Special Teams Rankings
by Kevin English
More and more fantasy leagues are rewarding points for both return yards and returns TDs. Of course, the NFL’s decision to move kickoffs up to the 35-yard line figures to result in a lot more touchbacks – and a lot fewer return yards – in 2011. An elite return man can still be a valuable fantasy asset depending on league rules though. On that note, here’s a look at all 32 return units, ranked first to worst:
1. Cleveland Browns – Choosing between Devin Hester and Josh Cribs is like choosing between Jessica Alba and Scarlett Johansson. It’s a win-win. We give Cribbs and the Browns the slight edge, as he’ll likely receive more opportunities than Hester. And after failing to score a special teams TD for the first time in his career least season, we think Cribbs will have a little extra motivation to get back on track in 2011. Just be aware that the NFL’s new kickoff rules will produce far more touchbacks – and far less chances for a dynamic playmaker like Cribbs to take it the distance.
2. Chicago Bears – The Bears will roll with the duo of Devin Hester and Johnny Knox at the return positions. Knox struggled on just 8 kick returns last season. But in 2009, he was named to the Pro Bowl after posting the second best yards per return mark (29.0) and notching a 102 yard score. Hester, while working towards a more prominent offense role, will likely still handle the bulk of the punt returns. Chicago would be foolish to pull him off punts after he took 3 back for scores last season.
3. Buffalo Bills – Buffalo finished outside the top-10 in both kick and punt return yardage in 2011. But we chalk that one up as a fluke. While they’re without premier special teams coach Bobby April for the second straight season, their crop of return men are simply too dangerous to contain. Dynamos C.J. Spiller, Leodis McKelvin, and Roscoe Parrish will handle most of the load, giving Buffalo the potential for several special teams scores.
4. Seattle Seahawks – Leon Washington stole the show on special teams last season. With 3 kick returns for scores – and 2 in one game – the diminutive lightning rod proved he was fully healthy coming off an awful 2009 leg injury. He’ll see action once again on kicks and punts, though Golden Tate and Justin Forsett figure to receive opportunities as well.
5. Kansas City Chiefs – The Chiefs are in good hands with Dexter McCluster and Javier Arenas heading up the special teams group. Arenas helped the Chiefs post the 3rd most punt return yards, racking up 322 on 39 attempts. McCluster’s season was highlighted by a Week 1 94-yard punt return for 6 against San Diego. While neither shined on kick returns, expect improvement as they each head into their second NFL season.
6. Tennessee Titans – 2010 7th-round pick Marc Mariani evolved into a staple on the Titans’ special teams units, shining as both a kick and punt returner. Mariani finished fifth in punt return yardage (329) and second in kick return yardage (1,530), notching a TD in both. In fact, his combined yardage shattered the Titans franchise mark, set by Derrick Mason eleven years ago.
7. Arizona Cardinals – LaRod Stephens-Howling blossomed into an elite return man last season, converting 2 of his 57 kick returns into scores. LSH also led the NFL in kick return yardage (1,548) due in part to the second most 40+ yard run-backs (6). If the punt return team can improve – a committee approach yielded just 2 returns of 20+ yards in 2010 – this will be a highly ranked unit.
8. Baltimore Ravens – Ladarius Webb was dubbed the early favorite for PR duties by ST coach Jerry Rosburg. That’s likely to stand up unless he falters in season, as Webb racked up a sturdy 9.5 yards per pop in 2010. Meanwhile, David Reed will handle kick return duties after an explosive rookie season. On 21 attempts, Reed notched nearly 30 yards per return, in addition to a TD.
9. Atlanta Falcons – Eric Weems is slated for double duty again in 2011. Last year, he was rock solid, picking up 2 special teams scores – including one of 100+ yards – and 1,330 total yards. Harry Douglas could spell Weems from time to time, but this is his job to lose.
10. New Orleans Saints – Courtney Roby is one of several pure return men whose future is in doubt following the NFL’s new kick return rules. On 33 attempts last year, he managed a solid 23.8 yards-per-return mark. But he lacked the big-play ability, returning not one kick 40 or more yards. The Saints signing of Darren Sproles, and the presence of Lance Moore and Devery Henderson, make Roby expendable. This will likely be a heavy committee approach.
