Last week I dished out my tight end rankings. This week, I am going to do a rundown on kick and punt returners. The days of Devin Hester returning 45+ kickoffs a year and accruing 1,500+ total return yards have come and gone. Ever since the NFL started kicking the ball off from the 35 year line, kickoff returners have been devalued. In leagues that factor in return yardage, players like Devin Hester used to have stand alone value even though they offered little to nothing in the passing game. In today’s NFL landscape, there are no longer the stud NFL returners that offer fantasy value off returns alone. Now, you need to shift your focus to low level wide receivers and running backs who also return kicks, which in turn elevates them into the WR2/3, RB2/3 conversation.
Adding kick and punt return stats to your fantasy league’s scoring can be both entertaining and stressful. There are some players who have the ability to take the ball to the house every time they touch it. But, on the other side, with the NFL’s new touchback rules, sometimes teams will opt to simply avoid those studs when kicking to them. In the mid 2000’s, it was considered foolish to kick the ball to Devin Hester. In 2017, you need to wonder if teams will avoid kicking the ball to Tyreek Hill. There are a few returners out there who offer enough kick return volume to have stand alone value, but for the most part, kick return yardage will simply add an extra bonus to the points a player scores on the offensive side of the ball. In leagues that score return yardage, players like Ted Ginn Jr. could be every week starters and players like Tyreek Hill and Jamison Crowder get huge boosts up draft boards. The rankings detailed below aren’t necessarily in order of how I believe these guys will finish the end of the year. Instead, they account for how much return yardage will impact overall fantasy production and how relevant the returners will be as a whole.
My player evaluations will compare kick and punt returners to players with full-time offensive roles. For reference purposes, listed below are the receivers who finished 11 through 20 in receiving yards in 2016:
Doug Baldwin – 1,128
Travis Kelce – 1,125
Julian Edelman – 1,106
Demaryius Thomas – 1,083
Golden Tate – 1,077
Greg Olsen – 1,073
Tyrell Williams – 1,059
Pierre Garcon – 1,041
Emmanuel Sanders – 1,032
Larry Fitzgerald – 1,023
#1 – Tyreek Hill – Chiefs – 39 – 592 – 2 TD – Long of 95 – 15.2 yards per return – Tyreek Hill will slide into the #1 receiver role in Kansas City this year and when you tack on his return yardage, his value goes through the roof. Think about it like this, if Hill goes for 75 grabs, 1,100 yards and 6 TD’s in a PPR, that will get you 221 points. When you add roughly 600 punt return yards onto that total, now you are talking about Hill being in the 280-300 fantasy point range. To put things in perspective, in 2016 Antonio Brown had 306 points in a PPR. When you add Hill’s punt return yardage to his projected receiving totals, owning him is like having another WR1 on your squad.
#2 – Tavon Austin – Rams – 44 – 336 – 0 TD – Long of 47 – 7.6 yards per return – Tavon Austin has some appeal this year because Sean McVay may actually be able to utilize him properly. If Austin goes off for 250 yards rushing, 600 yards receiving and has 400 return yards, that’s the equivalent of a 1,200 yard receiver, making him extremely relevant.
#3 – Jamison Crowder – Redskins – 27 – 328 – 1 TD – Long of 85 yards – 12.1 yards per return – Crowder is the only receiver returning to the Redskins from 2016 so he should have some serious chemistry with Kurt Cousins. Given Crowder’s high floor in PPR leagues, his added value as a punt returner puts him into near elite status.
#4 – Jalen Richard – Raiders – 34 – 306 – 0 TD – Long of 47 yards – 9.0 yards per return – If Marshawn Lynch goes down, then Richard elevates himself into a more active pass catching role for the Raiders. Now that the Raiders do have Lynch on their squad, they may not need to lean on Richard as heavily and may be more likely to use him in the return game.
