“Sauer Notes” Punt Returner Rankings 2015
As the fantasy football realm seems to be expanding at an exponential rate, leagues are looking to come up with more ways to test your football knowledge. More so in the season long formats, we are seeing more categories that award points for any particular player. One category that should be integrated more into our leagues is return yardage.
Special teams is a major facet of real-life football and should be looked at more closely in the fantasy industry. We already have kickers that award points for field-goals and length of field-goals, so why not count something that is a less of a variable, like return yardage? If you’re in a league that currently rewards points for return yards, this list will help you determine which guys you should target. This list is numerically driven by the punt return potential itself, not factoring in the amount of offensive or defensive statistics the players will accumulate. Push for your leagues to add categories such as return yardage, as it will make it more interesting, and make you a better fantasy player all-around.
1. Darren Sproles, Philadelphia Eagles- Sproles led the league in PR yardage last year and brought two back for touchdowns, to go with his six rushing touchdowns and 716 yards from scrimmage on offense. He’ll face some challenges getting offensive snaps this season with DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews in the fold, but he remains one of the best multi-purpose players in the league. His return stats give him added value on top of the 40 plus catches he’s had in each of the past six seasons.
2. Devin Hester, Atlanta Falcons- Until proven otherwise, the return game still seems to be owned in the NFL by Hester. Thought to be on the decline, Hester stepped up in Atlanta last season. He lead the league with 1,368 return yards and a punt return touchdown. He also caught 38 receptions for 504 yards and a pair of receiving touchdowns, his best offensive season since 2009. He added another touchdown running the ball and should continue to get occasional looks on offense this year after Harry Douglas signed in Tennessee. Hester isn’t going to light up the world on offense, but if you’re in a league that gives points for return stats, Hester has the best chance to provide consistent points week to week, with the periodic explosion of both offense and special teams output.
3. Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers- Inexplicably, the Steelers’ still keep one of the league’s best receivers returning punts. Last year, he finished the season with 319 punt return yards, fourth in the NFL, and was tied for sixth in the league with 30 punt returns on the year. Brown is an obvious fantasy pick on the offensive side of the ball, so it’s hard to imagine his return stats giving him a boost in fantasy value. He’ll already be a first round pick in most leagues without return stats, but for owners in leagues that award fantasy points to returners, it’s icing on the cake.
4. Jarvis Landry, Miami Dolphins- Landry had over 1,100 yards in the return game as a rookie, while also catching 84 passes for 758 yards and five touchdowns on offense. The receiving depth chart looks a little more crowded in Miami this year, but Landry should still be a key focal point of the offense after a stellar first year. And if he keeps the returner job as expected, he could be a surprisingly excellent fantasy option in leagues that give points for return statistics.
5. Adam Jones, Cincinnati Bengals- Fearlessness and opportunity is the name of the game for ‘Pacman’. He only attempted to fair catch the ball one time as a punt-returner. This is a telling stat, because you know when he is back there returning punts, you are going to at least get an attempt to net some yards. He also sees plenty of snaps on the defensive side of the ball, so as far as IDP leagues go, you can bump up his value somewhat. As a punt returner in 2014, he finished tied for third in average at 11.9 yards per attempt. He did not finish the year with any punt return touchdowns, but he is definitely the type of player who can break one loose.
6. De’Anthony Thomas, Kansas City Chiefs- Thomas missed some time with injuries last season, but in the 12 games he played, he looked like the next big thing in the NFL as far as returners go. He averaged a staggering 30.6 yards on 14 kickoff returns, and he finished second in the league in punt return yardage with 405, including a touchdown. Thomas added 113 yards rushing and 156 yards receiving in his rookie year, and while he’s buried on the depth chart, he may be worth a flyer in large leagues as the Chiefs’ try to get their dynamic playmaker out of Oregon on the field more often.
7. Tavon Austin, St. Louis Rams- Austin hasn’t had a huge impact on offense, but he’ll have a new quarterback to work with this year and this is a guy who has averaged 9.8 yards per punt return over the past two seasons. He’s also run one back for a touchdown in each of his first two years and has the kind of play-making ability to make an impact on offense if he can stay healthy and if the Rams’ can figure out how to get him the ball in space. Last season, he caught 31 passes and carried the ball 36 times for a combined 466 yards and two touchdowns on offense. If he can improve on those numbers and keep up the PR duty, he could be worth some value in return yardage leagues.
8. Jacoby Jones, San Diego Chargers- Jones was never really an offensive threat in his NFL career. Nevertheless, he always remains to be one of the most explosive players in terms of returns every year. He now takes his talents to the Chargers’, where he will exclusively work as their return man. Last year, in Baltimore, he had 30 punt return attempts (tied for sixth) for a total of 275 yards. He won’t garner much (if any) offensive production, but is worth a look as we know he has the ability to take one back every time he touches the ball.
9. Brandin Cooks, New Orleans Saints- Several teams are going to be looking to youngsters to replace departed return specialists, and watch this depth chart and the preseason camp battles to see who emerges as the main guy. Along with Antonio Brown and Jarvis Landry, Cooks is going to be a focal point of his teams offense this season. When rostering these players in leagues that do not award points for return yardage, it can be frustrating as there is a greater potential for injury on these type of plays, as you have gunners running full speed ahead. He only had ten attempts as a rookie, netting 35 yards. If he remains the Saints’ punt returner, you could bump up his value even more than it already has been throughout this offseason.
