Predicting punt and kick return yards is like trying to predict the winning numbers in a lottery. It cannot be done. Punt returns are critical to the offense, however, as they determine starting field position and can give covering special teams fits. There may not be a ton of information out there on top punt return men, but the top five or so should be easy to pick out. This list should serve as a guide to help you pick out the most consistent options the past 2-3 years, and give you an added boost if your league counts punt return yardage. This list focuses on punt returners, but given that many PR guys also serve as kick returners, I allude to those players that double in this piece as well. I hope this list helps you dominate your leagues this season, as an elite punt returner can often times be the difference between winning and losing any fantasy match up.
1.) Patrick Peterson (CB-ARZ) – Simply put, if he stays healthy, Peterson will be the top punt return man in 2014. In addition to being an interception artist, Peterson is damn lethal in the return game, amassing 1125 return yards between 2011 and 2012, before falling off considerably last season (198 yards). Fear not, he will rebound this year after a down season across all aspects of his game. (Photo courtesy of sports-kings.com)
2.) Travis Benjamin (WR-CLE) – Benjamin is on his way to becoming a household name. He set a Browns record for punt return yards in a game last season against the Bills, with 179 punt return yards and a score, on 7 punt returns. While Benjamin may not see many receptions this season in Cleveland, he will man punt returns and should finish as a top 3 option.
3.) Cordarrelle Patterson (WR-MIN) – The Vikings do not currently have Patterson listed on the punt return depth chart, but he is too explosive for the Vikings not to give him a shot at returning punts. He is the best offensive threat Minnesota has, outside of Adrian Peterson, so don’t be surprised to see Patterson returning not only kick returns (listed as top man), but punt returns as well. Make sure you draft Patterson, as “break-out” is written all over this guy for 2014.
4.) Devin Hester (WR-ATL) – The all-time record holder for return touchdowns (with 19 punt and kick returns combined) and punt return scores (13), Hester joins an Atlanta squad that was injury-depleted last season. His heydays might be behind him, but Hester should bring some electricity to the Atlanta return game. Look for Hester to thrive as a punt returner in Atlanta, with a top 5 finish completely in the cards.
5.) Tavon Austin (WR-StL) – If you own Austin, you are sure to look like a genius a few weeks, but then smack yourself silly others. Austin is very explosive, but also incredibly inconsistent, as evidenced by his five TDs in three games, but zero the rest of his games. The good news here is Austin will be returning punts this season, and he only needs a crease to be off to the races. Like Patterson in Minnesota, Austin will be one of the best weapons his respective team has, meaning the Rams will look to get Austin the ball however they can. He’s worth a look as a WR4/5, but should be an elite punt return man this season. The upside here is incredible. (Photo courtesy of pittsburghsportingnews.com)
6.) Micah Hyde (CB-GB) – The Packers will utilize Hyde both as a CB/S and as primary kick and punt returner this season. After posting 296 yards on 24 punt return attempts last season, Hyde has the potential to climb into the top 6, as he’ll get a ton of punts his way and is very dangerous when he touches the ball. Add in his contribution in the IDP game and you could have a very solid player week to week.
7.) Julian Edelman (WR-N.E.) – Edelman is one of the most consistent, yet non-explosive return men in the game. With 3 TDs from 2010 to 2012 and 1254 punt return yards since 2011, Edelman has earned his place in fantasy circles, as he sits tied for 4th in average yards per return at 12.3 with Devin Hester. This value should just be a nice added boost to his place in the New England offense, where he will once again be the #2 receiver and a monster in the short yardage game.
8.) Leodis McKelvin (CB-BUF) – After posting three return TDs from 2011-2012, McKelvin all but disappeared last season as he struggled to average 6 yards/return. That was an aberration last season, as McKelvin will surely bounce back as Buffalo’s top punt and kick return man, in addition to starting corner. McKelvin is a great asset to have, as he will be a great contributor in the passes defensed and return game, so make to line him up if you own him.
9.) Keshawn Martin (WR-HOU) – Albeit being limited in the Houston offense, Martin will continue to make his name in the return game for the Texans. He is very explosive and only needs a crease to go the distance, as evidenced by his longs of 87 (2013) and 71 (2012). While he will continue to be hit or miss, given his lack of utilization in the Texans offense, the weeks he returns a punt (or kick return) for a score, you will be nicely rewarded if you started him.
10.) LaMichael James (RB-S.F.) – In his 3rd season, the 49ers will commit to James as not only kick returner, but also punt returner. Things could get very interesting real quick, given his track record from Oregon (3936 rushing yards and 39 TDs his final 2 seasons). If he can find a crease or get great blocks, James could easily emerge as a potential top 7 option in the return game. Be advised, though, he will continue to see light usage in the run game in S.F., behind Gore, Hyde, and Lattimore.
