The NFL has arguably softened up the sport of football with it’s new player protection rules and guidelines, and one must look no further than kickoff returns to see evidence of that. The new kickoff line at the 35-yard line is an absolute travesty to the game of football. The old kickoff line of 30 yards was more than good enough, but the NFL just wants more safety in the game. Now they want to end kickoff returns? Shame on the NFL. Despite that rant, I’m not here to make a fuss about that, I’m here for the readers on Major League Fantasy Sports. These rankings are composited by looking at the past three seasons average punt and kick return yard totals, and then ranking each position: Kick returners and punt returners. Ones that do double duty will be more likely to appear on both lists.
1.) David Wilson – His role as kick returner is directly tied to his use in the running game. If he is in a pretty even time share, or on the short end of carries with Andre Brown, he’ll see more time on kick returns. If more of a full time role, maybe the Giants take him off return duties. Either way, he is elusive, quick, and with the proper gap and coverage, can take one to the house.
2.) Josh Cribbs – One of the most dangerous kick returners in the game. Since 2005, he has accumulated 10,015 return yards and 8 TDs. In Oakland, he’ll assume the same role, and should also see some punt returns. History says Cribbs will be an elite kick returner again this season, but will cost you a spot in your lineup.
3.) Jacoby Jones – He is the type of player who is too good not to have on kick returns. Remember his 109-yard TD return in the Super Bowl? If not, where have you been? Last season, Jones had an average return yardage of 30.7, and while that number may regress a bit, he’ll still be one of the top options as long as he doesn’t get injured or fumble too often.
4.) Joe McKnight – He’ll be worth a spot in your lineup sheerly because the Jets team is in rebuild mode, and will give a ton of scores up. Averaging nearly 30 yards/return the past 2 seasons as full-time kick returner, McKnight has accumulated 2,145 yards, and two scores. He’ll score another TD or two in the same role again this season, and may set a personal best in yards.
5.) Marc Mariani – Before missing all of last season to injuries, Mariani was easily a top option on kick returns, as well as punt returns. Will he do both again this season? Possibly, but he’ll at least do kick returns. Not the fastest returner out there, but one of the more consistent ones. Like the Jets, the Titans are rebuilding, which means Mariani will be on the field a ton as a returner. Hopefully he’ll be used some in the passing game so he doesn’t take a lineup spot just for returns.
6.) Marcus Thigpen – It’s hard to trust players coming off a great first year, regardless of role, but I’ll roll with Thigpen here. The new look Miami Dolphins will be better offensively, but still have growing pains with Tannehill as QB, so Thigpen’s value shouldn’t change much. With him, as with most of these guys, are you feeling lucky if you start him? Can’t hurt plugging in bye weeks.
7.) Brandon Tate – Last season’s 795 yards was a step back for him, as he’s usually around the 900 to 1000-yard return range. He’ll bounce back some this season, and at least you can start him and know there’s a nice chance he’ll also see some targets in the passing game.
8.) Randall Cobb – As his role as receiver expands, his role as kick returner may dwindle. For the time being he is still a great option, as he not only gets you points from being in an elite offense, but also from return yards. Expect his clip of 27 yards/return to continue, and realize that he has the potential to make life hell on teams trying to tackle him.
9.) Emmanuel Sanders – With Chris Rainey gone, Sanders takes over kick return duties, and the return here could be nice. Sanders is faster than Rainey, and more elusive, which may equate to a dual option in fantasy as a receiver and kick returner. Worth a gamble on draft day.
10.) Brandon Boykin – The first defensive player on the list in a fast, furious, turn-over-happy offense, Boykin may see a ton of the field this season on kickoffs. His clip of 23.0 yds/return last season isn’t elite, but it isn’t too shabby either. The advantage of having him is you don’t have to waste an offensive spot on him. Never hurts plugging him in as your DP slot.
11.) Darius Reynaud – Should Mariani show signs of lingering injury-related issues from last season, Reynaud would step in as kick returner, and would be a nice option. Finishing second in total return yards last season (1,240), he returned one for a score, with a borderline elite clip of 23.4/attempt.
12.) Jacquizz Rodgers – The bowling ball has entered the building. This will be his first full season as full kick off return starter, and the numbers could be great. Averaging 25.7 yards/attempt last season, he fell just shy of being in the top 10 in average yards/return, but that may change this season. His speed, plus involvement in the offensive game should make him a later middle round pick in all drafts, and is well worth starting in your flex or WR/RB slot.
13.) LaMichael James – Taking a shot in the dark on him come draft day could prove to be a worthy investment. In a handful of attempts last post-season, James posted 162 yards on 7 returns. Entering this season as kick returner, the average could go up to the 25 yards/return range, with the added bonus of being back up to Frank Gore at running back.
14.) Devin McCourty – Defensive players that play a weak position, put up good stats, and then give owners a little something extra, always have a place on my team. McCourty, the Patriots starting free safety, is also a good option for kick returns, as he averaged 24 yards/return last season. Combine that with solid tackle totals on defense, and he should be in your defensive plans every week.
15.) Keshawn Martin – Martin is a good bet to see all the kick returns, as well as most of the punt returns, so he earns the final slot on this list. He may not be the fastest returner, or have the best average per return, but he gets the job done. On deep rosters and lineups, he is worth putting in, as he’ll give you a decent number of points from kick off returns, and may add a few more on punt returns.
