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July 13, 2014 at 4:20 PM

Countdown to Camp: 12 Questions for 12 Days — Who will return punts in 2014?

earlpunt

The opening of Seattle’s training camp is now 12 days away — fitting number, huh?

So I thought I’d begin a countdown to training camp by addressing one key question for each of the 12 days between now and the first whistle.

We’ll start with one that may not be the most important but is among the most intriguing — who will return punts?

This became a question when Golden Tate departed via free agency.

Tate’s punt return prowess might have been one of the more underrated aspects of Seattle’s 2013 season.

In his first year as the fulltime returner, Tate was a revelation. He was sure-handed — requirement No. 1 for a team whose main motto is that “It’s all about the ball”’ — and also able to take advantage of opportunities for big returns when they were there. His 71-yard return in the third quarter against Tampa Bay was as dynamic a play as the Seahawks had all season and was a key in what was the biggest comeback in franchise history, to name maybe the most noteworthy punt return of 2013.

In fact, Tate ended the season with 585 punt return yards,  second in franchise history and 27th-most in NFL history.

That led to a huge advantage for the Seahawks in punt return yards as the Seahawks allowed just 82, spending most of the season threatening the NFL record for fewest punt return yards allowed in a season.

So what now?

If you recall, coach Pete Carroll opened Organized Training Activities by dropping the relative bombshell that free safety Earl Thomas was, at the moment, the leader in the clubhouse to win the job.

And Thomas, if you also recall, was enthusiastic as could be about the possibility. So too, though, were Doug Baldwin and Richard Sherman, while Percy Harvin — already slated to be the kickoff returner and with no rel history as a punt returner — also said he’d be open to the idea. Rookie Paul Richardson also figures to get a shot at it, and a wildcard entry is receiver Bryan Walters, who is far from a lock to make the roster but has always intrigued Carroll with his return ability.

As mini-camp ended, Carroll said Thomas was still the front-runner, but that, as always, the job was still in competition.

One aspect of this that will be interesting is if they let game action decide it. That would mean putting key players such Thomas, Sherman, Baldwin and Harvin in potentially risky situations in the preseason. Recall that Tate didn’t really get much action on punt returns last preseason. Tate got just three of 16 available punt returns in the preseason a year ago, with the rest going to Walter Thurmond, Will Blackmon, Walters and Perez Ashford.

Everyone involved insists that the risking not just starting players, but players who are foundations to the franchise and the best (or among the best) at their positions in the NFL, won’t be a factor in the decision.

But it’s hard to fathom that won’t at least be a thought in the final process. While the Seahawks have so far always had a primary returner during the Carroll era (Leon Washington in years 2010-12 and Tate last year) the guess here is that this could end up being more of a committee approach. For now, it remains an open position and question.

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