11. Cincinnati Bengals – Bernard Scott heads up a unit that lacked fire power last season. Bernie handled a whopping 56 returns, but mustered just 22.4 yards per. While his offense role figures to grow, he’s likely to remain the primary kick returner. If he can avoid the nagging injuries that have plagued him through 2 NFL seasons, he has a chance for a huge season, at least on special teams. 3rd-year man Quan Cosby is the favorite for the punt return gig, but he’ll be pushed by Jordan Shipley and rookie Jamere Holland.
12. Philadelphia Eagles – Speedster Johnnie Lee Higgins was brought in this offseason to take on kick and punt return duties. The 27-year-old racked up 17 punt returns with Oakland in 2010, posting a sub-par 7.2 yards per return. Don’t let that number fool you though. Back in 2008, Higgins returned 3 punts for scores, while picking up nearly 24 yards per kickoff return. Look for DeSean Jackson to see his special teams action limited to when Philly needs an extra boost, making him a poor bet for more than 10 returns all season.
13. Detroit Lions – “Joystick,” aka Stefan Logan, was the Lions’ do-it-all special teamer last season. Logan posted 1,810 total return yards – second behind the Titans’ Marc Mariani – and recorded a score. He’s got the job all by himself again this season, and should boost an already on-the-rise Lions D/ST.
14. Oakland Raiders – Jacoby Ford tied for the league lead with 3 kick returns for scores in 2010, a mark he could easily repeat this season as one of the NFL’s fastest players. Ford’s only weakness last year was ball security, as he put 3 balls on the ground. Nick Miller will handle punt returns for the second straight season, but he isn’t the type of option to get excited about.
15. Houston Texans – In an ideal world, the Texans would utilize track star Trindon Holliday on kick returns, and Jacoby Jones on punt returns. Unfortunately, the new kickoff rules have Holliday – an overly raw WR – on the roster bubble. Steve Slaton was unimpressive on kick returns last season, posting a below average mark of 19.7 yards per return on 39 attempts. He’s on the roster bubble too, meaning new signee Danieal Manning could take his place.
16. St. Louis Rams – Danny Amendola proved last year he can do it all. As the Rams full-time slot receiver – and return man – Amendola racked up 1,594 yards on special teams in addition to his 689 as a receiver. His action might be scaled back a bit this year, but he’s by far their most explosive option. Mardy Gilyard – who’s on the roster bubble given the Rams depth at WR – could spell Amendola on returns.
17. Green Bay Packers – The Pack boasted a lackluster special teams unit last season, ranking in the bottom third league-wide in both kick and punt return average. That could change this year, given the addition of rookie’s Alex Green and Randall Cobb. We look for Cobb to be the real difference maker, as his game breaking speed has been on full display throughout training camp. He could easily post elite numbers in his rookie season, adding to an already elite Green Bay D/ST.
18. Jacksonville Jaguars – Jacksonville accumulated the 2nd most kick return yardage league-wide, thanks in large part to Deji Karim. Karim averaged 25 yards per return, aided by 3 run backs of over 40 yards. A combination of Mike Thomas, Scotty McGee and rookie Cecil Shorts will handle punts, though Thomas’ action could be limited as a full time WR.
19. New England Patriots – The Pats scored three times on special teams in 2010, but could undergo a personnel change this season. Brandon Tate – who’s turned out to be a bust at WR – is squarely on the roster bubble, despite his special teams dominance from a year ago. Tate averaged a hefty 26 yards per return, while scoring on 2 kick returns. Julian Edelman is the favorite to return punts, though Wes Welker and Taylor Price could also see time.
20. San Francisco 49ers – Ted Ginn Jr. continued his dominance on punt returns, racking up a ridiculous 13.4 yards per return in addition to a TD. The same can’t be said on kick returns, where Ginn notched just 21 yards per pop. The Niners lack of options behind Ginn – and his deep threat ability at WR – will keep his job safe.
21. New York Jets – The Jets lost Brad Smith in the offseason, and will likely roll with rookie Jeremy Kerley in his absence. Kerley was an explosive returner at TCU, notching 13.8 yards per punt return, and 27.2 yards per kick return. The rookie might not duplicate Smith’s 2010 production – he scored twice, while averaging nearly 29 yards per pop – but he has the speed and experience to post solid numbers from the start.
