They did see DeAndre Carter. But did they really see DeAndre Carter?
Signed to be the team’s kick returner, Carter played 45 preseason snaps, all on offense.
The Chargers had 10 returns — six kickoffs and four punts — in their three preseason games. None of the players who did the returning made the initial 53-man roster.
So, Sunday against Las Vegas will be the first time Chargers fans see the real, complete DeAndre Carter.
“Definitely excited,” Carter said last week. “I’m just excited to see how our unit — our special teams unit — comes together. I think we’re going to be exciting back there this year.”
Special teams have been an issue of late for the Chargers, a fact underscored by the turnover from last season.
Coach Brandon Staley hired a new coordinator in Ryan Ficken and assistant in Chris Gould. The Chargers signed a new punter in JK Scott and long snapper in Josh Harris.
They re-signed kicker Dustin Hopkins after he made 18 of 20 field-goal tries and 30 of 32 extra-point attempts in 11 games for them last season.
And the Chargers added Carter, who is entering his fifth season yet still has a survivor’s hunger. Coming out of Sacramento State in 2015, Carter spent time with four teams over three years before making his NFL debut in 2018 with Philadelphia.
During one stretch, he was out of the league for so long that he took a job as a substitute teacher at a middle school in Northern California.
“A great experience, wouldn’t trade that for the world,” Carter, 29, said after signing. “It teaches you to cherish the opportunity that you have and make sure that you take advantage of all the opportunities that you have and just be grateful.”
A year ago, the Chargers had the worst punt-return average — 5.9 yards — in the NFL. Chicago’s Jakeem Grant had a 97-yard punt return. The Chargers had 107 yards total in 18 returns.
Carter has career return averages of 9.2 yards on punts and 23.3 yards on kickoffs. His only return for a touchdown came on a kickoff last season for Washington.
He is expected to stand tall in 2022, this player who, at 5 feet 8, is the shortest of all the Chargers, a full foot shorter than tight end Donald Parham Jr.
Given his size and assignment, Carter acknowledged after joining the Chargers that kick returning requires a certain — perhaps slightly crazy — mentality.
“You’re looking straight up into the sky and people are running at you full speed and you can’t necessarily see everything,” he said. “It definitely takes a different mindset to be back there. Everybody can’t do it.
“… I think that it’s going out there to make a play, not to not mess up. Try to bring something exciting to a unit, knowing that you have a different skill set. It’s being explosive, being fun.”
A reminder of the Chargers’ kicking-game woes and instability — since November 2020, six coaches have overseen special teams — came in the second week of the preseason.
Dallas’ KaVontae Turpin returned a kickoff 98 yards and a punt 86 yards for touchdowns. In 2021, the Chargers tied for third worst in the NFL at defending punt returns.
With Carter, the expectation is they will have a chance to produce their own special teams electricity. His kickoff return for a touchdown last season covered 101 yards.
“If you make a big play, even if it’s not a touchdown … there’s a lot of momentum in the game that flips,” Carter said. “The offense can thrive on it, and the defense can thrive on it. If you have a good special teams unit, it’s definitely going to go a long way into your team’s success.”
Given their recent performances in the kicking game, the Chargers would welcome some success in 2022. Just avoiding failure would be a step forward too.