New England Patriots

FOXBORO, MA - NOVEMBER 05: Marllin Jackson #28 of the Indianapolis Colts defends Troy Brown #80 of the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on November 5, 2006 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. The catch made Brown the all time reception leader for the New England Patriots. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com

Patriots running backs/returners coach Troy Brown knows what it takes to become the most dependable returner on a team. And that’s the most important thing he’s looking for to determine the next guy in line in New England.

Despite Julian Edelman’s experience as a punt returner, the Patriots have preferred to lighten his workload and try other options in recent years, like Gunner Olszewski. And at kick returner, it’s basically been a revolving door. Brown’s job as returners coach is to figure out who he can depend on the most in those roles.

But how long is that going to take? Certainly more than a few days. As Brown described it, hearkening back to the days of former NFL receiver Steve Smith, it could take years.

In light of that, Brown didn’t sound particularly confident that a rookie would take the reins in either return role, despite the presence of dynamic college returners like Kyle Dugger, Jeff Thomas, and J.J. Taylor. He expounded on his process of determining dependability in the return game, especially amid the challenges of reduced training camps and the lack of a preseason.

FOXBOROUGH, MA - AUGUST 29: Gunner Olszewski of the New England Patriots runs with the ball during a preseason game against the New York Giants at Gillette Stadium on August 29, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

FOXBOROUGH, MA – AUGUST 29: Gunner Olszewski of the New England Patriots runs with the ball during a preseason game against the New York Giants at Gillette Stadium on August 29, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

“It’s what they’re able to show, you know, like the question I just got a little bit ago, it’s been a little bit different trying to do that, since we don’t have preseason games or any other, you know, a lot of live competition, to actually simulate what it’s gonna be like in the game,” Brown told reporters in a video conference on Friday. “But we do the best we can with what we have. Again, the guys have been working hard at, you know, trying to develop all the good habits that you have to have as a returner. So, I’m doing the best I can with these guys. And they were – like I said, they’re working hard and throwing different stuff at them, trying to push them and test them and see what they got. But, you know – again, like dealing with their running backs and every other position out there, it’s just been a little different trying to evaluate what you have when you don’t have people in different colored jerseys to kind of evaluate these guys. So again it’s been a learning process. You become creative with things that you’re doing and try to get them ready.

“But, you know, some of these guys do stuff on their own. They go study film. They do a really good job of watching other players around the league do it. And so by that ‘dependability’ part of it, you just can’t – you can’t replace that part of it. These guys have to develop it over time. I’ve yet to see too many rookies that I can remember, especially when I was playing, that really did an excellent job at it.”

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - AUGUST 18: Kyle Dugger #50 of the New England Patriots looks on during training camp at Gillette Stadium on August 18, 2020 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Steven Senne-Pool/Getty Images)

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – AUGUST 18:
Kyle Dugger #50 of the New England Patriots looks on during training camp at Gillette Stadium on August 18, 2020 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Steven Senne-Pool/Getty Images)

Although it would be surprising to see someone like Dugger become a standout returner at the NFL level as a rookie, he could with time. And considering Olszewski, it wouldn’t be unprecedented for a rookie to earn the role. Brown referred to Smith as a player who over several years grew into a returner who was routinely among the most productive in the league.

“I remember watching Steve Smith play back in the day, how many balls that hit the ground until he got comfortable. And he became one of the greatest to ever do it,” Brown said. “So, it’s just getting comfortable back there. You know, it’s just a different type of deal when you come from college into the pros to do these things, and you got all those – whatever, those ‘rugby punts’ or whatever they do. And now you’re in a league with [punters] that got five-second hangtimes now. So, you’re dealing with situations and all kinds of things you’ve got to deal with it, and they put the pressure on you to secure possession for your team. So it’s a different situation for these guys coming into this league to develop the dependability to return punts.”

Patience may be running thin for outside observers as far as finding a consistent, dependable kick returner for the Patriots. It may turn out to be Brown’s greatest challenge in the first year in his new role.

Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at matthew.dolloff@bbgi.com.