Brian Witherspoon has averaged 23.6 yards on 80 kickoff returns and 10.8 yards on 26 punt returns in two NFL seasons with Jacksonville and Detroit. (PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS)*
The Panthers maintained their offseason focus on improving special teams by claiming cornerback/kick returner Brian Witherspoon off waivers from the Lions on Friday. The explosive, young player served as the Jaguars' primary kickoff and punt returner as a rookie in 2008 and played for both Detroit and Jacksonville last season.
Originally signed as an undrafted rookie free agent from Stillman College by the Jaguars in 2008, Witherspoon (5-foot-10, 180 pounds) set team records with 52 kickoff returns and 1,250 kickoff return yards for an average of 24.0 yards per return and posted a team-leading 11.3-yard punt return average on 17 returns for 192 yards. He also contributed seven tackles on defense and two on special teams.
Witherspoon, 24, began the 2009 campaign with Jacksonville and averaged 23.7 yards on 24 kickoff returns and 11.1 yards on seven punt returns in seven games before being waived on December 14. After being claimed by Detroit, he saw action in one game, returning four kickoffs for 72 yards and two punts for 10 yards.
With the exceptions of the re-signings of defensive end Tyler Brayton and tackle Rob Petitti, all five of Carolina's other acquisitions since the free agency signing period started on March 5 have been special-teams related. Along with Witherspoon, the Panthers have added:
• Kicker Todd Carter - kickoff specialist from Grand Valley State.
• Safety Aaron Francisco - twice selected as the Arizona Cardinals' special teams captain.
• Defensive back Marcus Hudson - ranked second on the San Francisco 49ers with a career-high 24 special teams tackles in 2009.
• Wide receiver Wallace Wright - finished among the top three in special teams tackles in three of four seasons with the New York Jets.