Punt & Kickoff Return Depth Chart and Players to Target
With a well-timed touchdown, a kickoff or punt returner can provide the key points that push your fantasy team over the top. Some returners are better than others, so it’s important for fantasy managers to keep an eye on depth charts to see which players will return kicks and punts for each team. Below you will find kickoff and punt return depth charts. They will be updated at least weekly, through the seemingly endless amounts of drops, pickups, and training camp battles. Keep in mind, return specialists are often some of the most vulnerable personnel to final cut-downs and roster moves, so things will change heavily between now and the start of the season, then will further change as the season progresses.
2021 Punt and Kick Returner Depth Chart
|Team||Punt Returner||Position||Kick Returner||Position||Comments|
|Arizona Cardinals||Christian Kirk||WR||Andy Isabella||WR||This was all Kirk and Edmonds last year, but there are rumblings of Rondale Moore getting a chance. And Edmonds seems poised for offensive work.|
|Arizona Cardinals||Andy Isabella||WR||Rondale Moore||WR||Isabella has experience but wouldn't be surprised to see Moore.|
|Arizona Cardinals||Rondale Moore||WR||Eno Benjamin||RB||Watch this camp battle heavily and see if Moore can snag either or both jobs. Benjamin looked awfully good in preseason action.|
|Atlanta Falcons||Avery Williams||CB||Cordarrelle Patterson||WR/RB||With Brandon Powell gone, it's a wide-open competition. Patterson is in town now.|
|Atlanta Falcons||Olamide Zaccheaus||WR||Avery Williams||CB||Rookie CB Williams will get every opportunity to win both jobs. Zaccheaus provides a little depth.|
|Baltimore Ravens||Devin Duvernay||WR||Devin Duvernay||WR||This was Proche and Duvernay last year, and both did a pretty good job at it. Duvernay sounds like he may take the PR job outright.|
|Baltimore Ravens||James Proche||WR||Justice Hill||RB||Hill has been listed as a KR in the past but didn't do any work at it last year. If Duvernay falters, Proche is ready to take the PR job back.|
|Buffalo Bills||Isaiah McKenzie||WR||Isaiah McKenzie||WR||McKenzie is supposed to be ready for Week 1.|
|Buffalo Bills||Marquez Stevenson||WR||Marquez Stevenson||WR||The rookie Stevenson is talented and may take the job if he comes off IR.|
|Carolina Panthers||Shi Smith||WR||Shi Smith||WR||Shi Smith earned these jobs, but expect fellow rookie Hubbard to share some KR duties.|
|Carolina Panthers||Brandon Zylstra||WR||Chuba Hubbard||RB||Zylstra provides some experience and depth. Hubbard might share work with Smith.|
|Chicago Bears||Nsimba Webster||WR||Khalil Herbert||RB||Herbert seems to have won the KR job, but Webster is a late signing and could push for both spots.|
|Chicago Bears||Damiere Byrd||WR||Nsimba Webster||WR||I don't think they would've signed Webster without expecting him to return punts.|
|Chicago Bears||Darnell Mooney||WR||Darnell Mooney||WR||Byrd and Mooney are experienced backup options, particularly if they end up cutting Webster after picking him up late.|
|Cincinnati Bengals||Darius Phillips||CB||Brandon Wilson||DB||This was Wilson and Alex Erickson last year. Philips looks like the guy at PR, but there could be changes.|
|Cincinnati Bengals||Brandon Wilson||DB||Darius Phillips||CB|
|Cleveland Browns||Donovan Peoples-Jones||WR||D'Ernest Johnson||RB||This was mostly DPJ and Johnson last year, and I expect it'll stay the same, but watch Felton closely.|
|Cleveland Browns||Demetric Felton||RB/WR||Donovan Peoples-Jones||WR||If DPJ rises on offense, we could see someone else on punts.|
|Cleveland Browns||D'Ernest Johnson||RB||Demetric Felton||RB/WR||Felton did some in college and in preseason and was pretty good.|
|Dallas Cowboys||CeeDee Lamb||WR||Tony Pollard||RB||This was all Pollard and Lamb last year; Jon Machota said it's expected to stay the same.|
|Dallas Cowboys||Cedrick Wilson||WR||Cedrick Wilson||WR||Cedrick Wilson will get some relief action.|
|Denver Broncos||Diontae Spencer||WR||Diontae Spencer||WR||Spencer has been the guy two years in a row now, and no reason to expect change.|
|Denver Broncos||K.J. Hamler||WR||K.J. Hamler||WR||Hamler was a reserve last year.|
|Denver Broncos||Bryce Callahan||CB||Bryce Callahan||CB||Callahan is capable as a backup.|
