2016 Punt & Kick Return Studs, Depth Charts (Plus 19 Players to Target)
Return specialists add an extra element to fantasy. They provide key points that can sometimes push your team over the top with a well-timed touchdown. Additionally, some leagues reward fantasy teams with return yardage, and D/STs are usually rewarded for special teams scores. It’s important for fantasy owners to keep an eye on the returner depth charts to 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. We’ll be with you throughout the pre-season with weekly updates, letting you know who is returning kicks for every NFL team and all the names you should know as a fantasy owner.
Below is a preliminary depth chart to this article that I’ll be updating until the season begins. 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 which players will be fielding kicks and punts for the upcoming season.
|Arizona||Andre Ellington||RB||Andre Ellington||RB|
|Arizona||J.J. Nelson||WR||J.J. Nelson||WR|
|Atlanta||Eric Weems||WR||Tevin Coleman||RB|
|Baltimore||Devin Hester||WR||Devin Hester||WR|
|Baltimore||Tavon Young||CB||Tavon Young||CB|
|Buffalo||Reggie Bush||RB||Reggie Bush||RB|
|Buffalo||Brandon Tate||WR||Walt Powell||WR|
|Buffalo||Greg Salas||WR||Brandon Tate||WR|
|Carolina||Ted Ginn||WR||Ted Ginn||WR|
|Carolina||Robert McClain||CB||Fozzy Whitaker||RB|
|Carolina||Brenton Bersin||WR||Joe Webb||QB/WR|
|Chicago||Eddie Royal||WR||Deonte Thompson||WR|
|Cincinnati||Adam Jones||CB||Alex Erickson||WR|
|Cincinnati||Alex Erickson||WR||Adam Jones||CB|
|Cleveland||Corey Coleman||WR||Corey Coleman||WR|
|Dallas||Lucky Whitehead||WR||Lucky Whitehead||WR|
|Dallas||Cole Beasley||WR||Morris Claiborne||CB|
|Denver||Jordan Norwood||WR||Cody Latimer||WR|
|Denver||Emmanuel Sanders||WR||Jordan Norwood||WR|
|Detroit||Golden Tate||WR||Ameer Abdullah||RB|
|Detroit||Ameer Abdullah||RB||Andre Roberts||WR|
|Green Bay||Micah Hyde||DB||Micah Hyde||DB|
|Green Bay||Trevor Davis||WR||Trevor Davis||WR|
|Green Bay||Ty Montgomery||WR||Jared Abbrederis||WR|
|Houston||Tyler Ervin||RB||Tyler Ervin||RB|
|Indianapolis||Quan Bray||WR||Quan Bray||RB|
|Indianapolis||Chester Rogers||WR||Josh Ferguson||RB|
|Jacksonville||Rashad Greene||WR||Corey Grant||RB|
|Jacksonville||Bryan Walters||WR||Denard Robinson||RB|
|Kansas City||Tyreek Hill||WR||Knile Davis||RB|
|Kansas City||De'Anthony Thomas||WR||Tyreek Hill||WR|
|Los Angeles||Tavon Austin||WR||Benny Cunningham||RB|
|Los Angeles||Tavon Austin||WR|
|Miami||Jarvis Landry||WR||Jakeem Grant||WR|
|Miami||Jakeem Grant||WR||Kenyan Drake||RB|
|Minnesota||Marcus Sherels||CB||Cordarrelle Patterson||WR|
|Minnesota||Adam Thielen||WR||Marcus Sherels||CB|
|New England||Julian Edelman||WR||Danny Amendola||WR|
|New England||Danny Amendola||WR||Matt Slater||WR|
|New England||Cyrus Jones||DB|
|New Orleans||Marcus Murphy||RB||Marcus Murphy||RB|
|New Orleans||C.J. Spiller||RB||Brandin Cooks||WR|
|New York Giants||Dwayne Harris||WR||Dwayne Harris||WR|
|New York Giants||Bobby Rainey||RB||Bobby Rainey||RB|
|New York Jets||Jalin Marshall||WR||Jalin Marshall||WR|
|Oakland||T.J. Carrie||WR||Taiwan Jones||RB|
|Oakland||DeAndre Washington||RB||DeAndre Washington||RB|
|Philadelphia||Darren Sproles||RB||Josh Huff||WR|
|Philadelphia||Kenjon Barner||RB||Kenjon Barner||RB|
|Philadelphia||Paul Turner||WR||Wendell Smallwood||RB|
|Pittsburgh||Antonio Brown||WR||Sammie Coates||WR|
|Pittsburgh||Eli Rogers||WR||Justin Gilbert||CB|
|Pittsburgh||Markus Wheaton||WR||Fitzgerald Toussaint||RB|
|San Diego||Travis Benjamin||WR||Craig Mager||CB|
|San Diego||Keenan Allen||WR||Isaiah Burse||WR|
|San Francisco||Jeremy Kerley||WR||Jeremy Kerley||WR|
|Seattle||Tyler Lockett||WR||Tyler Lockett||WR|
|Tampa Bay||Adam Humphries||WR||Ryan Smith||S|
|Tampa Bay||Ryan Smith||S||Adam Humphries||WR|
|Tennessee||Marc Mariani||WR||Marc Mariani||WR|
|Tennessee||Kevin Byard||DB||Antonio Andrews||RB|
|Washington||Jamison Crowder||WR||Rashad Ross||WR|
|Washington||Will Blackmon||S||Chris Thompson||RB|