10. Reggie Bush, San Francisco 49ers- Bush hasn’t done much returning the past few years, but he used to be one of the best punt returners in the NFL. The 49ers haven’t had success in that department since Ted Ginn left. Bush will have to compete with second-year WR Bruce Ellington for the returner job. If he wins out, he has a good chance to be a dual-production player. He’s likely to catch some passes and get some touches in the running game and have the occasional nice game for fantasy owners looking for some spot-starter points, assuming he can stay healthy at age 30.
11. Dwayne Harris, New York Giants- Another player like Jacoby Jones, who won’t receive any offensive production, but exclusively plays return specialist. Last season, Harris played in a Cowboys’ uniform, and now is sporting a rival Giant jersey. He will take duties away from phenom Odell Beckham Jr., in hopes to preserve ODB’s health. As a Cowboy in 2014, Harris had 30 punt return attempts in which he accumulated 275 yards. He will likely be the Giants return-specialist manning kick-offs where he also excelled in 2014.
12. Dexter McCluster, Tennessee Titans- McCluster was banged up last year and never really got into a groove on a horrible Titans’ offense. However, he enters the season as the likely primary return specialist, and should be able to find a way to contribute in the passing game. Only two years ago, he caught 53 passes for 511 yards and a pair of touchdowns in Kansas City, and if the Titans’ can find any kind of offensive mojo with rookie QB Marcus Mariota at the helm, then McCluster could rebound from a forgettable 2014 season.
13. Tedd Ginn Jr., Carolina Panthers- After a one-year stint with the Cardinals, Ginn returns to the Panthers as their return specialist. He finished with 26 attempts for 277 yards and one touchdown. He finished as the number seven punt-returner in 2014, but he may split some returns with former Jaguar, Jordan Todman which may hurt his value as a return specialist somewhat. Regardless, we’ve seen over the past few seasons that Ginn is one of the best in the game at returning, and will still hold value as just that.
14. Phillip Dorsett, Indianapolis Colts- The rookie speedster out of Miami, a clone of teammate T.Y Hilton, will start the season as punt-returner for the Colts’. It remains to be seen if he can beat out second-year pro, Donte Moncrief, for the Colts’ third WR. He has had plenty of flashes throughout the offseason thus far, and we will see if he can battle for some receptions from that one guy, who is it again? Oh yeah, Andrew Luck. He only returned one punt in his senior season as a Hurricane, and he actually netted negative six yards. If he can win the third WR job, coinciding with his job as punt-returner, you should definitely look to move him up your draft boards.
15. Jeremy Ross, Detroit Lions- Ross had a solid year as a return man for the Lions and Bears in 2014. He finished fourth in total attempts at 32, but he actually fair-caught balls more (37) than he attempted to run back. He finished seventh in total punt-return yards at 284. He will not see any offensive snaps behind the likes of Megatron, Golden Tate, and Corey Fuller, but if you are in a league that has a slot specifically for return specialist, he is a top guy to target as he will be returning kicks for the Lions.
16. Marcus Sherels, Minnesota Vikings- Just as I’ve noted before for some offensive players in regards to not seeing many actual snaps, Sherels is that man on the defensive side of the football. In a pretty crowded defensive backfield in Minnesota, Sherels may not see many snaps. But his work as a punt returner in the 2014 season is noteworthy. He finished the season with 27 attempts for 297 yards, with a solid average of 11 yards per attempt. Again, he is a player more useful if you are in a league that has a designated return spot, otherwise he won’t garner many IDP statistics.
17. Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks- Pete Carroll has already penciled in Tyler Lockett as the teams return specialist, and already has a 103-yard kick return for a touchdown this preseason. Lockett had the second-highest punt-return grade in the FBS last year. The Seahawks’ really struggled last year in the return game last season, and Lockett will hopefully give them an answer they have been looking for. The Seahawks’ have a slew of mediocre talent at the WR position, so it remains to be seen if he can garner any snaps playing at the WR position. For a team that is run-heavy, look for Lockett to just help in the return yardage categories.
18. Micah Hyde, Green Bay Packers- For now, Hyde is labeled as the teams punt-returner ahead of rookie Ty Montgomery on the depth chart. Rightfully so, as he garnered 221 yards on 14 attempts, with an astounding 15.8 yards per attempt. He also was the only other player besides Darren Sproles to log two touchdowns last year as a punt returner. With Green Bay having a crowded safety positon, Hyde may not see much action on defense, but his return statisitics are hard to look past for those who qualified in the 2014 season. There is still some uncertainty if he will remain the teams punt returner, or if the rookie Montgomery, who is penciled in as kick returner, takes over both duties.
19. Andre Roberts, Washington Redskins- Roberts held down both returner spots last year in his first year coming over from the Cardinals’, but he struggled to find a role on offense, finishing with only 36 catches and 453 yards despite showing a lot of promise as a reserve for four years in Arizona. Roberts will still be competing for the third WR spot on the depth chart, but he should receive very little competition for the return-specialist job. He’ll continue to add stats in that capacity in returner-friendly fantasy leagues. Roberts has a chip on his shoulder and has some upside with veteran Santana Moss now completely out of the picture.
20. Julian Edelman, New England Patriots- Edelman has been very successful as a receiver for the Patriots’ the last two seasons, catching nearly 200 passes while averaging 11.2 yards per punt return in the process. Edelman is yet another example of a player who seems to have more value on offense, but he keeps getting special teams snaps, so he’s worth bumping up a few spots in leagues that award points for return yardage. Edelman should be just as much a focal point of the Patriots’ offense as he was last year and has very little competition for the punt return job.
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