|Detroit Lions||Kalif Raymond||WR||Kalif Raymond||WR||Jamal Agnew is now with the Jags, so this is an open battle, but Raymond has experience.|
|Detroit Lions||Tom Kennedy||WR||Tom Kennedy||WR||Dave Birkett from Detroit Free Press thinks it's Raymond if he makes the roster. Kennedy is a darkhorse if he makes the roster at both spots.|
|Detroit Lions||Amon-Ra St. Brown||WR||Amon-Ra St. Brown||WR||Some have St. Brown listed. Swift got some mini-camp reps, but it's hard to believe Swift will be risked.|
|Green Bay Packers||Amari Rodgers||WR||Kylin Hill||RB||This looks like the rookies have won the jobs.|
|Green Bay Packers||Randall Cobb||WR||Amari Rodgers||WR||Rodgers was pretty good as a PR in college, but he had some ball security issues in the preseason, so if that continues, we may see Cobb.|
|Green Bay Packers||Chandon Sullivan||CB||Chandon Sullivan||CB||Sullivan provides some experienced depth.|
|Houston Texans||Andre Roberts||WR||Andre Roberts||WR||Andre Roberts should be the guy and seems to have made it through final cuts.|
|Houston Texans||Desmond King||CB||Desmond King||CB||If Roberts is cut, this is wide open, but King seems the most likely and got some work in preseason.|
|Indianapolis Colts||Nyheim Hines||RB||Isaiah Rodgers||CB||This was all Rodgers and Hines last year. No reason to think that changes.|
|Indianapolis Colts||Isaiah Rodgers||CB||Nyheim Hines||RB|
|Jacksonville Jaguars||Jamal Agnew||WR/CB||Jamal Agnew||WR/CB||Demetrius Harvey (@Demetrius82) from Big Cat Country says Agnew was brought in for this specifically.|
|Jacksonville Jaguars||Chris Claybrooks||CB||Chris Claybrooks||CB||Claybrooks did quite a few kicks last year, and a few punts. He's a good reserve option.|
|Kansas City Chiefs||Mecole Hardman||WR||Mecole Hardman||WR||This seems like it'll be at least partially Hardman's job again after it was mostly him last year.|
|Kansas City Chiefs||Tyreek Hill||WR||Byron Pringle||WR||Pringle got about half the KR work last year, and Hill is always a possibility for spot duty.|
|Las Vegas Raiders||Hunter Renfrow||WR||Jalen Richard||RB||Renfrow should continue his job on punts from last year; kicks should be Richard when/if he comes back from injury.|
|Las Vegas Raiders||Henry Ruggs||WR||Kenyan Drake||RB||Expect Drake and Ruggs to split duties on kicks while Richard is out.|
|Las Vegas Raiders||Kenyan Drake||RB||Henry Ruggs||WR|
|Los Angeles Chargers||K.J. Hill||WR||Nasir Adderley||DB||Adderley seems to have won the KR job and will get work on D, making him an interesting IDP option..|
|Los Angeles Chargers||Jalen Guyton||WR||K.J. Hill||WR||Hill should return punts and some kicks; Guyton will provide depth.|
|Los Angeles Rams||Tutu Atwell||WR||Jake Funk||RB||With Nsimba Webster and Otis Anderson off the final roster, rookie Atwell will get every chance at the job. The team lists Funk as the KR in initial unofficial chart.|
|Los Angeles Rams||DeSean Jackson||WR||Tutu Atwell||WR||It's possible even DeSean Jackson will be in play here, but this became a wide open job with Webster's release.|
|Los Angeles Rams||Cooper Kupp||WR||DeSean Jackson||WR||Kupp has done a little bit of it in the past, but you have to think he's not the preferred choice for the role; despite being listed by the team.|
|Miami Dolphins||Jakeem Grant||WR||Jakeem Grant||WR||This was Grant last year, with Igbinoghene getting a few kicks.|
|Miami Dolphins||Jaylen Waddle||WR||Noah Igbinoghene||CB||They might try Waddle, since he's such a playmaker, a bit on punts.|
|Minnesota Vikings||K.J. Osborn||WR||Ihmir Smith-Marsette||WR||Abdullah didn't make the final cut, so Osborn and the rookie Smith-Marsette are likely to get the work.|
|Minnesota Vikings||Dede Westbrook||WR||K.J. Osborn||WR||Don't count out Westbrook on punts|
|Minnesota Vikings||Ihmir Smith-Marsette||WR||Kene Nwangwu||RB||Nwangwu is electric and might get a chance to contribute on kicks if the others struggle.|
|New England Patriots||Gunner Olszewski||WR||Gunner Olszewski||WR||This was pretty much all Gunner last year, and I would expect it to be the same in 2021, but I think J.J. Taylor has shown he deserves to get work as well. Expect some sort of a split.|
|New England Patriots||J.J. Taylor||RB||J.J. Taylor||RB||Taylor was a #2 if there was a #2 last year at both spots, aside from Moncrief, who isn't on the roster. I think Taylor will get some run at both spots, based on preseason press.|
