“Off the Matt” 2016 Kickoff Return Rankings
In case you missed it, the NFL Competition Committee made a change to the touchback rule. On touchbacks, teams will now start their possession at the 25-yard-line as opposed to the 20. The rallying cry for this rule was “player safety.” By rewarding the receiving team with five extra yards, the hope is they will be more likely to take a knee, which will result in less high-speed collisions.
I am not sure the committee thought this one all the way through. Here are some numbers to consider using data from the 2015 season:
Offensive possession starting at the 20-yard-line: touchdown percentage – 17.9%
Offensive possession starting at the 25-yard-line: touchdown percentage – 20.8%
Does the committee believe that coaches are going to instruct their kickers to blast the ball into or through the end zone and hand the offense a free 2.9% increase in scoring a touchdown?
Here is something else to consider:
“Every NFL kicker I talked to said he would change to a high, short kick to the goal line. It’s not hard to do at all. The hard part will be the amount of hang time. The best kickers will be able to get 4.4 to 4.6 hang time kicking it to the goal line.” – Jay Feely
- The kickoff takes place at the 35 yard line.
- Most guys running down on kickoff coverage can cover 40 yards between 4.4 to 4.7 seconds.
- If the hang time on these kicks are going to be 4.4 to 4.6 seconds, that tells me the kickoff team will be somewhere around the 25 yard line with a full head of steam when the kick returner is catching the ball.
Obviously there is no guarantee that the kickoff team is going to make the tackle before the 25-yard-line, but I have a feeling most coaches will take their chances.
It looks like they already are.
- 134 kickoffs during Week 1 of preseason: 69.4% returned
- 2015 regular season kickoffs returned: 41.1%
It will be interesting to examine the numbers when the season ends, but I would be surprised if this rule makes it past its one year trial period.
Last year, only 13 kick returners had more than 20 returns. With returns likely to increase, position players who also return kicks should get their value bumped up in leagues that reward return yardage. Below is a list of the best kick returners in the game today.
1. Cordarrelle Patterson – Vikings
Not only is he the best in the game today, but his 30.1 yards per return is only a half-yard behind Gale Sayers for the best in league history. He popped for two touchdowns on just 32 returns last season. My only concern with Patterson is that he has seen his return attempts decrease from 43 as a rookie, to 34 in his second season, and as mentioned just 32 attempts last year. With as explosive as Patterson is, the proposition of giving the Vikings the ball to start with at the 25-yard-line shouldn’t sound too bad to opposing special teams coaches. It should be even more appealing when you consider that the Vikings were the only team in the league last year whose average starting field position was outside the 25. Additionally, with as good as the Vikings defense should be there might be limited scoring opportunities for opposing offenses, thus also cutting into Patterson’s attempts. The bottom line is that Patterson will have a great shot at leading the league in yards per return, however, there is some mystery as to how many returns that might be.
The other mystery is how someone with the athletic ability that Patterson has cannot develop into a contributing piece in the passing game. After a huge second half to his rookie season, Patterson has caught 34 passes in his last 33 games. He was barely on the field last year. Reports out of camp are that he has shown improvement and is starting to develop some consistency. He will get some looks at receiver in preseason, we will see if he can capitalize on the opportunity. If Patterson could somehow carve out a role in the receiving game, combined with his return abilities he would be a dynamite player to own in leagues that count return yardage.
2. Tyler Lockett – Seahawks
Lockett’s 4.40 speed was on full display when he set the Seahawks franchise record for longest touchdown with his 105-yard return to open the second-half in Week 3 against the Bears.
Besides explosion plays like the one above, Lockett was a consistent return man. On 21% of his kick returns the team started past the 30-yard-line. Aside from his blazing speed, Lockett’s best attribute is that he will almost always find a way to field kicks with his momentum going forward and accelerates to top speed quickly.
As the season went Lockett contributed more in the passing game. He saw a season high seven targets in four of his final five games. With a year of experience under his belt and 1000+ yards in return yardage awaiting him he is someone to target.
