Player ProjectionsAugust 7, 2009

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Rankings for Kick and Punt Returners

By Eli Ricke

While looking at a post the other day, I thought that perhaps I could tackle this subject. I looked around for some information and could find next to nothing on fantasy player rankings for kick and punt returners. Once I dove in to the issue, it became apparent to me why. At this point of the season I have about as much chance of accurately predicting who will break out in the special teams area as I do of accurately predicting who will win each division, who gets the wild card and which of those teams goes all the way. However, people try to predict the latter all the time, so why not give it a try?

You may ask yourself why I bother with this. In most standard scoring leagues, kick and punt returners contribute little to no value. If you’re in a custom scoring league however, this may not necessarily be the case. If the commissioner of your league has set kick and punt return yardage at 25 yards per point or better, then kick and punt returners suddenly look much more enticing. I know that most leagues don’t score this category very highly, but if you happen to be in one that does then I recommend you pay attention to these guys.

I also had a question of my own. Should I be ranking kick returners for standard format leagues or should I include IDP leagues? If you include IDP leagues, there are a plethora of defensive backs who also excel at returning kicks. This can really mess up your rankings. With that said, I have decided to give two lists. The first list is the top five players that also play offense. The second list will be the top five who also play defense. I did not want to do a top ten because I feel that any player outside of the top five in this statistical category doesn’t add much fantasy value to your team.

Offensive players

1.) Darren Sproles, RB, San Diego: The SD running back returns both kicks and punts which is a bonus, but the big bonus here is his role on offense. Considering that he’s behind a certain guy on the depth chart with the initials L.T. I wouldn’t expect his role to expand significantly this season, but you must also take into account that LT is getting older and may need more breathers than he has in the past. Sproles has a pretty good average per return and rates fairly high in that category compared to his NFL counterparts. I do expect that his role on special teams may diminish slightly as his role on offense increases slightly. Projections: 450 rush yards, 400 rec yards, 6 TDs on offense; 1,500 kick/punt return yards, 2 TDs.

2.) Leon Washington, RB, New York Jets: The Jets RB has stiff competition for playing time on offense but will still get to carry the ball from time to time. The key thing to note here is his scoring, as he finished last year with 448 yards rushing and only 67 yards receiving but had eight TDs on offense. Another plus here is that Leon returns both kicks and punts, not just one or the other. He had 1,532 yards in kick returning duties last year and also added a TD. I expect this year to be pretty similar to last. Projections: 525 rush yards, 50 rec yards, 6 TDs on offense; 1,500 all purpose kick return yards, 1 TD. Buyer beware: The new coaching staff might have other plans for Leon and he may find himself as a feature back with a much reduced role on special teams or visa versa. For now, I’m assuming that his special teams role will not be affected.

3.) Johnnie Lee Higgins, WR, Oakland: Higgins did not get as many returns last year as others on this list, but with his talents in that area it’s a good bet that those numbers will increase. He averaged 23.4 yards/return on kick return duties last year which isn’t stellar, but it’s not the bottom of the barrel either. His 13.0 yards per punt return are impressive however and if you throw in the fact that he had three touchdowns on punt returns last year then the future looks a tad brighter for Higgins. I expect him to get more touches both on offense and on special teams. Projections: 550 rec yards, 50 rush yards, 5 TDs on offense; 1400 kick and punt return yards, 2 TDs.

4.) Clifton Smith, RB, Tampa Bay: The sophomore RB at Tampa has found himself in a RB cluster which could be difficult at best to break out from. The RB situation in Tampa is all jumbled up at the moment and with Derrick Ward now in the mix his chances of cracking the starting lineup are slim. He also did not help his own cause last year by coughing up four fumbles on the season while only recording 12 touches on offense. The upside to this young man is tremendous though. He averaged a whopping 27.6 yards per return while on kick return duties and also was way ahead of the pack averaging 14.1 yards per punt return. I’m going out on a limb here and predicting that this kid breaks out as a “special” special-teams player in 2009. Projections: 75 rush yards, 25 rec yards, 1 TD on offense; 1,750 combined kick and punt return yards, 4 TDs.

5.) Josh Cribbs, WR, Cleveland: Cribbs, like all of the above mentioned players, gets to return both kicks and punts and when rating the fantasy value of kick returners, that is almost a must. The downside to Cribbs is that he wasn’t stellar at either in 2008. His average per return in both situations is middle of the pack at best and is likely more related to the blocking schemes than his own talents. His offensive role appears to be that of a trick play guy and he is someone who the coaches like to use in special situations. In other words, he isn’t an every down WR. In fact, if you look at his career stats, he has more career rushing attempts than receptions (40 vs 16). If you look at his stat lines offensively, he averages 10 carries and four receptions per year. I don’t expect his numbers to change much from last year. Projections: 150 rush yards, 50 rec yards, 2 TDs on offense; 1,300 kick and punt return yards, 0 TDs.