#5 – Ted Ginn Jr. – Saints – 29 – 202 – 0 TD – Long of 19 yards – 7.0 yards per return – Ted Ginn is a one trick pony and having him return kicks really puts him in a position to use that one trick. If Ginn repeats his 2016 punt return numbers, he will flirt with 1,000 all-purpose yards on the season. In a previous piece, I said that Ginn is no more than a bye week or injury filler. In leagues that count kick and punt return yardage, Ginn is very relevant with very high upside.
#6 – Alex Erickson – Bengals – 28 – 195 – 0 TD – Long of 24 yards – 7.0 yards per return – This is a tough one. Alex Erickson has tremendous value because he handles both punt and kick returns for the Bengals. In 2016, Erickson had 1,005 total return yards. Although Erickson is maybe the most relevant returner in the game, he offers little to no value as a pass catcher, as he sits at the bottom of the Bengals depth chart. That being said, in return yardage leagues Erickson has value but it’s not much, especially not in a PPR because he simply doesn’t register catches.
#7 – Jarvis Landry – Dolphins – 16 – 163 – 0 TD – Long of 20 yards – 10.2 yards per return – Jarvis Landry’s numbers may take a hit this year with Jay Cutler throwing the ball because Cutler simply doesn’t look to the slot receiver very often (at least he hasn’t historically over his career). In return yardage leagues, Landry’s contributions in the return game should help supplement the fact that he is playing with Jay Cutler.
#8 – Darren Sproles – Eagles – 17 – 224 – 0 TD – Long of 66 yards – 13.2 yards per return – Darren Sproles is only draftable in PPR leagues. Even at an advanced age, Sproles has shown he can still get it done in the passing game and still has the elusiveness to be an effective returner. With Carson Wentz still learning the ropes, Sproles is a viable option. Given the return yardage he is projected to get, Sproles is likely to produce in the Danny Woodhead or Theo Riddick range with 1,000 total yards from scrimmage.
#9 – Patrick Peterson – 13 – 81 – 0 TD – Long of 17 yards – 6.2 yards per return – Patrick Peterson only returns kicks when the chips are down and the Cardinals need a big play. That being said, in IDP leagues, if you own Peterson, the fact that he is a competent kick returner makes him very intriguing. A long return can give Peterson enough fantasy points to be the top performer at his position any given week.
#10 – Antonio Brown – 15 – 140 – 0 TD – Long of 33 yards – 9.3 yards per return – Every year, you can’t help but think that the Steelers won’t use Antonio Brown to return punts anymore, but each year, they keep rolling him out there. When the chips are down, you put your studs on the field. Brown is already one of the top WR’s in the league and is being drafted in the top 3 of both standard and PPR leagues, so the addition of a few kick return yards is negligible and only gives Brown a slight uptick in weekly production.
#1 – Alex Erickson – 29 – 810 – 0 TD – Long of 84 yards – 27.9 yards per return – Erickson returns both kicks and punts and will flirt with, if not exceed 1,000 total return yards this year. The only downside to Erickson is that he doesn’t offer any pass catching upside because he is buried on the Bengals depth chart.
#2 – Cordarrelle Patterson – 35 – 804 – 1 TD – Long of 104 yards – 31.7 yards per return – Patterson is one of the best kick returners in the game. Patterson is widely considered an NFL draft bust because he hasn’t lived up to his first round billing, but he’s a solid pro. If Cordarrelle Patterson had been drafted in the 3rd or 4th round, then he would be considered a hit because he’s a weapon on special teams, but because he isn’t the perennial 1,000 yard receiver, he’s considered a bust. Patterson offers so much yardage in the return game, it elevates his value in return leagues to borderline WR3 status. Patterson is capable of taking any kick to the house and if the Raiders figure out a way to get him involved in the passing game, his stats will shoot through the roof.
#3 – Tyler Lockett – 23 – 606 – 0 TD – Long of 46 yards – 26.3 yards per return – There is no dispute that Tyler Lockett has serious big play ability, but the full break out has yet to come. In kick return yardage leagues, you can justify reaching on Lockett a little higher than you normally would. Even if Lockett doesn’t come through and break out as a receiver, he has a relatively high floor of at least 1,200 total yards.
