“The Amateur Ward:” Punt Returner Rankings
Punt returners are paramount to NFL teams and often go overlooked in fantasy circles, but those leagues that actually do have a separate category for return yards understand their importance. Some are good receivers, some are specifically special teamers, but they all add value to fantasy lineups and impact the game in a variety of ways with their return game abilities. You can win a championship due to the play of an elite punt returner. They simply put you over the edge and give you an advantage during the season. While your league mates are stacking at RB, WR, LB and S on Draft Day, be smart, take notice of the top punt returners and cash in, as some of these names come at a discount on Draft Day and are very undervalued. While most on this list are receiver, there is one RB and CB on this list, and a slew of other names that could have been just as deserving.
10.) Corey Coleman (CLE/WR)- Because no PR list would be complete without a breakout rookie receiver who has phenomenal upside, but plays on a weak offensive team. Sure, Coleman is the most talented receiver on the team, and the Browns should be careful with him, but he is so explosive, he is a threat to score anytime he touches the ball. In 2013 at Baylor, he averaged 28.4 yards per attempt as a kick returner on 17 attempts, and with 4.37 speed, he only needs a crease to be off to the races. While he will make most of his impact on offense, with he frequency of his team stalling out on plays, look for the Browns to use him on special teams so he can make things happen. It is not impossible to envision the Browns using him in gadget plays out of the backfield to keep defenses honest about him.
9.) Tavon Austin (LA/WR)- Owning Austin is frustrating because you want to play him most weeks for his potential big play on offense, but also dread the ever-present danger of him laying a goose egg and costing you a matchup. Put this in perspective: Week 4 in Arizona, Austin has six receptions for 96 yards, 2 receiving TDs and two rushes for 20 yards. Next week: 28 combined yards on offense 0 scores. Austin can always use his speed to break off a 50+ yard play, but needs to prove he can produce on offense more consistently before you think of using him every week. Luckily, those leagues counting punt return yardage should get a nice added boost from him in the punt return game as he has returned a punt every season for each of his three seasons for a score. Last season’s 268 PR yards were a career low and a rebound to over 300 yards will ensue this season. With a new stadium and a rookie QB things will be interesting for the Rams and Austin. I just wouldn’t wanna be that poor fool who pays for public parking at the stadium.
8.) Marcus Sherels (MIN/CB)- Among punt returners with at least 30 attempts last season, Sherels finished fifth in average per attempt at 9.1 over 34 attempts and will man duties again in 2016. Unfortunately, he derives all his value from the return game as he has virtually no impact on defense and will struggle to see the field outside of special teams and return duties. When he is on the field, returning put and kicks, he is making smart decisions and helps put the Vikings in better field position, and even helped them win a few games last season with his return abilities.
7.) Ted Ginn Jr. (CAR/WR)- Just when everyone thinks Ginn Jr. is a one-trick pony in the return game, 10 receiving TDs fall in his hands as Kelvin Benjamin misses all of 2016 and Ginn. Jr is the man on offense with an even more accurate Newton throwing around the rock. Yes, Ginn Jr. is a threat to score anytime he touches the ball, but he also has the detrimental drop issues which always are in the back of minds when drafting him. Is he going to repeat his 10 scores from last season with Benjamin back? No, but he will continue to be a demon in the return game as the Panthers use him to set up the field for the offense. The only thing to be weary of is if the Panther use him even more on offense, his role in the punt return game may dip a little, and he has already stopped returning kicks.
6.) Rashad Greene (JAX/WR)- Greene is favored to win the slot gig in Jacksonville, but with Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns demanding most of the targets, with Julius Thomas third in the pecking order, receptions may be hard for Greene to come across. Don’t be frightened as he is undervalued in the punt return game, and could become an elite option within the next few seasons. He had 301 PR yards on 18 attempts and a score last season, so he brings a ton of speed and agility to a very young and explosive Jaguars team. Pay attention early in the season and take a late flier on him because if he can make a mark on offense and as a returner, your investment will be well worth the return this season.
5.) Travis Benjamin (SD/WR)- One team’s loss is another’s gain, and with all the injury concerns at receiver for San Diego, Benjamin was a very underrated signing by the Bolts. He is absolutely deadly in the return game and abuses opponents special teams. Last season was by far his best season as he finished with 324 punt return yards (one score) and 966 receiving yards. Currently only behind Keenan Allen on the receiver totem pole in San Diego, Benjamin should eclipse the 1000 yard plateau (if the Chargers offense doesn’t stagnate) and have a very solid season as punt returner. He is a candidate to lead all PR men in yards, but we will see how the Chargers play it with him, and if they give him a few breathers.
4.) Dwayne Harris (NYG/WR)-Harris can likely focus on returning kicks and punts this season with rookie Sterling Shepard slotted as the WR2 and Victor Cruz back from injury. There just are not enough passes to go around, and Harris is odd man out this time around, unless the injury bug hits the GMen receiver corps again this season. As a returner though, he is very sure handed and was one of only two players last season to return a kick and a punt for a score. With his ability on special teams to rack up yards returning punts, don’t be surprised if he surpasses the 1000 yard plateau in total yards between punt and kick returns and scores at least once in each of the return games.
3.) Jarvis Landry (MIA/WR)- Rookie Jakeem Grant and veteran FA signing Griff Whalen will be fighting for a roster spot in the return game, but Landry just not care as he is a competitor and will not give up the reigns to either of the return gigs. Grant is a good bet to place second on the depth chart at returner, but Landry is so explosive, the Dolphins would be dumb to take him out of the return aspect completely. Landry, the top receiver on a team with a gunslinger QB will get his receptions and yards, but those who draft him get an added boost in the return game where he is always a threat to break one for an 80 yard score. No, they do not get much better than this.
2.) Darren Sproles (PHI/RB)- Sproles could very well go down as one of the top returners in NFL history, and he even has a small role in the run game. He led all punt returners with two scores and 446 yards last season, and while he may be behind Ryan Matthews for top back, and may see competition from Wendell Smallwood, he is the top third down backer and a very sneaky play in PPR leagues for with his receiving skills. Do not forget, Matthews is injury prone and struggled with consistency (two season over 1000 rush yards, both in SD) over his six year career in the NFL. Sproles may never be an every down back, but he will score a few times every season because he is one of the fastest NFL players and knows how to make plays out of even the stickiest of situations. He should once more be a top two punt returner and worthy of a late round pick up on Draft Day.
1.) Tyler Lockett (SEA/WR)- The second year man’s 105 yard kickoff return versus the Bears last season should leave owners foaming at the mouth to draft him because, he is bound to burn plenty of would be defenders on special teams in the punt return game. After having way over 1000 total return yards last season, his role as WR2 this season will make him a hot commodity on draft ay and one who could very well have over 2000 total net yards this season, receiving plus returning. He is a special, electric young talent and will be smoking fools all season long.
Other names to consider: Eric Weems (ATL), Cecil Shorts (HOU), J.J. Nelson (ARZ), Julian Edelman (N.E.), Adam Jones (CIN)
Hopefully these rankings help you dominate on Draft Day, and good luck to everyone who doesn’t play in the same leagues as me as I want to destroy all you. With Week 3 of preseason games ramping up and the season right around the corner, it’s back to watching football, and domination!