|New Orleans Saints||Deonte Harris||WR||Deonte Harris||WR||This was all Harris the last two years when healthy. He's excellent and should continue.|
|New Orleans Saints||Marquez Callaway||WR||Marquez Callaway||WR||Callaway filled in when Harris was hurt last year.|
|New York Giants||Jabrill Peppers||DB||John Ross||WR||This was nearly all Peppers on punts last year, and should remain the same. Ross should take the job when he comes back off temporary IR.|
|New York Giants||Kadarius Toney||WR||Jabrill Peppers||DB||Looks like Peppers will fill in at KR while John Ross is out. Lots of IDP value there.|
|New York Giants||Darius Slayton||WR||Kadarius Toney||WR||Toney and Slayton will be in play if Peppers struggles.|
|New York Jets||Braxton Berrios||WR||Michael Carter||RB||This was Berrios on punts and then Ballentine on kicks once he joned the roster. Berrios will probably keep the PR job, but Ballentine was waived in late-August.|
|New York Jets||Michael Carter||RB||Ty Johnson||RB||Carter is getting some run in the preseason and could snatch one or both jobs. Ty Johnson is experienced, and we might see a split between he and Carter at KR.|
|New York Jets||Keelan Cole||WR||Elijah Moore||WR||Kyle Fahey from Jets Brawl thinks Cole/Moore could be in play at both spots.|
|Philadelphia Eagles||Jalen Reagor||WR||Quez Watkins||WR||The team seems to want Reagor and Watkins to take over these spots. Watkins looked good in preseason action.|
|Philadelphia Eagles||Greg Ward||WR||Kenneth Gainwell||RB||Gainwell is listed by the team on backup kicks and Greg Ward provides depth.|
|Pittsburgh Steelers||Ray-Ray McCloud||WR||Ray-Ray McCloud||WR||This was all Ray-Ray McCloud last year with a little Diontae; and it looks like it'll be him again.|
|Pittsburgh Steelers||Diontae Johnson||WR||Anthony McFarland Jr.||RB||McFarland will likely be the backup KR when/if he comes back off IR, but Pierre will fill in in the meantime.|
|Pittsburgh Steelers||James Pierre||CB||James Pierre||CB||Note: Diontae has ball security issues, so keep that in mind before assuming he'll be the primary backup. Pierre will be in play.|
|San Francisco 49ers||River Cracraft||WR||River Cracraft||WR||This situation might change, with Cracraft a late cut and then a late addition. I think bringing him back must be for return duties, but it looks fluid to me.|
|San Francisco 49ers||Brandon Aiyuk||WR||Ambry Thomas||CB||Ambry Thomas was mentioned by Kyle Posey from sports nation. It seems crazy to put Aiyuk as PR, but he'll be good if they decide to expose him.|
|Seattle Seahawks||Freddie Swain||WR||D.J. Reed||CB||This could fluctuate, but it looks like Seattle will fall back to Reed, who was productive last year, and give Swain a shot on punts.|
|Seattle Seahawks||D.J. Reed||CB||DeeJay Dallas||RB||Dallas is listed as the second KR, but if Reed falters, others will be in play as well.|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||Jaydon Mickens||WR||Jaydon Mickens||WR||Mickens was activated right before the first game, so it appears he's back in.|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||Jaelon Darden||WR||Jaelon Darden||WR||Darden was a surprise inactive, so it appears he'll be shelved at least for now. Watch the roster moves, as Mickens looked pretty good in Week 1.|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||Scott Miller||WR||Ke'Shawn Vaughn||RB||Some depth charts have Miller and Tyler Johnson listed, with Winfield listed as the backup KR, but Vaughn got work in preseason and they might want to save Winfield for the defense.|
|Tennessee Titans||Chester Rogers||WR||Cameron Batson||WR||Rogers looks like he's won the punt job, but Batson is still on the roster, so he'll be in play|
|Tennessee Titans||Cameron Batson||WR||Darrynton Evans||RB||Evans did some KR last year and I think he'll win the KR job when/if he comes off IR, but until then it'll be Batson on kicks|
|Washington Football Team||DeAndre Carter||WR||DeAndre Carter||WR||This was Sims and Johnson last year, but both are gone so the experienced Carter seems to be the guy.|
|Washington Football Team||Jaret Patterson||RB||Jaret Patterson||RB||It wouldn't surprise me if Patterson gets some supplemental work, or just takes the job at some point.|
Last Updated: 9/10/21
With the clear attempt by the league to reduce the number of kickoffs, it’s worth checking in on whether or not the steep decline since 2013 has continued.