#4 – Jalen Richard – 17 – 402 – 0 TD – Long of 50 yards – 23.6 yards per return – Jalen Richard is an interesting case because his upside as a running back is somewhat capped with the signing of Marshawn Lynch. Richard was one of the best kick returners in the NFL last year and there’s no reason to think he won’t repeat or exceed his return totals from last year. Combining his kick return yardage with his limited role in the rushing and passing game, Richard has the potential to be a 1,500 yard back. If Marshawn Lynch goes down or is ineffective, Richard will see a larger role and his fantasy value will shoot through the roof.
#5 – Ted Ginn Jr. – 18 – 391 – 0 TD – Long of 59 yards – 21.7 yards per return – In return yard leagues, is it crazy to think that Ginn could offer WR2 value? Ginn is nothing but a one trick pony in the passing game, but his week to week volatility is somewhat mitigated in return leagues because even if he only catches 2 for 35 and 0 TD’s, he could get your 50 or 60 return yards and make him fantasy relevant for the week.
#6 – Tyreek Hill – 14 – 384 – 1 TD – Long of 86 yards – 27.4 yards per return – Hill is not slated to return kicks for the Chiefs this year but I don’t care. The Chiefs offense is not that dynamic and if they need some juice when the chips are down, Hill will be out there. In return yardage leagues Tyreek Hill is a borderline 2nd round pick with a lot of upside.
#7 – Marqise Lee – 18 – 545 – 1 TD – Long of 100 yards – 30.3 yards per return – If Blake Bortles doesn’t play Chad Henne may look to check it down and be conservative. In a PPR league, Marqise Lee offers tremendous value because even if he falls short of 1,000 yards his return game contributions will make him relevant.
#8 – Chris Thompson – 17 – 360 – 0 TD – Long of 28 yards – 21.2 yards per return – Chris Thompson will more than likely gain 1,000 yards from scrimmage in 2017 as the Redskins 3rd down/passing game back and if he can add 300-400 yards in the return game, it will give him numbers similar to Lamar Miller in 2016, meaning he would flirt with RB2 status. In return yardage PPR leagues, Chris Thompson is a serious weapon.
#9 – Brandon Tate – 29 – 662 – 0 TD – Long of 45 yards – 22.8 yards per return – Brandon Tate has emerged as one of the more consistent kick and punt returners in the league. Given the Bills’ brutal wide receiver corps Tate may need to catch some balls this year, but he is one of the few returners left in the league that offers value based on his return ability alone.
#10 – Deonte Thompson – 35 – 804 – 0 TD – Long of 64 yards – 23.0 yards per return – The Bears play the Vikings and Packers twice this year as they do each year. This is important because as a team in 2016, both Minnesota and Green Bay were in the bottom 10 in the league in touchback percentage. Minnesota only kicked touchbacks on 48% of kickoffs while Green Bay came in at 51%. This is important because Deonte Thompson will have more opportunities to bring the ball out than other returners during those 4 games which will bring his overall volume up. Deonte Thompson doesn’t appear to offer much upside on the receiving end of things at the moment, but if you look at the Bears receiving corps, they simply aren’t that proven or good, meaning Thompson could be forced into action if Markus Wheaton, Kendall Wright and Kevin White don’t come through.
UPDATE FROM QB RANKINGS
On July 21st, I published my 2017 quarterback rankings. Since then, the Bills have traded away Sammy Watkins. I have since buried Taylor on my draft board and have not touched him in any drafts. Taylor is a deep ball QB without a deep threat. It’s looking more and more like Nathan Peterman is better suited to run this offense. If you are going to draft Taylor at all, draft him as your backup in deeper leagues. In shallower leagues, such as 10 teamers, I wouldn’t even touch him.
I also said that Blake Bortles was on the fringe as a top fantasy QB. Abort that, erase that from your memory, he is on the way out in Jacksonville. Bortles has been buried in my rankings and is untouchable.