the field position provided by his punt returns.
How much does that really matter? Well it all adds up. With the .4-.5 point offensive advantage Ginn provides, the .2-.25 point defensive advantage Ginn provides, and the .07 point advantage Ginn’s punt returns provides, simply adding Ginn as a returner could net the Saints a .75 points per game advantage this season compared to last season. Over the course of a season, that’s a 12 point swing in the Saints’ favor. Over the course of a season, replacing an anemic return game with an elite returner like Ginn is essentially like adding 2 touchdowns to last season’s offense.
So no, let’s not expect Ginn to replicate Cooks’ production from last season. But with Ginn’s boost to the Saints return game, and with a full offseason with new special teams coach Bradford Banta, the Saints special teams could go from a unit that cost the Saints wins last year to one of the better units in the NFL.