|Year||Total Punt Returns||Total Kick Returns||PR Change from Previous Year||KR Change from Previous Year|
Last year, the only rule change affecting return specialists was the defenseless receiver rule extended to cover returners. This applies to players who have possession of the ball but haven’t had time to protect themselves from opponent contact. I expected this might increase the number of punt returns, but that certainly didn’t happen based on the data. It seems like an outlier to me, with 2020 likely an outlier in general. Punt returns decreased while kick returns increased, which goes in line with the fact that 12,692 points were scored league-wide last year. That’s an 8.7% increase over 2019 and the most all-time.
This year, there were no changes to the rules that should affect returns, so I would expect numbers to be back in line with 2018-2019 on a per-game basis, with obviously increases based on the addition of another game. I’m going to treat the offensive explosion of 2020 cautiously since it was such a strange season due to COVID, but if offenses keep scoring more, the league may have to find new and creative ways to reduce kick returns, assuming that remains a league priority.
Double Dip: Fantasy Studs in the Return Game
Many teams have game-breaking playmakers on offense they can’t help but use in the return game as well. This is where fantasy managers in return yardage leagues should stand up and take notice. With the amount of talent and speed at the skill positions throughout the league, multiple teams are using these dual-threat options as multi-purpose offensive weapons, as well as dynamite players in the return game. Only players whose value increases are included. Players like CeeDee Lamb, who inexplicably could still be used on returns, won’t be mentioned because they’re going to be top picks regardless.
This is a little lighter than most years, with most of the candidates listed below facing a battle for returner spots. However, the following players seem most likely to get a boost and should be considered for their potential added return value:
Tony Pollard, RB, Cowboys
Pollard was fourth in the league last year in kick return yardage with 766, and he also saw his role on offense grow in his second season. He finished with 101 carries and 28 receptions for 628 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns. Part of that was filling in for an injured Ezekiel Elliott, but he’s definitely a rising asset in one of the most prolific offenses in football. He’s extremely talented and after plays like this, the Cowboys need to find ways to get him the ball more:
It’s hard to imagine anyone challenging Pollard for kick return duties. I asked Jon Machota of The Athletic what he thought, and he said the returners will “be the same as last year with CeeDee Lamb getting most of the punt returns and Tony Pollard handling kickoffs.” Pollard will cost you, as he’s well on the radar of all fantasy managers, especially in return yardage leagues, but he may be worth the cost with a high floor due to his work on kicks.
Mecole Hardman, WR, Chiefs
Hardman has been a breakout candidate in this Chiefs offense pretty much since he was drafted two years ago. His speed opposite the lightning-fast Tyreek Hill with Patrick Mahomes throwing the ball in an Andy Reid offense seems too tantalizing to resist. He has every opportunity to enter the starting lineup this year, and Nate Taylor from The Athletic says the team expects him to have that breakout season, taking over Sammy Watkins’ role in the offense. As such, it’s possible the Chiefs turn return duties over to Byron Pringle – who split kick returns with Hardman last year – and/or Darrius Shepherd, who was a punt returner in Green Bay. Also keep an eye on Jerick McKinnon, who could return kicks. Still, Hardman’s upside in both facets of the game is too tempting to ignore in return leagues. Even if he gets part-time work in both phases, his 591 offensive yards and 360 total return yards from last year give him a solid floor to work with. Not to mention he has a return touchdown in each of his first two seasons.
