Chargers believe Andre Roberts can return some juice to special teams

·4 min read
Houston Texans' Andre Roberts (19) runs during the second half of an NFL football game against the Indianapolis Colts, Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Andre Roberts' experience attracted the Chargers, who attribute much of their success on special teams to the caliber of the returner. Roberts made the Pro Bowl three consecutive seasons. (Michael Conroy / Associated Press)

He definitely brings experience and is expected to also provide stability and consistency.

And that’s not all.

“I guess be a little crazy,” Andre Roberts said Wednesday. “Run hard, run fast. Sometimes, you know you’re going to take a shot, get lit up a little bit … It’s part of the game.”

The Chargers signed Roberts last week to be their kickoff and punt returner, the veteran taking over in areas where the team has been lacking.

Entering Week 8, the Chargers rank last in the NFL with a 16.5-yard average on kickoff returns and 26th with a 6.8-yard average on punt returns.

Roberts, 33, is in his 12th season and was released last week by Houston, which continues to purge its roster. He was a Pro Bowl pick each of the last three years and also an All-Pro in 2018.

“Good timing for both sides,” coach Brandon Staley said. “I know that he’s energized by the opportunity, and so are we.”

The Chargers also switched kickers this week as they attempt to bolster their special teams. Veteran Dustin Hopkins was signed to replace rookie Tristan Vizcaino.

Hopkins, 31, was let go last week by Washington, where he had been since 2015. Vizcaino lost the job after missing five extra points over the last four games.

“His experiences … and being a guy who’s kicked in playoff games [we felt] that would be an advantage for us,” Staley said of Hopkins. “Where we're at this season, we felt like Dustin would give us a lift.”

Dustin Hopkins kicks off as a member of the Washington Football Team.
The Chargers like that placekicker Dustin Hopkins has a strong kickoff leg and has playoff experience. (Mark Tenally / Associated Press)

Staley said the Chargers would like to sign Vizcaino to their practice squad. To make room for Roberts, they waived receiver KJ Hill Jr. and then were able to bring him back on the practice squad.

Hopkins and fellow free agent Elliott Fry both worked out for the Chargers on Tuesday, the team deciding to go with the more experienced kicker. Hopkins also will kick off.

“That was something that was really important to me,” Staley said. “We didn't lose anything on kickoffs. He has an outstanding kickoff leg.”

Special teams has been an issue with the Chargers — over the last two seasons, especially. There have been improvements this year but not enough to consider the problems solved.

On Sunday, they play New England at SoFi Stadium. The same teams met there in December in what turned out to be the Chargers’ worst special-teams game of 2020 in the 45-0 loss.

They yielded touchdowns on a punt return and a blocked field-goal return. Three times they lined up for punts with the wrong number of players on the field; they had 12 once and 10 twice.

The closest the Chargers came to scoring that day ended when Michael Badgley missed a 46-yard field-goal attempt.

Staley called the Patriots’ Bill Belichick “one of the elite special teams coaches in the NFL, always has been.” So the challenge only intensifies now.

Staley said he has been encouraged by the performances of the coverage teams but added that the return games have been subpar.

“A lot of that has to do with who's back there returning,” he said. “Anybody that’s studied the kicking game, any press conference in the history of special teams is going to talk about who their return guy is.”

A decade ago, Staley was the defensive coordinator for a Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College team that included future NFL player Cordarrelle Patterson.

“All those return schemes work better when you have someone like him back there,” Staley said. “That’s why we felt like getting Andre was a good move because he gives us production.”

The Chargers’ special teams also rely on plenty of younger players, something that could eventually change under Staley as the front office builds future rosters. He repeatedly has referenced the desire to seek more veteran help there.

Among the Chargers who have played the most special teams snaps this season are rookies Nick Niemann, Chris Rumph II and Mark Webb Jr., and second-year safety Alohi Gilman along with Kemon Hall, who made his NFL debut last month.

“There’s a lot of nuance to special teams,” Staley said. “A lot of it is experience. When you come from college, a lot of these guys were not core special teams players. They were star players on their college teams. So there is a learning curve at times.”


Returning from their off week, the Chargers continue to regain their health. Linebacker Drue Tranquill (chest muscle) was the only player limited in practice Wednesday, according to the team’s official injury report. Defensive lineman Justin Jones (calf) also practiced as he readies to return from the injured reserve list. Linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. (ankle) also is on IR and as yet has not been designated to return.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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