Many teams have game-breaking playmakers on offense that they can’t help but use in the return game as well. This is where fantasy owners in return yardage leagues should stand up and take notice. I’ll leave out players like Antonio Brown and David Johnson, who may get a fair amount of work in the return game -- you already know they are elite fantasy options. Those guys are going in the first few picks of fantasy drafts anyway and their status as returners is unlikely to impact where owners will consider drafting them. However, the following players will likely get a boost and should be considered for their added return value:
- Tyler Lockett, WR, Seattle Seahawks – Lockett made the Pro Bowl last season as a returner, and was one of only two players to return both a punt and a kick for a touchdown. He finished the season with a league-leading 1,231 total return yards and cemented himself as one of the most dynamic players in the game. Lockett also improved as a receiver down the stretch: He caught 51 passes for 664 yards and six touchdowns last year, with most of the production coming in the second half of the season. Lockett should be in line for a continued increase in offensive production and should remain the Seahawks' primary return specialist.
- Ameer Abdullah, RB, Detroit Lions – Abdullah led the league in kick returns and yardage last season, averaging 29.1 yards on 37 returns. He also got the bulk of the carries in the Detroit backfield and caught 25 passes, making him essentially a triple threat fantasy option in leagues that give points for return yardage. Abdullah is still fighting to remain the lead back in Detroit, but with off-season improvements along the offensive line, including first-round tackle Taylor Decker and third-round center Graham Glasgow, Abdullah should be in line for a more effective sophomore season. Additionally, the Lions let go of veteran Joique Bell, leaving pass-catching specialist Theo Riddick, holdover Zach Zenner, journeyman Stevan Ridley, and rookie seventh-round pick Dwayne Washington as his only competition for offensive touches. Abdullah may be in for a big season and his value increases significantly in return yardage leagues.
- Darren Sproles, RB, Philadelphia Eagles – Sproles is still an elite player in the return game. He led the league in punt return yardage last season, and ran two back for touchdowns. Sproles also remains an important part of the offense. He had 705 yards from scrimmage in 2015, including 55 receptions. While his yards-per-carry average of 3.8 was his worst since 2009, he was still on the field for 34 percent of the Eagles’ offensive snaps and he remains an important part of the Philadelphia offense. This season, with the oft-injured Ryan Mathews, veteran backup Kenjon Barner, and rookie fifth-round pick Wendell Smallwood his main competition in the backfield, Sproles should continue to see a considerable number of snaps and have enough receptions to be a productive fantasy player.
- Travis Benjamin, WR, San Diego Chargers – The Chargers signed Benjamin to be a deep threat on offense, but he also brings valuable experience as a punt returner. Last year with the Browns, Benjamin averaged 11.6 yards per return, third best among players with at least 20 returns. He should be an excellent improvement over Javontee Herndon, who struggled last season, averaging only 7.4 yards per return. Additionally, Benjamin should easily earn a starting job opposite Keenan Allen, giving him significant value in an offense that finished fourth last season in passing yards.
- Tavon Austin, WR, Los Angeles Rams – Playmaking is what Austin does best, and the return game is just one more way to get the ball in his hands. While his punt return average dropped from 11.2 in 2014 to 7.9 last year, Austin had a punt for a touchdown and remains a weapon who will pad his offensive stats with looks in the return game. Austin had his best offensive season in 2015, finishing with a career high 907 yards from scrimmage, including 52 receptions and nine offensive touchdowns. Austin is still only 25 years old, and he should continue to play a vital role on both offense and special teams, making him a player that deserves a significant bump in value for leagues that reward return yardage.
