Summer Showdown: Ray Fisher v. Brandon James

The Indianapolis Colts have been short a dynamic punt and kick returner since Terrence Wilkins was with the team in 2003 and 2006.  Fans have been screaming for the Colts to replace Chad Simpson and T.J. Rushing with someone who could give Peyton Manning and the Colts’ high-octane offense a shorter field.  The thought of getting Manning just five to ten yards closer to the opponent’s goal line left Colts fans salivating.

After Bill Polian appeared to engage in draft day trickery, when he suggested that no dual returners remained in the 2010 draft, he used one of the Colts seventh round picks to snag Indiana University’s explosive returner, Ray Fisher.

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Fisher’s list of accomplishments, and utility are impressive on paper, seeing that he (like Colts starting corner back Kelvin Hayden) converted to defensive back after spending his first three years as a receiver at IU.  While his defensive skills and development could offer the Colts depth in the secondary, what pops out is his jaw-dropping production in the return game.

Fisher managed 635 yards on 17 kick returns, for an eye-popping average of 37.4 yards a return, and two touchdowns in just nine games.  While his punt return yards are more pedestrian, returning six punts for 59 yards (9.8 yards average), it is clear that Ray Fisher knows how to return the football and is hard to stop once he gets gets started.

The Colts were not done stocking up on kick and punt returners when the draft concluded, signing Florida’s Brandon James as an undrafted free agent.

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James spent much of his four-year collegiate career returning kicks and punts.  In fact, he returned so many kicks and punts that he owns multiple SEC records in this category, including most career kickoff returns (112), career kickoff return yardage (2,718), single-season kickoff average per return (28.0, 2007), most total kick returns in a career (229), and most total kick return yardage in a career (4,089).  He added to all of these statistics with one kickoff returned for a touchdown and four punts returned for a touchdown while at Florida.

James will enter his summer with the Colts as easily the most experienced kick and punt returner on the roster.

What may separate James and Fisher is that James measured at only 5-foot 7-inches tall and was used as a situational running back at Florida.  In the NFL it is highly unlikely that James would take many snaps with the Colts offense, or earn many carries.  Moreover, the Colts have a stable three back rotation already with Javarris James of Miami as the only running back added to the roster for the summer (as an undrafted free agent).

If James hopes to beat Fisher for a roster spot, as the Colts will likely devote only one roster spot to a dual-returner, he will have to be so much better than Fisher in this capacity that the Colts will pass on Fisher’s defensive potential and choose a “one-trick pony” instead.  Otherwise, James will have to rely on Fisher to play his way out of defensive legitimacy.

The only other way this competition will be sorted out is if James and Fisher prove capable of only fulfilling one return role.  With 117 career punt returns for 1,371 yards and an 11.7 yard punt return average, James could separate himself from Fisher as a punt return specialist.

No matter how it turns out, watching James and Fisher fly in training camp and preseason should be enjoyable for all Colts fans.

The wait for a dynamic return threat should be over.  Who will it be?

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