Defensive Players

1.) Josh Wilson, CB, Seattle: 76 tackles, 1 sack, 4 INT and a TD. Those were Josh Wilson’s stats in 2008 on defense after a rather nondescript rookie campaign in 2007. Wilson was asked to step up to the plate last year and he delivered with a strong stat-line defensively. What’s even better is that he also tossed in 69 kick returns for 1,753 yards, leading all NFL players in kick return yardage in ‘08. If you’re playing in an IDP league that also awards points for KR/PR yards then I would recommend you put Josh Wilson high on your list. Projections: 85 tackles, 3 forced fumbles, 1 sack, 4 INTs on defense; 1,600 kick return yards, 1 TD.

2.) Leodis McKelvin, CB, Buffalo: McKelvin had a nice rookie season in 2008 on special teams, returning 52 kicks for 1,468 yards and adding a TD. He also had two punt returns for 26 yards. His defensive stats weren’t huge, but he was a rookie learning the trade and I expect his numbers to improve. He did have 32 tackles, one forced fumble and two interceptions last season. I have him ranked higher because I think his contributions on defense will be of more value in IDP leagues than some other DBs who return kicks but don’t play much defense such as Allen Rossum of San Fransisco. Projections: 55 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 1 sack, 4 INTs on defense; 1,550 kick and punt return yards, 1 TD.

3.) Will Blackmon, CB, Green Bay: The fourth-year CB out of Boston College had his best year in ‘08. His defensive stats weren’t the greatest, but if you factor in his special teams contributions he gets a little more interesting. Blackmon recorded only 35 tackles in ‘08 but that’s 30 more than his previous two seasons combined. His role defensively should improve and he showed enough promise on kick-return duties that I expect him to get the nod for that role again in ‘09. He had two punt returns for TDs last season against the Vikings, a team which he has a knack for racking up punt return yardage against. The best part about that is that he gets to face them twice. Projections: 50 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 0 sacks, 2 INTs, 0 TDs on defense; 1,400 kick and punt return yards, 2 TDs.

4.) Chris Carr, CB, Baltimore: Carr joins a Baltimore team which has a reputation on defense. In his four-year NFL career, he has not been the most prolific cornerback in the league, but his history on special teams is rather impressive. He’s a guy that will get you steady and consistent field position and I believe this is the purpose for which Baltimore acquired him. I would expect his numbers on defense to drop slightly, but not much (it wasn’t much in the first place) and his return stats to climb a bit from last season after dropping somewhat. Projections: 25 tackles, 0 forced fumbles, 0 sacks, 1 INT on defense; 1,450 kick and punt return yards, 0 TDs.

5.) Quintin Demps, CB, Philadelphia: In the fifth slot for a defensive player/kick returner I was having a difficult time deciding between Ellis Hobbs and Quintin Demps. It became even more difficult when I realized that Hobbs had left New England and was now on the same team as Demps. After digging into it a bit, it is still hard to figure out which one of the two will get the bulk of the kick return duties but I finally bit the bullet and I’m thinking it’s going to be Demps. Both of these guys had strong seasons in ‘08 returning kicks but I believe that Hobbs was added to the Eagles roster to help fill some holes left on defense. Quintin Demps is also a very young player and may need to develop more before taking on a bigger defensive role although he is currently listed as the starting SS. Demps is not a shifty runner and doesn’t make the other guys miss but he goes full steam ahead and punishes anyone that tries to take him head on. If you want someone to back up that statement, just ask Stephen Gostkowski. Demps had a 102-yard kick return for a TD against New England last season in which Gostkowski basically went splat after actually putting in a fairly good effort at trying to bring down the runner. It reminded me of what happens to a fly when it hits your windshield and you’re going 75 mph on the interstate. Projections: 25 tackles, 0 forced fumbles, 1 sack, 1 INT on defense; 1,400 kick return yards, 1 TD.

There you have it. Please keep in mind that at this point in the year any talk of who will be returning kicks for any team is pure speculation. Most teams have not even released their depth charts yet and those that have will be making lots of changes before opening day. I’m reminding you, dear reader, of that fact so that you don’t come crying when I get one or two of the above predictions wrong. For all I know, I may not get even one or two of them right, but I tried to go with guys that had been field-tested (pun intended) for the most part so that you can feel somewhat confident if you’re grabbing one of these guys late in your fantasy draft.

I also want to point out that with the exception of Darren Sproles and Leon Washington most of these guys can be taken very deep in the draft. The aforementioned Sproles and Washington may go late as well, especially in shallower leagues, but probably won’t be available in round 17 when drafting in a 14-team league. It is also important to reiterate that you need to check your scoring setup prior to drafting players based on their kick returning abilities. Most leagues will get you nil for KR or PR yardage. If you league does give points for yardage though, these guys might get you big value late in your draft.

Eli Ricke knows absolutely nothing about Fantasy Football that everyone else doesn't already know. All of his success in Fantasy Football can be attributed entirely to dumb luck. He has been playing Fantasy Football since 1999 and is a habitual liar. You will occasionally run across him in the café forums under the name 204BC, a name that has no particular meaning whatsoever. He just made it up, the same thing he does with most of the advice he gives.
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