2014 Punt & Kick Return Studs, Depth Charts
Note: 4for4.com does not project return yardage across the board. Due to position turnover and the unpredictability of return yardage on a weekly basis, projecting return stats will add noise and may actually hurt your draft. We recommend noting the top few returners on your cheat sheet with a willingness to select them a round or two earlier in your draft. If you really want to estimate projected return yardage and TDs, you can check out PC Drafter which comes free with your 4for4 subscription. It allows you to enter return forecast numbers. Be very careful here, perhaps do only a minimal edit on a few of the top return men noted below.
Last updated September 2, 2014
Return specialists add an extra element to the fantasy game, providing key points that can sometimes push one team over the top with additional return yardage, or sometimes by returning a touchdown and scoring six points for a team defense. Because of this added effect, it’s important for fantasy owners in return yardage leagues to keep an eye on the returner depth charts and see where additional help might be found on a fantasy squad. 4for4 has you covered as you navigate your way through endless amounts of drops, pickups, training camp battles, and depth chart changes, letting you know who’s returning kicks for every NFL team, and all the names you should know as a fantasy owner.
At the bottom of this article you'll find a preliminary depth chart that I’ll be updating all preseason. Because training camp is just about to get under way and these position battles are only now getting started, this is a preliminary estimate of who teams will have fielding kicks and punts for the upcoming fantasy season. But first, some notables to tide you over as we start to enter fantasy draft season:
The Best Around
In all leagues, and especially ones with return yardage points, second year Minnesota Vikings receiver Cordarrelle Patterson is the crème de la crème of valuable fantasy returners. He didn’t return punts last season, but he was far and away the best kick returner in the game in 2013 and should be a top starter on the outside in the Vikings offense as well. He has a new quarterback, and a new offensive coordinator, and a year of NFL experience, which spells great things for the young and explosive playmaker out of Tennessee. Patterson led the league with two kickoff returns for touchdowns, led the league in kick return average with 32.4 yards per return, and he was second only to Devin Hester in total kick return yards at an eye-popping 1,393! Patterson is so good that it’s possible the Vikings will try to save him for offense, but his production last year may be too much for the team to ignore. Quite simply, you want Patterson on your fantasy team.
Many teams have such game-breaking playmakers, they can’t help but to use them in the return game as well as on offense or defense. This is where fantasy owners in return yardage leagues should stand up and take notice. Players like receivers T.Y. Hilton of the Colts, Golden Tate formerly of the Seahawks (now a Lion), Darren Sproles (now an Eagle) and Antonio Brown of the Steelers had considerable success on returns last year, adding significant impact to their fantasy value in return yardage leagues. This season, the following players, in addition to the aforementioned, should be considered for their added return value:
- Percy Harvin, WR, Seattle Seahawks – With Golden Tate off to Detroit, and Harvin expected to be healthy this season, keep an eye on the electrifying former Viking. Missing nearly all of 2013, Harvin will be given serious consideration along with incumbent Jermaine Kearse to replace the production of the departed Tate. Watch the training camp battles, but if he gets the nod, Harvin has added value in leagues that reward return yardage, as he’s had touchdowns in each of his five previous seasons in Minnesota off kick returns.
- DeSean Jackson, WR, Washington – Jackson always made a big impact in Philadelphia, and this year he will likely be given a chance to return punts for Washington, a team that still counted on an aging Santana Moss to handle punts last year. Jackson will already be considered a top deep ball option for third year quarterback Robert Griffin III. If he can fill in as a punt returner too, his value will increase.
- Ted Ginn Jr., WR, Arizona Cardinals – Generally speaking, Ginn isn’t very fantasy relevant. However, he’s an excellent return man and has a chance to beat out rookie John Brown and holdover Jaron Brown for the slot receiver role. If Ginn wins out, he deserves an uptick in value in leagues that reward return yardage. Ginn totaled over 900 return yards with Carolina last season, and was sixth in the league in punt return average.
- Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo – Watkins may only play offense, but he’s a playmaker, and it’s hard to believe the Bills won’t give him a chance to at least split return duties with incumbents Leodis McKelvin and Marquise Goodwin. Watkins was a lethal kick returner at Clemson, gaining 826 yards and a touchdown on returns his junior year.