- Bruce Ellington, WR, San Francisco 49ers – Ellington may get a chance to shine in Chip Kelly’s offense, but he should also retain his job as the primary return man with chief competitors Jarryd Hayne and Reggie Bush now off the roster. Ellington is one of the few players who returns both kicks and punts consistently and effectively, and he may also be in line for an increased role on offense. The 49ers lost veteran receiver Anquan Boldin during the offseason, and Kelly will bring an offensive scheme with him that should allow Ellington more opportunities as a slot receiver. While he was only targeted 19 times last year, he’s a prime breakout candidate as a dual-threat player. UPDATE: Ellington was placed on Injured Reserve on August 30th and will miss the entire season. Jeremy Kerley stands the best chance to benefit as a potential returner and slot receiver in Ellington's stead.
- Ted Ginn Jr., WR, Carolina Panthers – Ginn Jr. has been primarily a return man throughout his career, until he ended up on the receiving end of 10 touchdowns last season in Carolina. While his offensive production will likely dip a bit with the return of Kelvin Benjamin from injury, Ginn Jr. should remain a punt return demon, supplementing his value with an occasional deep touchdown reception. If Ginn Jr. continues to play a large role on offense, he may field fewer returns, as he already ceased kickoff return duty last year, but he’s still a threat any time he touches the ball, making him an intriguing option.
- Jarvis Landry, WR, Miami Dolphins – Landry may not remain the primary punt returner with rookie Jakeem Grant and free agent acquisition Griff Whalen fighting for roster spots, but he was very effective in the role last year and won’t give it up easily. Landry is highly competitive and he was fourth in punt return yardage last year with 356, including returning one for a touchdown. Landry is already going to be considered a high value receiver in most fantasy leagues, but he should get a small boost in value in return yardage leagues if he holds onto his spot as the main punt returner. Watch the training camp battle and the depth chart for changes.
Just for Kicks
Some players are such good return specialists they are able to make a roster based solely on their production on special teams. These are players that are really only valuable in fantasy leagues that have an extra slot for returners, but can be big impact players in the right league format. If you’re not in a league with that separate slot though, these guys are unlikely to create enough production on offense to make a real difference on your roster.
- Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Minnesota Vikings – Patterson used to be considered a double-down option for fantasy owners, but after two years of relative obscurity on the offensive side of the ball, he’s settled into his role as the primary kick returner. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the Vikings, as he’s arguably the best in the game, coming off a season where he ran two back for touchdowns and averaged 31.8 yards per return, tops in the NFL among players with at least 20 kick returns. Patterson might find a role on offense, but with the emergence of Stefon Diggs last season and the addition of first-round rookie Laquon Treadwell, it’s hard to image he gets more playing time on the offensive side of the ball.
- Dwayne Harris, WR, New York Giants – Due to injuries in the receiving corps last year, Harris got a few more looks on offense than he usually does. He ended up with 36 catches, 396 yards, and four touchdowns. However, he’s still primarily a return man and was fourth in the league last season with 972 total return yards. He also was one of only two players to return both a kick and a punt for a touchdown. Harris should retain his role as return specialist and is highly effective in that role. However, with Victor Cruz possibly returning from injury and the addition of second-round rookie Sterling Shephard to the receiving corps, it’s unlikely Harris will get as many looks on offense.
- Kaelin Clay, WR, Baltimore Ravens – Clay is kind of a sleeper option for leagues that have additional slots for returners. While he’s unlikely to crack the offensive lineup, he was fairly effective last season as the Ravens’ primary return specialist. Clay averaged 24.5 yards per kick return and 10.6 yards per punt return, and he brought back a punt for a touchdown. The Ravens have been looking for a long-term solution at the returner spot and may have found it in Clay, a sixth-round pick by the Bucs a year ago - UPDATE: Clay was released from the Ravens after suffering a season-ending foot injury. Baltimore will be looking to Michael Campanaro or rookie Keenan Reynolds to fill the void.
