8 Players with Upside in Return-Yardage Leagues
Since the NFL moved touchbacks to the 25-yard-line in 2016, kick-return TDs have gone 7, 7, 5, 7 and 7. Last year, 2 of those 7 scores came via onside kicks. (Hat tip to CeeDee Lamb and A.J. Brown.)
In the 5 years prior, we saw 9, 13, 7, 6 and 7 kick-return TDs.
So there’s been a dip, as you’d expect. No surprise, then, that 2020 wasn’t a great year for fantasy contributors on special teams.
Of the 38 players with 10+ kick returns, only 2 cracked the top-50 fantasy scorers at their respective position: Chase Edmonds (RB25) and Tony Pollard (RB41). Edmonds handled 18 returns; Pollard saw 32. Only Cordarrelle Patterson returned more kicks.
As for yardage, the impact was minimal. While Pollard averaged a solid 4.8 fantasy points per game via returns, Edmonds averaged just 2.6.
Naturally, not much changed on the punt return side. Of the 31 guys with 10+ attempts, only 2 finished as top-50 fantasy performers: CeeDee Lamb (WR24) and Nyheim Hines (RB18). Lamb chipped in 1.7 fantasy points per game on returns; Hines tallied 1.9.
There simply aren't very many fantasy-relevant assets returning kicks and punts anymore. Guys like Tyreek Hill and Tyler Lockett — a pair with 7 combined return scores — are now non-factors. You won’t find many high-end studs in the list below.
So, who is set to contribute on returns this fall? Let's dig in.
Note: Fantasy point totals shown below assume 1 point per 10 return yards; 6 points per return score
Tony Pollard, RB/CeeDee Lamb, WR, Cowboys
Pollard racked up 7 kick return scores across 3 seasons at Memphis. More importantly, he’s emerged as Dallas’ primary return man in each of his first 2 pro seasons.
Even in the game Ezekiel Elliott sat out last year — Week 15 at San Francisco — Pollard returned 1 kick for 20 yards. The added responsibility supplies a small boost to his handcuff profile.
Barring a surprise twist, Lamb will remain Dallas’ go-to punt returner.
“I don’t view players graduating from special teams,” HC Mike McCarthy said via The Dallas Morning News. “Because at the end of the day, I think it’s important from a job description and job responsibility standpoint. And, outside of our specialists and your quarterback, you like to be able to see your players do more than one thing.”
Chase Edmonds, RB/Rondale Moore, WR, Cardinals
I reached out to Kyle Odegard from the Cardinals’ official site, and he called Moore the “likely” punt returner. He was less certain about the kick return role.
Across 17 punt return opportunities at Purdue, Moore tallied just 118 yards. He saw even more action on kicks with 44 returns for 813 yards (18.4 per). That sample is entirely from 2018 and 2019.
At 5’7 and with off-the-charts athleticism, Moore profiles as a potentially dangerous returner. But if the Cards aren’t comfortable fully letting him loose on kick returns — understandable given his injury history — the job could fall to Edmonds. The 4th-year back saw 18 attempts last year following seasons with 0 and 3.
Consider Edmonds a fringe RB2 while on the pass-catching side of a timeshare with James Conner. Moore’s an exciting bench stash in lineup setting leagues.
Cordarrelle Patterson, RB, Bears
Patterson won’t be a standalone fantasy option to begin the year. But there’s at least a chance he gains deep-league relevance given Atlanta’s thin backfield. Just look at the names behind 28-year-old Mike Davis:
Javian Hawkins (rookie)
Caleb Huntley (rookie)
The “veterans” have combined for 35 career touches.
Patterson is one of the all-time greats as a kick returner. He’s tallied 8 career scores, including 1 in each of the past 3 seasons. 2020 turned up 6.8 fantasy points per game on returns alone. Strong.
As a bonus, Patterson has proven durable as a pro with only 1 missed game in 8 seasons. He’s on the late-round radar in deeper formats -- with obvious added value in return-yardage leagues.
Jalen Reagor, WR, Eagles
Reagor suffered a shoulder injury in last year’s training camp and a torn thumb ligament in Week 5. So even though the Eagles considered his punt return tape the best among 2020 prospects -- per insider Adam Caplan -- the team wasn't in a position to force that role full-time.
Still, Reagor managed to take 1 of his 4 returns back for a 73-yard score in 2020. That followed a 2019 at TCU with 2 such scores on 16 attempts.
Back healthy — and no longer forced to play the WR1 role — Reagor could see some extra opportunities under new ST coordinator Michael Clay.
His main competition figures to come from Greg Ward, whose 6.4-yard average last year ranked 14th among 16 qualifiers with 20+ attempts. Reagor looks like a WR5 with upside entering the summer.
Mecole Hardman, WR, Chiefs
In May, Nate Taylor of The Athletic wrote that Hardman “appears to still be the Chiefs’ primary punt returner.”
Hardman saw 25 opportunities last year, a mark only 4 returners beat. He also recorded 1 of the 8 league-wide punt return TDs (a 67-yarder at Miami). Hardman added 9 kick returns for 184 yards.
He’s yet to develop as a pass catcher, but the 23-year-old shouldn’t be cast aside as a bust. Hardman is fairly priced at WR52 in FFPC best-ball drafts.
Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR, Lions
New Lions ST coordinator Dave Fipp named 5 candidates for returns at OTAs: Kalif Raymond, Tom Kennedy, Victor Bolden, D’Angelo Amos and St. Brown.
Only ASB is a lock to make the team, so look for him to at least see some opportunities in 2021. The USC product wasn’t a dynamic return option in Pasadena, taking 19 punts for 107 yards and totaling 43 yards on 2 kick returns. Still, the name of the game is opportunity.
And he might see plenty of it on offense, with not-so-durable vets Breshad Perriman and Tyrell Williams filling the depth chart.