2015 Punt & Kick Return Studs, Depth Charts
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 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’s returning kicks for every NFL team and all the names you should know as a fantasy owner.
I’ve attached 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 who teams will have fielding kicks and punts for the upcoming season. But first, some notables to tide you over as we enter fantasy draft season:
Still the One
Until proven otherwise, the return game still seems to be owned in the NFL by Devin Hester. Thought to be on the decline, Hester stepped up in Atlanta last season, leading the league with 1,368 return yards and a punt return touchdown. He also caught 38 receptions for 504 yards and a pair of receiving touchdowns, his best offensive season since 2009. He added another touchdown running the ball and should continue to get occasional looks on offense this year after Harry Douglas signed in Tennessee. Hester isn’t going to light up the world on offense, but if you’re in a league that gives points for return stats, Hester has the best chance to provide consistent points week to week, with the periodic explosion of both offense and special teams output.
New Places, Same Faces
This offseason has seen plenty of player movement, and several key return men will be employing their services in new uniforms for the 2015 season. Three of the 10 most prolific kick returners last season changed teams this year, along with the 7th best punt returner (Ted Ginn Jr.) returning to Carolina after a one-year stint with the Cardinals. Long time Ravens returner Jacoby Jones will be donning a Chargers uniform, former Jaguars RB Jordan Todman will likely return kicks in Carolina while Ginn takes over punt return duties, and former Cowboy Dwayne Harris heads to New York to try to cure the Giants’ woes in the return game and relieve Odell Beckham Jr. from special teams duties.
The Cardinals, Ravens, and Cowboys will all struggle to replace their departed return specialists, and the Jaguars will need to find a way to replace Todman’s 972 kick return yards. Look for young guys to emerge, and for the guys on the move to resume their roles in new uniforms. Jacoby Jones has never made it as a WR in the league, but will get an opportunity in San Diego. Ginn provides some much needed speed to the Panthers offense, while Todman might get some looks behind an oft-injured Jonathan Stewart in the running game. Dwayne Harris will have an uphill battle trying to contribute to the Giants offense with a crowded depth chart ahead of him.
Many teams have such game-breaking playmakers, they can’t help but use them in the return game as well as on offense. This is where fantasy owners in return yardage leagues should stand up and take notice. Players like receiver Antonio Brown of the Steelers and running back Darren Sproles of the Eagles had considerable success on returns last year, adding significantly to their fantasy value. Randall Cobb would be on this list for his punt return work, but Micah Hyde finished the season in that role, and the Packers may keep Cobb off the field on special teams after his new contract. This season, the following players should be considered for their added return value:
- Darren Sproles, RB, Philadelphia Eagles – Sproles led the league in PR yardage last year and brought two back for touchdowns to go with his six rushing touchdowns and 716 yards from scrimmage on offense. He’ll face some challenges getting offensive snaps this season with Ryan Mathews and DeMarco Murray in the fold, but he remains one of the best multi-purpose players in the league and his return stats give him added value on top of the 40 plus catches he’s had in each of the past six seasons.
- Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers – Inexplicably, the Steelers still keep one of the league’s best receivers returning punts. Last year, he finished the season with 319 punt return yards, fourth in the NFL, and was tied for sixth in the league with 30 punt returns on the year. Brown is an obvious fantasy pick on the offensive side of the ball, so it’s hard to imagine his return stats giving him a boost in fantasy value. He’ll already be a first round pick in most leagues without return stats, but for owners in leagues that award fantasy points to returners, it’s icing on the cake.
- DeAnthony Thomas, WR, Kansas City Chiefs – Thomas missed some time with injuries last season, but in the 12 games he played, he looked like the next big thing in the NFL as far as returners go. He averaged a staggering 30.6 yards on 14 kickoff returns, and he finished second in the league in punt return yardage with 405, including a touchdown. Thomas added 113 yards rushing and 156 yards receiving in his rookie year, and while he’s buried on the depth chart, he may be worth a flyer in large leagues as the Chiefs try to get their dynamic playmaker out of Oregon on the field more often.
- Percy Harvin, WR, Buffalo Bills – Harvin has to be considered on any returner list because of how good he can be when he’s on the field. Due to injury issues, he hasn’t been a reliable fantasy option, but he still finished last year with 32 kickoff returns with the Seahawks and the Jets, and he’s only a few years removed from a stellar season in Minnesota where he averaged 75 receiving yards per game in nine starts. Harvin may not win any jobs in Buffalo, with Marcus Thigpen looking like the probable RS, and a crowded WR depth chart that includes last year’s rookie standout Sammy Watkins, but he’s a name worth noting. And in large leagues that reward return points, he may be worth a flyer to see if he can stay healthy and return to form.
- Jarvis Landry, WR, Miami Dolphins – Landry had over 1,100 yards in the return game as a rookie, while also catching 84 passes for 758 yards and five touchdowns on offense. The receiving depth chart looks a little more crowded in Miami this year, but Landry should still be a key focal point of the offense after a stellar first year. And if he keeps the returner job as expected, he could be a surprisingly excellent fantasy option in leagues that give points for return statistics.
- Tavon Austin, WR, St. Louis Rams – Austin hasn’t had a huge impact on offense, but he’ll have a new quarterback to work with this year and this is a guy who has averaged 9.8 yards per punt return over the past two seasons. He’s also run one back for a touchdown in each of his first two years and has the kind of playmaking ability to make an impact on offense if he can stay healthy and if the Rams can figure out how to get him the ball in space. Last season, he caught 31 passes and carried the ball 36 times for a combined 466 yards and two touchdowns on offense. If he can improve on those numbers and keep up the PR duty, he could be worth some value in return yardage leagues.