Nyheim Hines, RB, Colts
Hines really blossomed on offense last season, setting career-highs in touches, yards, touchdowns and yards-per-carry. He also remained productive as a punt returner. With 370 total return yards, he finished with 1,232 all-purpose yards to go with seven touchdowns, including 63 receptions. Hines should continue to see a similar role on offense as the complementary back to Jonathan Taylor, and there’s no reason to think he won’t be the primary punt returner again. Hines might be one of the safest options in return yardage leagues, given his potential for high-floor production and stable role in both the offense and on special teams.
Chase Edmonds, RB, Cardinals
Early rumors have Edmonds edging out James Conner for the starting back role, which will give him plenty of offensive upside. Edmonds was the main kick returner last year with 417 yards on 18 kick returns. Watch this camp battle very closely, as Edmonds will face stiff competition at both spots – from Conner on offense and from rookie Rondale Moore in the return game. If Edmonds can win both jobs though, he’ll be well-worth his price tag in return yardage leagues. Even if he splits time, he catches enough passes to be productive, and kick returns are generally worth more than punt returns, giving him a nice floor to go with high double-dip upside. Update: Edmonds is looking less and less likely to have the KR job with Moore and Andy Isabella both getting looks there. The Cardinals may want to save him for offense.
Darnell Mooney, WR, Bears
Mooney might not win the job, but he’ll be in play, especially on kicks. Cordarrelle Patterson is now in Atlanta and the Bears don’t really have a proven plus-returner on the roster. If Mooney can win the kick return job, that’s probably an added 600 yards at least to the production he’ll get in the offense. He’s a favorite to start at the WR2 spot this year and the Bears should have some less erratic quarterback play with Andy Dalton, and eventually Justin Fields behind center. Plus, any time Reception Perception says positive things about a receiver, my ears perk up. He quietly had 61 receptions for 631 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie last season and will look to build on that success this year. Mooney might top this list next year, or he might be so good on offense, the Bears don’t risk him. Either way, he’s worth considering in return leagues for his potential. Update: Mooney is looking more and more like he'll be primarily an offensive weapon with rookie Khalil Herbert looking like the KR, and Nsimba Webster added to the roster late.
Donovan Peoples-Jones, WR, Browns
Peoples-Jones is a tantalizing talent who should be the primary punt returner. He also has a chance to fight for kick returns and a role on offense. He’s risky, but he had 456 combined return yards last year and also gained 304 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 14 receptions. Those aren’t big numbers, but he has upside heading into his second season, as PFF recently tweeted a graphic with Peoples-Jones listed as a receiver due for a bigger role.
— PFF (@PFF) July 8, 2021
Plus, Odell Beckham Jr. has missed significant time in three of his past four seasons and will be 29 in November. There could be more opportunity than we think for Peoples-Jones, making him well-worth his undrafted ADP.
Keke Coutee, WR, Texans
Coutee is another guy who may not end up with a returner job. Andre Roberts is currently on the roster and if he makes the roster, he’ll be the guy. That being said, the Texans lost their primary return specialist in DeAndre Carter, and Coutee did some return work last year. Additionally, I struggle to find room for Roberts on the final 53-man roster. Brandin Cooks, Randall Cobb and Coutee seem like locks to make it. Add in rookie Nico Collins and second-year guy Isaiah Coulter, who has shown promise. That leaves one likely open spot for Chris Conley, Andre Roberts, Chris Moore, Alex Erickson and Damon Hazelton to fight over. If Coutee can handle the returns, the Texans may dump Erickson and Roberts and keep someone with more upside, or Moore as a gunner. Coutee also has a legit shot at the WR2 spot, with Collins – a third-rounder – likely his biggest competition. If everything breaks right, Coutee could have a big role on offense and in the return game. Update: Coutee was a surprise cut, so the Texans are likely to be a return specialist only team with Andre Roberts on the final roster.
Brandon Aiyuk, WR, 49ers
I'm skeptical Aiyuk actually ends up the punt returner, but we've seen teams expose their talented starting receivers to special teams hits before - Antonio Brown in Pittsburgh comes to mind. Aiyuk was a great punt returner in college and with the recent release of River Cracraft, the 49ers have Aiyuk currently listed as the starting punt returner. Watch the roster cut downs, however, as Richie James, Nsimba Webster and Ambry Thomas could all be in play here if the 49ers decide not to risk their sophomore star receiver. If he does get punt return action though, it'll push him up a tier of receivers in return-yardage leagues.