Out with the Old, in with the New
Several players that have been mainstays in the return game for years are getting toward the end of their respective careers and will face new challenges. Likewise, several teams lost key contributors to the return game and will be seeking help from the youth on their roster. Rookies often enter the league as playmakers and get some of their first real opportunities in the return game. The following are some of the young players to keep an eye on in case they steal a spot from a departed veteran, or win an open competition to replace someone already off the roster:
- Corey Coleman, WR, Cleveland Browns – Replacing Travis Benjamin as the primary punt returner won’t be easy for Cleveland, but game-breaking rookie Coleman should be a prime candidate to step up to the plate. Coleman is a tough competitor who ran a 4.37 second 40-yard-dash at his pro day before being drafted in the first round. Coleman was a productive kick returner at Baylor in 2013, averaging 28.4 yards on 17 returns. While the Browns will be looking for him to make his biggest impact on offense, he may wind up using his speed on special teams, giving him added value in the right league formats.
- Tyreek Hill, WR, Kansas City Chiefs – There will be competition in Kansas City for return duties, led by veteran DeAnthony Thomas, but the shifty Hill could end up on top when all is said and done. Hill duplicates many of the skills and traits that Thomas brings to the table, but doesn’t have the same injury history. Hill comes with some off-the-field baggage, but the fifth-round pick out of West Alabama has the potential to be explosive every time he touches the ball. In 2014, when he was at Oklahoma State, he ran back a punt and two kicks for touchdowns and was a dynamic, versatile player on offense. If he wins the job in camp and can keep his nose clean, he may become one of the best returners in the game.
- Demarcus Ayers, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers – Could this be the year that someone challenges Antonio Brown as the primary punt returner in Pittsburgh? Perhaps Ayers, a rookie speedster out of Houston, is up to the task. Replacing Dri Archer and Jacoby Jones, Ayers should easily earn the kick return job, and he’ll be in play for the punt return job too if the Steelers decide to protect Brown. If Ayers wins the job outright and finds a role on offense, he could be a sneaky fantasy option in leagues that award points for return yards. Pittsburgh has a knack for finding draft value at the receiver position, and this seventh-rounder with shifty explosiveness could be another hidden gem. UPDATE: Ayers failed to make the final 53-man roster.
- Braxton Miller, WR, Houston Texans – The Texans will try to get the versatile Braxton Miller the ball in any way they can. Miller, a converted quarterback and rookie third-round pick out of Ohio State, may become a valuable gadget-play specialist on offense and might challenge incumbent return specialist Keith Mumphrey for a job on special teams. While Miller isn’t guaranteed to earn snaps in any phase of the game, he would certainly provide more value-added potential than Mumphrey, giving him a good shot at a roster spot if he can prove effective as a returner.
- Jakeem Grant, WR, Miami Dolphins – The Dolphins are hoping that Grant can be the consistent and dynamic return specialist they’ve been looking for since Ted Ginn Jr. left in 2010. The speedy slot receiver from Texas Tech was drafted in the sixth round this year after finishing fourth in the NCAA with 1,017 kick return yards. Grant impressed fans with his speed early in camp, and he seems a lock to win the kick return job, even if he may have a battle on his hands to beat out Jarvis Landry as the main punt returner. Grant is an explosive playmaker who may carve a role as a slot receiver too.
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.
- Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals – The Cardinals continue to inexplicably use their all-world starting cornerback as their primary punt returner. While this could change, and second-year speedster J.J. Nelson could wrestle the job away from him, the Cardinals seem more than willing to expose Peterson to additional hits in the return game. As long as that continues to be the case, he’ll have added value in IDP leagues that reward for return yardage. Peterson is an excellent cornerback, but cornerbacks usually don’t rack up tackles like safeties do, putting him at a disadvantage in most IDP formats. Because of this, additional return duties could make Peterson much more valuable in return leagues. UPDATE: Andre Ellington and J.J. Nelson look to be handling return duties this year, making Peterson less desirable as an IDP option based solely on returner production.
- Adam Jones, CB, Cincinnati Bengals – Jones remains a productive player both on defense and in the return game. He finished last season with 62 total tackles and three interceptions to go with his 414 return yards. Jones is probably nearing the end of his career, but as long he continues to be effective in his dual-role with the team, he’ll have additional value in IDP-return leagues.
- T.J. Carrie, CB, Oakland Raiders – Carrie didn’t light the world on fire last year as a return man, averaging only 6.2 yards on 19 punt returns, but he racked up 52 tackles and an interception on defense and should continue in both roles as he enters his third season. Carrie is still improving as a player and his main competition for the punt return job comes from a pair of undrafted rookie receivers – Joe Hansley and Jaydon Mickens – who may not even make the roster. If he retains his role through camp, he has added value as a returner in IDP leagues.