DeAndre Carter is one of the best returners in the NFL right now. That's not an opinion, either; the facts back it up.
The Washington Football Team was not satisfied with its return game in 2020. Players like Danny Johnson and Steven Sims had their moments, but with its kickoff average near the bottom at 20.8 yards per return, it was clear that something needed to change.
Enter Carter, a four-year journeyman return specialist, and Washington's special teams fortunes have flipped to start the 2021 season. His 27.8-yard average on kickoff returns is the best among players with at least 10 attempts, and his 333 return yards are the most among any returner through four games. Thanks to his 101-yard touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons, Carter has been named the NFC's Special Teams Player of the Week.
"Coach Nate Kaczor called a great return," Carter said after Washington's 34-30 win over the Falcons. "The other 10 guys on the KOR team did their job."
Washington was in need of a spark after it watched the Falcons' offense put together an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that put it in a 17-13 hole to close out the first half. Carter already had two solid returns earlier in the game, ending in gains of 28 and 23 yards, respectively.
On his third attempt, Carter caught the ball one yard deep in the end zone and sprinted up the middle of the field. The first defender to reach him was safety Richie Grant, who Carter blew by easily. After that, Carter's blockers created a clear lane for him to run through, and the former undrafted free agent was off.
Thanks to a block by John Bates, the only other man Carter had to beat was Cameron Nizialek, and he used his speed to get past the kicker and into the open field. From that point on, Carter had an unopposed path on his way to the touchdown that allowed Washington to retake the lead.
The Falcons made sure Carter didn't get a chance to return a kick after that.
"Great effort," Carter said of his teammates. "Everybody was pretty much covered up."
Carter's first touchdown of his career was also Washington's first kickoff return for a touchdown since November of 2019 and tied Brian Mitchell and Rashad Ross for the longest in franchise history.
There's a short list of players who have returned a kickoff for a touchdown so far this season. In fact, there are only two of them. Aside from Carter, the Jacksonville Jaguars' Jamal Agnew is the only other player to accomplish the feat.
On top of that, Carter and Agnew are the only players this year to have a kickoff return of at least 100 yards. Agnew's return against the Denver Broncos has Carters' beat by just one yard.
"When everybody is on the same page on the same play," Carter said, "you can see what happens."
Carter's ability as a returner caught Rivera's attention in training camp. It's why Washington signed him in the offseason, and it's why he earned a roster spot in late August. Rivera wanted someone with veteran experience who could give him confidence they could handle return duties. Carter's performance Sunday showed why that was the right move.