Bonus: Watch the Youth! Several rookies could win jobs on both offense and special teams. While rookies are often overdrafted, there are a few who could pay off big in return leagues. Rondale Moore will be given every opportunity to steal the job in Arizona away from Edmonds and Christian Kirk. Some early charts list Amon-Ra St. Brown as a contender for both return spots in Detroit. If that happens, he becomes very interesting as a double-dip target with the Lions’ dearth of receiving options. The receiver room in Miami is getting crowded. Could they release oft-injured Jakeem Grant and try out electrifying rookie Jaylen Waddle? Don’t be surprised if the Giants try out Kadarius Toney in what could be a surprisingly open job in New York. Amari Rodgers was pretty good on punts in college and Green Bay should be an open job. He could win the slot role and a return specialist role. Kylin Hill is probably going to wind up the kick returner as well. Tutu Atwell will get a look to replace the released Nsimba Webster for the Rams, though it'll be tough for him to make much of an impact on offense. Jaret Patterson was compared to Darren Sproles by Ron Rivera according to J.P. Finlay, so keep an eye on the rookie back; especially now that Isaiah Wright and Danny Johnson are out of the mix. Demetric Felton sure looked like a weapon in Preseason Week 1. The Browns could easily keep Donovan Peoples-Jones on offense and give return work to the rookie Felton, who can play WR or RB.
Just for Kicks: Return-Only Specialists
Some players carve out a niche as a return specialist and make a roster on that skill alone. If you’re not in a league with an extra slot for returners, the players below are unlikely to create enough production on offense to make a real difference, but they can be valuable in leagues that allow you to start a separate returner, or in leagues with big-time return yardage points. Beware of the roster changes in this category, however. Even some of the best return specialists will find themselves off the final roster when final cuts happen. Things change fast on special teams.
Deonte Harris, WR, Saints
Harris has only 31 targets through two years in the league, despite the Saints constantly dealing with injuries and/or poor production from their wide receivers. However, Harris has been dynamite as a returner. He was selected to the Pro Bowl as a rookie and was on pace for another excellent return season before missing seven games with an injury. His averages were actually up last year over his rookie season, with a solid 12.2 yards per punt average to go with 27.3 yards per kick. Expect Harris to be busy again this year and to remain one of the most consistent return-only players in the league.
Cordarrelle Patterson, RB/WR, Falcons
Patterson keeps changing uniforms, but he also keeps finishing among the elites in kick return yardage year after year. With Chicago the last two seasons, he led the league both years and has eight return touchdowns in his eight-year career – including one in each of the past three seasons. Patterson has eclipsed 1,000 return yards three times in his career, including last season and he’ll be expected to take over the job in Atlanta from the departed Brandon Powell. In leagues with a designated returner slot, he’s about as good as it gets, and his versatility to help out at receiver and running back give him a little extra boost. Mike Davis and Russell Gage are currently projected to be the RB1 and WR2.
Ray-Ray McCloud, WR, Steelers
McCloud was sixth in the league in kick return yards with 646 last season, and he was fourth with 298 punt return yards. He was one of the rare players who finished high in both categories, giving him a ton of value in leagues with a designated returner slot, or in leagues where return yardage is worth premium fantasy points. McCloud is unlikely to rise higher than fifth on the receiver depth chart, but the Steelers were happy with what he did last season and I’ll be surprised if they don’t retain him for that role.
Devin Duvernay, WR, Ravens
Duvernay would be a double-dip candidate if the Ravens hadn’t added so much to the position in the offseason. With Rashod Bateman, Sammy Watkins and even rookie deep threat Tylan Wallace joining Marquise Brown on the roster, it seems unlikely Duvernay climbs the depth chart. That being said, he should be in line for plenty of return work. Those aforementioned four receivers along with Duvernay seem safe as far as roster spots go, so Duvernay’s main competition for returns – James Proche – may find himself battling Miles Boykin for a roster spot. Duvernay was excellent last year, returning 21 kicks for 578 yards and a touchdown, with a 27.5-yard average per kick return. He also returned four punts for 46 yards, so he has the ability to do the work if the Ravens want to hand him Proche’s job.
Gunner Olszewski, WR, Patriots
Olszewski was one of the few highlights for the Patriots last season, as he solidified the return game. He ended the year with 346 yards and a touchdown on 20 punt returns and added 418 kick return yards. He averaged a very impressive 17.3 yards per punt return and should be considered the front-runner for both jobs this year. J.J. Taylor – if he makes the roster – will still be sprinkled in occasionally, and it’s possible they put Brandon Bolden back on kicks occasionally, but that seems unlikely given Olszewski’s production last year. With question marks at wide receiver, there’s a chance they go with Taylor or even Sony Michel on kicks and leave Gunner on punts if they give him a larger role on offense, but either way, he should be active in the return game. Update: It looks like it may be a split, with Gunner and Taylor both getting work. Gunner probably has a bigger chance of contributing on offense, but neither are expected to be big parts of the offensive sets.