- Dexter McCluster, RB, Tennessee Titans – McCluster was banged up last year and never really got into a groove on a horrible Titans offense. However, he enters the season as the likely primary return specialist, and should be able to find a way to contribute in the passing game as well. Only two years ago, he caught 53 passes for 511 yards and a pair of touchdowns in Kansas City, and if the Titans can find any kind of offensive mojo with rookie QB Marcus Mariota at the helm, then McCluster could rebound from a forgettable 2014 season.
- Reggie Bush, RB, San Francisco 49ers – Bush hasn’t done much returning the past few years, but he used to be one of the best punt returners in the NFL, and the 49ers haven’t had success in that department since Ted Ginn left. Bush will have to compete with second year WR Bruce Ellington for the returner job, but if he wins out, he has a good chance to be a dual-production player. He’s likely to catch some passes and get some touches in the running game and have the occasional nice game for fantasy owners looking for some spot-starter points, assuming he can stay healthy at age 30.
- Julian Edelman, WR, New England Patriots – Edelman has been very successful as a receiver for the Patriots the last two seasons, catching nearly 200 passes while averaging 11.2 yards per punt return in the process. Edelman is yet another example of a player who seems to have more value on offense, but he keeps getting special teams snaps, so he’s worth bumping up a few spots in leagues that award points for return yardage. Edelman should be just as much a focal point of the Patriots offense as he was last year and has very little competition for the punt return job.
- Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Minnesota Vikings – Patterson was one of fantasy’s biggest disappointments last year. In a pass friendly system, entering his second year in the league after a promising rookie year, coming off a season where he was the best kick returner in the league, expectations were high for the playmaker out of Tennessee. However, he fell behind on the WR depth chart in Minnesota, came back to earth a little in the return game, and ruined a lot of fantasy seasons. He still finished with 871 yards on kickoffs however, and should keep that job this year. Meanwhile, his 501 yards and a pair of touchdowns on offense make him at least fantasy viable, especially for those hoping he can rediscover a key role on offense. Patterson still has talent and is worth a late flyer.
- Andre Roberts, WR, Washington – Roberts held down both returner spots last year in his first year coming over from the Cardinals, but he struggled to find a role on offense, finishing with only 36 catches and 453 yards despite showing a lot of promise as a reserve for four years in Arizona. Roberts will still be competing for the third WR spot on the depth chart, but he should receive very little competition for the RS job. He’ll continue to add stats in that capacity in returner-friendly fantasy leagues. Roberts has a chip on his shoulder and has some upside with veteran Santana Moss now completely out of the picture.
Just for Kicks
I already mentioned Dwayne Harris as a prime example of a guy who will have limited offensive impact, despite extensive snaps in the return game. This year, several teams look to be employing a designated return specialist. Chicago tried two last year over the course of the season, but retained Marc Mariani, and Buffalo replaced departed C.J. Spiller with former Dolphins and Patriots RS Marcus Thigpen, who will have a hard time competing for offensive snaps behind LeSean McCoy and Fred Jackson. Perhaps the most notable returner-only players who have made a living as specialists include Detroit’s Jeremy Ross, Houston’s Keshawn Martin and Griff Whalen of the Colts. These are guys (along with the aforementioned Harris) that will get a lot of touches in the return game, but only have fantasy value in leagues that have an extra slot for returners.
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. The most notable name is probably Adam Jones of Cincinnati, who shares duties with WR Brandon Tate. He’ll get some looks on defense, even though the defensive backfield is continuously getting more crowded for the Bengals, and he should remain the primary punt returner. He’s had three interceptions and at least 50 tackles in each of the last two years to go with his return stats.
T.J. Carrie in Oakland is a player to keep an eye on. The 6’0 205 lbs former Ohio standout had 9 interceptions in college and has a legit chance to win a starting CB job in his second season. Last year, he had a pick and 44 total tackles in 13 games, while returning 26 punts and 15 kicks. He’ll be fighting for the returner job and for the starting corner job, but if he wins both, he could be a nice IDP option in leagues that award return points.
Other players have less impact on defense than Jones and possibly Carrie, making drafting them in leagues that don’t have an additional returner slot less beneficial. Micah Hyde could be a nice option in Green Bay, as could Vikings corner Marcus Sherels, but Hyde is in a crowded field of safeties, and Sherels didn’t play much on defense last year, hurting their IDP value. Buffalo’s Leodis McKelvin would usually be on this list, but he may get pushed out of the return game by Marcus Thigpen and/or Percy Harvin this year.
Several teams are going to be looking to youngsters to replace departed return specialists, and watch this depth chart and the preseason camp battles to see who emerges as the main guy. Baltimore will likely have second year WR Michael Campanaro replace Jacoby Jones, while teams like Arizona (J.J. Nelson), Seattle (Tyler Lockett), and Green Bay (Ty Montgomery) will be looking to rookies to replace veterans in the return game.
Youth prevailed last season, as we saw players like De’Anthony Thomas of the Chiefs, Jarvis Landry in Miami, and Brandin Cooks in New Orleans all play roles in the return game. With aging veterans like Jacoby Jones nearing the end of their careers as elite players, we may be in the midst of a youth movement for this underappreciated facet of football. Fantasy owners in leagues where returners gain additional points should look at some of these young players for potential gems as the season progresses, keeping an eye on the number of return opportunities they get as they develop on their respective teams.
2015 Punt & Kick Return Depth Charts
Last updated September 8, 2015