- Dwayne Harris, WR, Dallas – Harris, like Ginn, finds himself in a situation where he may get a chance to battle for the slot receiver position. If he wins out over rookie Devin Street and holdover Cole Beasley, then fantasy owners should take notice. With his 1,103 return yards and a touchdown last season, he’ll gain some value in leagues that reward return yardage.
- Jacoby Jones, WR, Baltimore Ravens – Jones was hurt for a good portion of last season, but still wound up with over 1,100 return yards and a touchdown for the Ravens as their main return man. Jones gets some looks at receiver and as the lead return specialist, he has value in leagues that award yardage for returners.
- Tavon Austin, WR, St. Louis Rams – Austin was inconsistent last season, but definitely showed off his playmaking skills with a 98 yard punt return for a touchdown, and scoring receptions of 81 and 57 yards against the Colts. Austin will continue to get looks on offense and in the return game as the Rams try to find creative ways to get the ball in his hands. Fantasy owners expecting a bump from Austin in his second year should note his added value as a returner.
- Dexter McCluster, RB, Tennessee – McCluster is listed as a running back on the Titans official roster page, but he’ll be a player who catches balls out of the backfield and returns punts. In Kansas City last year, he averaged 11.8 yards per return and had two touchdowns. On top of that, he caught 53 balls on offense, which means he should be considered a viable PPR running back in all leagues, with added value in return yardage leagues.
- Markus Wheaton, WR, Pittsburgh – Early indications are that this second year receiver out of Oregon State has the inside track on the KR job, as well as the WR2 spot in Pittsburgh. Early reports have him as the secondary option at PR as well, behind Antonio Brown. Keep an eye on this kid, as he could easily become a valuable fantasy player in return yardage leagues if he beats out rookie Dri Archer for the RS job and gets a significant increase in playing time at WR.
- Dri Archer, RB, Pittsburgh – As mentioned above, Archer is challenging Wheaton for the KR job, and if the speedy rookie out of Kent State can win it, he has gamebreaking speed. He'll also get a look as a change-of-pace back behind powerful runners Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount. For leagues that give points for return yardage, Archer will be worth keeping an eye on to see how much work he gets once the season starts.
Just for Kicks
Most teams still employ a designated return man. Sure, Marcus Sherels plays cornerback for the Minnesota Vikings and Damien Williams will absolutely gets a few snaps at running back for the Dolphins. However, that doesn’t mean they’re bound to put up big numbers outside of the return game. These players characterize the moniker “specialists” more than any other, as they hold significant value in their roles but have very little fantasy value outside of team defenses. Couple an excellent return man with a stifling defense, and the specialist may become a tiebreaker between two good defenses, but outside of that, these players don’t hold a lot of value in fantasy circles. Other examples include receiver Keshawn Martin in Houston, receiver Brandon Tate in Cincinnati, and newly acquired receiver Devin Hester, now an Atlanta Falcon.
If you play in an IDP league, there are always a few corners or safeties that add to their stats with an effective return game. In the past, it’s been Patrick Peterson leading the way as a starting corner and also a Pro Bowl return man. This year, the pickings are a little slimmer in that regard, as Peterson may take a backseat to Ginn. Earl Thomas inexplicably will get a chance in Seattle, as will Antoine Cason in Carolina who used to field punts with the Chargers. Leodis McKelvin may hold on to the punt returner job in Buffalo and plays significant snaps on defense. Outside of Quintin Demps who seems to have won a job with the Giants as a return specialist, IDP players will find the pickings slim this year.
So Long and Thanks for the All the Kicks
There are several players on this list that are going to be considered for return jobs this year, but I’m doubtful that their respective teams will continue to expose them to violent hits. Quite simply, they are too valuable on offense or defense to continue to play a role on special teams. This includes the San Diego Chargers, who had ROY candidate Keenan Allen returning punts last year. He’ll be in the mix, but the Chargers will hope a rookie like receiver Eddie Royal will take over that role full time and as mentioned earlier, the newly acquired Ginn will likely replace Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson in Arizona. Other possible players that could be protected include the aforementioned T.Y. Hilton. Likewise, guys like Jacquizz Rodgers, Knile Davis (still slated to return kicks), and Julian Edelman may lose their spots due to incoming return specialists like Hester and De’Anthony Thomas. Keep an eye out as the season progresses for the roles of these traditionally active returners.
2014 Punt & Kick Return Depth Charts
Last updated September 2, 2014