Other returners unlikely to play a significant role on offense: Diontae Spencer, WR, Broncos; Joe Reed, WR, Chargers; Kalif Raymond, WR, Lions; Isaiah McKenzie, WR, Bills; James Proche, WR, Ravens; D’Ernest Johnson, RB, Browns; Pharoh Cooper, WR, Jaguars; Jamal Agnew, WR, Jaguars; K.J. Hill, WR, Chargers; Jakeem Grant, WR, Dolphins; Braxton Berrios, WR, Jets; River Cracraft, WR, 49ers; Jaelon Darden, WR, Buccaneers; Cameron Batson, WR, Titans; DeAndre Carter, WR, Football Team, Nsimba Webster, WR, Bears; Shi Smith, WR, Panthers
Bonus: Roster Check! Andre Roberts is one of the best in the business and he’s currently in Houston without any guarantee of a roster spot. Watch where he lands, whether it’s in Houston or elsewhere. Whatever roster he makes, it’ll be as a returner. No one has more kick return yards (2,799) than Roberts since 2018. Update: Looks like Roberts made it through final cuts and will be the Texans' RS. He should be a candidate to lead the league in kick return and total return yardage.
NFL Teams with Open Kickoff or Punt Return Jobs
There is always a lot of turnover at both return spots from year-to-year, and below are a few of the teams that have open jobs where a young playmaker might be able to earn a spot on the roster.
With Patterson now in Atlanta, Miller in Houston and Dwayne Harris still a free agent, Darnell Mooney will get the opportunity to compete as the kick returner, and our own resident Bears fan Jeff Hicks has told me he expects the rookie Dazz Newsome to get some looks there as well. One major question to watch is how healthy is Tarik Cohen, and will they subject him to hits on punt returns coming off a season-ending injury? Cohen is dynamic with the ball in his hands, but with Cohen seeming like he’s not quite healed just yet, you have to wonder if the Bears will look elsewhere. They also added Damiere Byrd, who has some experience. Right now, I’d bank on Mooney and Dazz Newsome to be the most interesting targets, with a very interested eye brow raised in the direction of rookie running back Khalil Herbert. If Mooney does win the kick return job, fantasy managers should pounce on him. Update: Newsome didn't make the final roster, and the Bears added Nsimba Webster late, so I'd bet on Webster and Herbert getting the bulk of the work.
The Lions lost their long-time return specialist, Jamal Agnew to the Jaguars this offseason, which opens up both jobs. Agnew was third in the league in kick return yardage and scored a touchdown off a punt return last year, so there should be ample opportunity for whoever wins this job. At first glance, new acquisition and veteran returner Kalif Raymond looks like he’ll be the guy. If that’s the case, he’s a nice option in leagues that give premium points to returners. That’s especially the case, given the dearth of receiving options in Detroit. I don’t think Raymond is likely to contribute on offense, but there’s a decent chance of it if he can wow in camp. In late-June, I asked Dave Birkett from the Detroit Free Press who he thought it would be. He said he’d “put Raymond in both spots for now.” He also said Damion Ratley (punts) and D’Andre Swift (kicks) got some reps in spring. Watch how the roster shakes out because it looks like about four wide receivers battling for what looks like two final roster spots. My money is on Raymond in the end.
With Tyler Ervin and Darrius Shepherd now gone, this job is wide open. While Josh Jackson and Malik Taylor did some work last year and will get a shot at the jobs, there are plenty of talented options on the roster. If it ends up Jackson and Taylor, neither should get a ton of fantasy consideration, and that goes double for if cornerback Chandon Sullivan gets the kick return job. However, if rookie receiver Amari Rodgers can win the punt return job, this becomes an interesting double-dip option. Rodgers has a legit shot at the starting slot role as well, and he was pretty good returning punts in college. Likewise, rookie Kylin Hill is being tried out as a kick returner in the preseason. Watch this battle closely, and Green Bay is definitely a prime spot for a late-addition after roster cutdowns if they don’t find a return specialist they’re comfortable with during the preseason. Update: This looks like the rookies are going to get the work.