1.) Josh Cribbs – As with kick returns, this guy is lethal on punt returns. Over his past seasons, he has put up 845 yards, just under a 12 yards/punt return average, and one score. While using a lineup spot on him may hurt, the numbers he’ll put up week to week on yards from punt and kick returns make him an intriguing start.
2.) Patrick Peterson – He is likely to never repeat his insane punt return yards from 2011 (699 punt return yards, 4 TDs), but he also likely bottomed out last season (426 yards), and will rebound this season. His value to fantasy owners is mainly his knack for picking off passes as a cornerback, but the added boost from punt return yards makes him a player to be desired on draft day.
3.) Leodis McKelvin – I have this guy every season on my fantasy team, and he always produces. Over the past two seasons he has averaged an insane 19.1 yards/return, and scored three times. His appeal outside of punt return yards may be minimal, but his sheer ability to average nearly 20 yards/punt return, and likelihood of finding paydirt at least once makes him worth the gamble.
4.) Darius Reynaud – Another repeat from the kick return list, Reynaud will start the season assuming the punt return duties, and will see the occasional kick return. As long as he can keep around his 13.2 average/return from last season, he has the opportunity to sneak you a few wins, and possibly score one return for a score.
5.) Travis Benjamin – SLEEPER ALERT! On three punt returns last season, he posted an insane 149 return yards and one TD. If the Browns commit to him as full-time punt returner, he could very well top the list for punt return yards. More involvement in the offense as a receiver would help boost his average. He’s too explosive to not be on the field for the Browns.
6.) Devin Hester – I’d like him better if he could hold onto the ball as a receiver, but what he does as a punt returner is nuts. Since 2006, all he’s done is post 12 punt returns for TDs, total 2,985 yards, and average 12.1 yds/return. This season expect more fantasy goodness from him as a punt returner, as he could return one for a score in any given week.
7.) Dwayne Harris – It is difficult to get a read on what exactly the Cowboys’ plans are for him, but the one thing that seems to be certain is he’ll be utilized as punt returner. Harris posted 354 punt return yards and one TD last season, and as long as he doesn’t get injured, he’ll be a good option for punt returns again this season. An uptick in both punt returns and receptions will help his cause, and fantasy owners are hoping he can at least time split at WR3 with Terrance Williams.
8.) Trindon Holliday – He may not be an elite option, but as long as he’s starting punt returner, he’ll be worth a roster spot. He averages 10 yards/punt return for his career, and also doubles some on kick returns, making him a sneaky option to get yards, and potentially score. There are some advantages not directly associated with being on Peyton Manning’s team.
9.) Marcus Thigpen – The more I read up on him, the more I like him as a punt returner and kick returner. Already a borderline top five option at kick returner, he also has the skills on returns to be a top seven option as a punt returner. Any time you could potentially get 40 yards off total return yards per game, and get two TDs in a season off those returns, take the extra points.
10.) Leon Washington – Washington, now with the Patriots, is one of those players who does the little things to help his team win. In New England that role will be to return punts. He may not be as quick or as elusive as in his younger days, but you’d be hard pressed to find a more consistent option than Washington week to week for returns. Unlike in Seattle, he may not see many kickoff returns, but if he gets at least a handful there’s a strong possibility of a score.
11.) Adam Jones – Are there any points associated with off-field issues? If so, move him higher. PacMan is almost exclusively limited to punt return duties, but that is just enough to make him more than a mere blip on the fantasy radar. As long as he can continue to average more than 11 yards/punt return and throw in a score, he’ll be worthy of a spot on draft day as one of the most consistent options.
12.) T.Y. Hilton – Hilton is a prime example of a player whose speed and skill set are being used to their fullest extent, leading Hilton to blossom. Already the possessor of elite speed, and being entrenched as WR2 in Indianapolis, Hilton could make a second name for himself as a punt returner. In a season of full punt return duties, Hilton could emerge as Randall Cobb did in the return game. Based upon his upside as a receiver, and being full-time punt return starter, owners should aim to nab him in the middle rounds, and one round before where you think he can be added.
13.) Randall Cobb – This guy is Mr. Do-It-All for the Packers, and a highly sought after commodity for fantasy purposes. He’s already a borderline elite receiver in fantasy and for the Packers. Combine that with his ability in the kick return and punt return games, and he might be one of the most valuable fantasy assets in the game.
14.) Dexter McCluster – Likely the Chiefs’ opening day starter at punt returner, if he can use his speed to make tacklers miss, and occasionally break a few long ones, McCluster could be one of the nicer surprises in the punt return game. Andy Reid and Co. will look to use him all over the place in the offense, and this could be the year he taps into his potential.
15.) Marcus Sherels – Opportunity knocks, and Sherels, exclusively used in the kick and punt return games, could be a bye week filler, injury filler, or just the player you insert into your lineup to get a handful of points. Not flashy in either of the return games, but his usage in both games is steady, and could result in a TD one day. With Percy Harvin officially out of town, his role in both games could expand.
Now that all the offensive rankings have been completed, look for my start of the defensive rankings, starting with my next post on Friday. Who ready for some football?!?!?!