11.) De’Anthony Thomas (RB-K.C.) – Another Oregon offensive juggernaut will debut in K.C., and Thomas could emerge as a lethal weapon in K.C. sooner rather than later. Look at it this way, it took him all of 1 preseason game to return a punt return 80 yards to the House, and if he gets a crack at kick returns as well, oh boy, he could post obnoxious numbers as a return man his rookie season.
12.) Jacoby Jones (WR-BAL) – With 4 career punt returns for score and 2398 return yards since 2007, Jones was bound to find his way on the list. In Baltimore he will continue to be the deep-play-for-score or not receiver as he feasts on the deep ball in, leaving as a feast/famine option in the receiving game. For those leagues that count return yards, however, start him every week, as he will not disappoint in that area.
13.) Dwayne Harris (WR-DAL) – I’ll give the Cowboys something to cheer about: Harris is a lethal punt returner, and fun to watch. The past 2 seasons Harris has averaged an insane 14.5 yards/punt return, and will once more be a threat this season. With 2 scores already under his belt, look for him to add a 3rd and possibly a 4th this season as Dallas’ primary return man for punts and kicks.
14.) Marcus Sherels (CB-MIN) – Currently listed as primary punt returner for the Vikings, he drops on this list, as Patterson should also factor into the punt game this season. If Sherels sees most of the punt return opportunities, though, he is a top 10 option. He will be hard to trust most weeks, however, as his value is nearly strictly reliant upon his production in the return game, rather than as a corner. Definitely worth a look, as he has 2 punt returns for scores the last 2 seasons. (Photo courtesy of star tribune.com)
15.) Marcus Thigpen (RB-MIA) – Thigpen is near exclusively serviceable in leagues that count punt and kick return yardage, as he barely makes a dent in the Miami offensive game. He might not be the most explosive option, but given the sheer workload he should continue to see in the punt return game, he is worth a flier this season and a plug-in play against weak cover teams and on bye-weeks.
16.) Rueben Randle (WR-NYG) – Given the state of the Giants offense and offensive line, New York will be heavily reliant upon Randle’s ability to give them at least decent field position this season. Currently entrenched as the outside receiver opposite Cruz, Randle should be a dual threat in the receiving and return game. In 29 returns last season, Randle managed 239 yards, or 8.24 yards/return. He may never be an elite returner, but he could be one of the more fantasy-friendly ones, given his new starting role opposite Cruz. Now, can Lil’ Manning and the O-line produce?
17.) Jeremy Ross (WR-DET) – Ross is reportedly competing for the WR3 job in Detroit, but he will more than likely enter the season as WR4/5, limiting his appeal in leagues not counting return yards. If Ross is stuck on the depth chart as WR 4/5, his value will be hinged on his returns, but if he’s able to crack the Detroit receiver rotation, he could vault up these rankings with Stafford at the helm. In a limited sample size, Ross had 263 return yards and a score last season, and his return total will increase this season.
18.) Ace Sanders (WR-JAX) – Sanders will open the season serving a 4 game suspension for violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy, but when he comes back, he could be a huge sleeper. The Jags passing game is going to be a total train wreck this season, but Sanders still managed 484 receiving yards and 140 punt return yards last season. After returning from suspension, look at Sanders as a viable option for punt returns, as the Jags are committed to him in the return game, if nothing else. Things will be slow in Jax this season, but Sanders should find his niche as the Jags return man.
19.) Leon Washington (RB-TEN) – Many will be surprised to see Washington this low, but he has fallen off since 2011 and before with Seattle. He will be pushed by Marc Mariani and new Titan Dexter McCluster for return duties, but, at least initially, Washington should hold his own. Since he won’t contribute much in the run game, his value will strictly be tied to his ability to get nice return yards, and return one to the House. He’s still a viable option, but if he struggles in his role, he will lose all fantasy appeal.
20.) Eric Page (WR-TB) – The Tampa Bay sophomore will once more handle both kick and punt returns in TB, and his value as a punt returner is intriguing after averaging 10.9 yards/return last season. Of all the names on the list, he might be the least known name, but he is a punt returner to keep an eye on, as he will set the table for the Buccs in what should be an up and coming explosive offense in the volatile NFC South.
A few names to keep an eye if they manage to grab the top PR gig on their respective teams are the über explosive RB/WR Dexter McCluster (TEN), rookie CB Justin Gilbert (CLE), CB Adam Jones (CIN), WR Damrais Johnson (PHI), and RB Kenjon Barner (CAR).
Thanks for tuning in again this week, folks, to Major League Fantasy Football to get your daily dose of fantasy sports written by true fantasy junkies. We are dedicated to helping you improve your understanding of fantasy sports, as well as domination in your leagues, so thank you all for turning to us. For more fantasy advice, tune into Major League Fantasy Sports Radio, as it is extremely entertaining and informative. Also, if you would like to check my accuracy, check last season’s IDP and returner rankings, as they were pretty darn accurate. Until next Saturday.
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