Demetrius Harvey from Big Cat Country says Agnew was brought in to be the return specialist, and Jamal St. Cyr responded to my email inquiry, confidently saying "Unless Agnew is hurt he will be returning kicks and punts for the Jags this season." So Agnew sounds like the guy. The Jags need some help in this spot though, and they added Pharoh Cooper as well, who is a former Pro Bowl return specialist. Keep an eye on the position designators here, as Agnew used to be a DB, but was getting some RB tags last season with the Lions. That could make a difference in leagues without an IDP spot, but with a designated returner spot. Either way, these are two talented returners who offer nothing on offense/defense. Whoever wins out should be a very solid return-only option.
This is going to be an exciting battle. While Jaydon Mickens, the incumbent, is still on the roster, it’s hard to imagine him making the final 53. Rookie Jaelon Darden is an exciting and electric player who looks very capable of filling both returner roles. I asked Greg Auman of The Athletic what he thought about the returner situation, and he said Darden would “need a really bad camp to not displace Mickens on the roster.” Auman added that the kick return job may be more up for grabs, expressing confidence in Darden as the new punt returner. The Bucs seem to have five wide receivers with definite roster security in Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Tyler Johnson and Scott Miller. I doubt they keep more than six, which would make the fresher face in Darden the most likely candidate over Mickens. Darden is explosive enough to warrant a dart throw in case he can earn a job on offense, though of course he has a tall hill to climb to crack the offensive depth chart. On the off chance they have Antoine Winfield Jr. on kick returns, Winfield Jr. would become the number one defensive back in IDP leagues that reward for return yardage, but I'm guessing Ke'Shawn Vaughn would be prefered over Winfield, to preserve the health of their excellent young safety. Watch this battle. Update: This looks like it's going to be Darden at both spots.
IDP Options: Defensive Players Who Return Kicks
If you play in an IDP league, there are always a few corners or safeties who bolster their stats with returns. While teams have sometimes suffered consequences of injuries using their top defenders in the return game, a few teams inevitably continue to expose significant starters to brutal hits on special teams. These players are especially worth noting in leagues that require a cornerback slot, as cornerbacks are often low fantasy producers, and return stats can help bolster their value.
This is a pretty shallow year for IDP options with Jabrill Peppers likely not doing kick returns – possibly still punts – but there are a few players to watch throughout camp.
D.J. Reed, DB, Seahawks
Reed was like an adrenalin shot to the arm for the Seahawks after coming over from San Francisco mid-season in 2020. He played in 10 games for the Seahawks, notching 46 solo tackles, six passes defended, and a pair of picks. He also returned five kicks and 10 punts for a total of 215 yards. The Seahawks don’t have their returners set in stone at this point, nor do they have sure-fire starters in the secondary, but after Reed’s breakout last year, it’s hard to think they’ll leave him off the field. Reed was better than Travis Homer on kick returns and their other punt returner from last year – David Moore – is now in Carolina. No IDP player is a sure bet to log significant snaps on defense and in the return game this season, but Reed has the most potential to be a star in both.
Darius Phillips, CB, Bengals
The Bengals have lots of open jobs this year, including punt returner and starting cornerback. Phillips played in 12 games last season and had 38 tackles, two forced fumbles and a pick. Trae Waynes likely has one cornerback spot locked up and it’ll be shocking if Brandon Wilson doesn’t continue as the kick returner, but Phillips has the potential to win snaps. If he lands in the nickel, he could see his tackles go up significantly while adding a couple hundred yards on punt returns.
Corey Ballentine, CB, Free Agent
Ballentine is a talented kid who never quite reached his full abilities with the Giants. After latching on with the Jets last season though, he played in six games, returned 12 kicks for 314 yards and racked up 17 solo tackles. The Jets aren’t exactly set at any of the cornerback positions, so Ballentine could be in play for a regular role, although the most likely scenario is him playing in dime sets. That could help him get closer to 30-40 tackles, and if he keeps the kick return job – over Ty Johnson, who may be on the roster bubble – then he could put up high-end points in IDP formats that reward for return yardage. Update: Ballentine was released from the Jets, but watch and see if anyone picks him up on waivers. He has talent and could latch on somewhere after final cuts.
Other defensive backs to watch for: Avery Williams, CB, Falcons; Brandon Wilson, DB, Bengals; Isaiah Rodgers, CB, Colts; Josh Jackson, DB, Giants; Jabrill Peppers, DB, Giants; Desmond King, CB, Texans