22. Miami Dolphins – The Fins initial depth chart lists Davone Bess as the #1 kick and punt returner. But we’re not so sure Miami would risk such a crucial offensive player in both scenarios. Odds are he’ll handle punts, while a combination of Nolan Carroll and Clyde Gates handle kicks. Gates has sub-4.4 speed, and would give the Fins a home-run hitting threat. For now, Reggie Bush isn’t expected to see any special teams work, although that could change.
23. Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers recorded just 67 return yards per game – 3rd fewest in the league last season. Pittsburgh’s stout defense was part of the cause, but they lacked a go-to option for much of the season. Antonio Brown – who could take on a dual role this season as the kick and punt returner – showed flashes in his rookie season. On 17 kick returns, he took one back 89 yards to paydirt. Emmanuel Sanders and Mewelde Moore will also be in the mix, though Sanders’ injured foot could have the Steelers taking it slow with him out of the gate.
24. Denver Broncos – Eddie Royal provided some stability for Denver’s special teams, especially on punt returns. On 25 attempts, Royal racked up an impressive mark of 12 yards per return. Look out for Cassius Vaughn on kick returns, a 2nd-year CB with home run hitting ability. On 2 attempts last season, Vaughn scored once on a 97-yard scamper.
25. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Michael Spurlock gave the Bucs a jolt on both kicks and punts in 2010. He racked up 25.7 yards per kick return and 7 yards per punt return, as well as a TD. He’s earned the full time role in both phases, and should see the bulk of the work this season.
26. Minnesota Vikings – Vikes ST coach Mike Priefer indicated earlier in the month that Percy Harvin will split kick return duties with Lorenzo Booker. As he should. Harvin is on the fragile side, and he means too much Minnesota’s offense to overwork him on special teams. Booker averaged nearly 24 yards per return in limited action last season, and has speed to burn. The punt return job is up for grabs, and will likely involve a rotation. Greg Camarillo and Jaymar Johnson are in the mix for now, making for one of the league’s most unattractive situations.
27. Dallas Cowboys – This situation could become a full-blown committee. Bryan McCann took on a chunk the kick returns last season, but exhibited no big-play potential whatsoever. Akwasi Owusu-Ansah proved to be the same story, notching just 21.7 yards per return in a timeshare with McCann. The Cowboys special teams will be hurt by Dez Bryant’s transition to full time receiver, and away from a dynamic punt returner. On just 15 attempts as a rookie, Dez took 2 back to the house, and averaged a rock solid 14.3 yards per return.
28. New York Giants – The Giants ranked second to last in punt return average last season, as a heavy committee amounted to little success. They also failed to reach the end zone, and busted off just one 40+ kick return and zero 40+ punt returns. This season, the same is likely to be the case. Aaron Ross and Darius Reynaud will handle punt returns, while Renaud, D.J. Ware, and rookie Jerrel Jernigan will handle kicks.
29. Carolina Panthers – The re-signing of DeAngelo Williams ensures Mike Goodson will continue to see action on returns. He was unspectacular last season, though, averaging a mere 21.8 yards per attempt. Look for Armanti Edwards to handle punts, though his attempts could be limited because of an increased offensive role. This figures to be an unexciting group of return men.
30. Washington Redskins – Last season, Brandon Banks starred on special teams for the ‘Skins, racking up the 5th most combined yardage among return men. Banks isn’t a lock to return to Washington, however, as a knee injury, and an ultra-crowded depth chart cloud his future. If he’s sent packing, Phillip Buchanon, Byron Westbrook, and Anthony Armstrong will likely see time.
31. San Diego Chargers – The Bolts lost Darren Sproles this offseason, and will struggle to replace his production. Sproles averaged nearly 25 yards per kick return and 7 yards per punt, as he saw full time action in both facets. Patrick Crayton, an experienced punt returner, is the clubhouse favorite for the gig. But he lacks the top-end speed to be a difference maker. Richard Goodman, Marcus Gilchrist, and Vincent Brown are in the mix for kick return duties.
32. Indianapolis Colts – The Colts were one of 6 teams to average less than 20 yards per kick return last season. They seem to always have a revolving door at the return positions, and will head into the season with relative unknowns David Gilreath, Devin Moore, and Chad Spann in the mix.