3. Ameer Abdullah – Lions
While Adbullah lacks the top-end open field speed of the top two on the list, he more than makes up for it with his ability to make people miss. His moves in space are ridiculously smooth and he doesn’t lose any speed in the process. Abdullah led the league in both attempts (37) and yards (1077), which shows the coaching staff has given him the green light to bring out kicks that are deep in the end zone.
Abdullah got his name in the record books for the following play.
That ties the record for the longest non-scoring play in league history. I mean if you are going to hold a record for “failing” at something this wouldn’t be a bad one to own.
I am not crazy about Abdullah’s fantasy prospects in standard scoring this season, but he cannot be ignored in leagues that give anything for return yardage.
4. Dwayne Harris – Giants
Harris was brought into New York to make a difference in the return game. He got his hands on only 22 kick returns, but made the most of his opportunities finishing with the third best average per return. The highlight moment from Harris’s first season as a Giant came when he took a kickoff 100 yards to break a 20-20 tie late in the fourth quarter. The fact that it came against his former team the Dallas Cowboys made it even sweeter.
Harris contributed on offense in 2015 recording 36/396/4. With the return of Victor Cruz and the selection of Sterling Shephard it will be unlikely for Harris to get many snaps on offense barring injuries.
5. Benny Cunningham – Rams
There is nothing flashy about Benny Cunningham’s game. He is the anti Tavon Austin if you will. At 5-10 220, Cunningham doesn’t exactly fit the profile of a kick return man. Like the old saying goes, don’t judge a book by its cover because Cunningham has been one of the most effective return men in the league over the past two years. As a matter of fact, he is the only player to post a top 5 return average in each of the past two seasons.
6. Bruce Ellington – 49ers
Ellington now has two seasons in as the 49ers return man. He has been extremely consistent finishing with over 600 yards in returns and a per return average of exactly 25.6 in both seasons. Ellington’s athleticism is off the charts. Coming out of college his SPARQ (fancy tool that measures athleticism) score rated higher than guys like Brandin Cooks and Odell Beckham Jr. The talent is there.
Rumor has it Chip Kelly gave Ellington a similar look when he saw what he could do during offseason workouts.
7. Quan Bray – Colts
With a name like Quan Bray chances are you have some game. In just nine games he was able to put some juice into the Colts return game. He returned 21 kicks for 570 yards and ended up with an average of 27.1 which led the AFC. With a full season of returns he could end up at the top of list.
8. Rashad Ross – Redskins
After some early season special teams struggles, the coaching staff gave speedster Rashad Ross a shot at the kick return duties (excuse my Mike Tirico level of corniness here) and he ran with it. He posted the sixth most return yards and fifth most attempts. The play below Ross really showcases his speed. Just before midfield, the defender had the perfect angle to make the tackle. Ross found another gear.
9. Taiwan Jones – Raiders
Jones had a strong 2015 season. His 829 kick return yards and 31 attempts were both good enough for fourth in the league. With Mack and company, the Raiders defense may be trending in the right direction, but they are still going to give up their fair share of points which will translate into another 30+ attempts for Jones this year.
10. Tyler Ervin – Texans
Our first rookie makes the list at number 10. Ervin returned kicks all four years at San Jose St. He has great speed and is dangerous in space. The Texans are prepared to hand him the kick return duties from day one. Ervin came out of the gates nicely, taking his first preseason opportunity 28 yards. With his speed and elusiveness he has the right tools to be one of the best.
Best of the Rest
Lucky Whitehead – Cowboys: And I thought Quan Bray had a good name! He averaged over 28 yards per return and at 180 pounds can fly.
Knile Davis – Chiefs: Davis flashed his ability taking the opening kick of the playoffs 106 yards for a touchdown. He has returned one for a touchdown in three straight seasons.
Reggie Bush – Bills: It isn’t every day that a player going into their 11th season finally gets a shot at returning kicks. I know this isn’t USC Reggie anymore, but I could still see him making some plays.
Andre Ellington – Cardinals: With Johnson and Johnson getting the bulk of the carries, the Cardinals need to find a way to get the ball in Ellington’s hands. I am not 100% sure he will win the kick return job, but if he does his speed and elusiveness should play well in that role.
I hope you enjoyed this article, a year from now there might not even be such a thing as a “kick returner.”