For the most part, fantasy football leagues lump special teams into a group with Team Defenses and reward only the occasional return touchdown - of which there were 28 in 2009, accounting for just over two percent of the league’s total touchdowns.
However, more and more leagues are starting to incorporate individual return yardage into their scoring system.
Whether you’re a traditionalist looking for an edge when you take that late flier on a Team D/ST or want to beat your leaguemates to the punch on a player who brings something extra to the table with their work in the return game, we’ve got you covered.
Philadelphia Eagles - Bobby April is widely regarded as the NFL’s reigning guru of special teams, though his genius was for the most part buried in Buffalo - where his units ranked in the top 10 in kickoff returns each of the past two seasons and led the league in punt returns two of the past three years. April was swept out the door with the Bills’ coaching changes this winter, landing in Philly and inheriting a roster chock full of players with return skills - among them DeSean Jackson, Ellis Hobbs, and Jeremy Maclin. The Eagles led the NFL in punt returns last year, averaging 13.5 yards per return, and given their talent and April’s arrival that only projects to improve.
Houston Texans - The Texans have ranked in the top 10 in kickoff or punt returns each of the past five seasons, and in Jacoby Jones and Andre Davis they have a pair of non-starters who can focus on making special teams contributions. Over the past three seasons, only Chicago (9) and Cleveland (8) have more kick and punt return touchdowns than Houston’s seven.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers - It wasn’t all that long ago that every single Sunday the networks would trot out that tired graphic about how the Buccaneers franchise had never returned a kickoff for a touchdown. You don’t see that tidbit anymore because over the past two seasons only two teams have more kick and punt return touchdowns than the Bucs. In fact, last year Tampa Bay led the league with 26.3 yards per kickoff return and ranked fourth at 11.6 yards per punt return. In Clifton Smith and Sammie Stroughter, the Buccaneers’ return game is in more than capable hands.
Cleveland Browns - A whopping 16 percent of the offensively-challenged Browns’ total touchdowns came via kick and punt returns last season - more than double the next highest percentage. Can you say, “Thank you, Josh Cribbs?” Cleveland is efforting to get the ball into the hands of their most dynamic player more frequently, but he’s still the NFL’s greatest return game threat and almost single-handedly reason enough to draft the Browns’ D/ST in touchdown-heavy scoring formats.
Atlanta Falcons - The Falcons were one of three teams to rank in the top 10 in both kickoff and punt returns last season (Tampa Bay and Cleveland were the others), and they’ve been among the league’s top 10 in kickoff returns each of the past three seasons. While Jerious Norwood isn’t seeing as much work in the return game - he returned just one kick last year - Eric Weems (1,480 total return yards in 2009) has more than picked up the slack.
Chicago Bears - There’s simply too many talented return men on the Bears’ roster for them to be ignored. Chicago has ranked in the top five in the league in either kickoff or punt returns each of the past four seasons, so while Devin Hester may be more receiver than returner these days there’s not much of a drop-off when the Bears turn return chores over to Johnny Knox, Danieal Manning, or Earl Bennett.
These players have an average draft position in the first 10 rounds, so they’re already on your fantasy radar. They also bring to the table varying degrees of return game stats.
Percy Harvin, Vikings - Harvin ranked fourth in kickoff return average (27.5) and ninth in total kickoff return yards (1,156) last year, and at present he’s slated to handle those duties once again. And why not; only Josh Cribbs had more return touchdowns than the 2009 Rookie of the Year.
Darren Sproles, Chargers - Sproles had the sixth-most total return yards last season (1,483), and unless Ryan Mathews needs more hand-holding than expected he’ll be San Diego’s primary return man once again.
Eddie Royal, Broncos - Royal really had just the one big return game last year (those of you on the receiving end of Eddie’s kickoff and punt return TDs in Week 6 against the Chargers haven’t forgotten), but his 956 total return yards are nothing to sneeze at.
Kenny Britt, Titans - Britt contributed 523 kickoff return yards last season, and until he proves ready to unseat Justin Gage and Nate Washington he’ll continue to be the Titans’ primary kickoff returner.
Johnny Knox, Bears - Not only is Knox a hot sleeper in Chicago’s new offense, he also averaged a gaudy 29 yards per kick return last year, amassing 927 total return yards. Consider his return abilities a hedge against him winding up the Az Hakim to Devin Hester’s Torry Holt and Devin Aromashodu’s Ike Bruce.
Justin Forsett, Seahawks - Forsett didn’t post particularly strong numbers in either aspect of the return game, and if he winds up as Seattle’s feature back he may not be doing any returning at all. Then again, he may get enough action on special teams to match the 524 return yards he totaled last year.
Jamaal Charles, Chiefs - Charles racked up 925 kickoff return yards at better than 25 yards a pop even though by season’s end he had taken over the feature back role in Kansas City. Perhaps Thomas Jones’ presence will allow him to keep his return duties, but don’t bank on it.
Felix Jones, Cowboys - Jones is another back who dances on that line between being too valuable as a back to use on special teams and too explosive in the return game to go unused. He wasn’t particularly impressive as a return man last year, averaging 22.6 yards per attempt on 30 kickoff returns, but we’ve all seen what he can do in the open field.
Fred Jackson, Bills - Jackson loses the mentoring of special teams guru Bobby April, but if C.J. Spiller bogarts the carries he could rack up another 1,083 combined return yards.
DeSean Jackson, Eagles - Putting Jackson, who led the NFL in punt returns last year with a 15.2 average and two scores, and April together is borderline illegal. But assuming Philly doesn’t deem Jackson to valuable from scrimmage to remain their primary punt returner, you have to believe he’s capable of even bigger and better things with April calling the shots.
Devin Hester, Bears - Hester continues to move away from his special teams roots - just seven kickoff returns last year and a shockingly pedestrian 7.8 yards per punt return - and Mike Martz’s new offense might require his full attention. Still, you know what he can do when given an opportunity in the open field.
Laurence Maroney, Patriots - Who knows what personnel Bill Belichick will use on any given play? Still, it’s at least a shred of a safety net that LoMo returned 13 kicks last year and has excelled in that role before.
Reggie Bush, Saints - Like Hester, Bush is drifting away from the return skills that highlighted the early part of his NFL career; in fact, last year Reggie averaged just 4.8 yards per punt return. But, like Hester, there’s still a chance...
Jeremy Maclin, Eagles - Maclin was lightly used (just 13 total attempts) in the return game as a rookie. However, with Bobby April calling the shots and DeSean Jackson emerging as a go-to receiver, it’s possible that Maclin will be the one benefiting from April’s arrival.
Steve Breaston, Cardinals - Truth be told, Breaston wasn’t all that great as a punt returner last year, averaging just 6.7 yards per return. And with Anquan Boldin gone, the Cards have already said they’ll reduce Breaston’s special teams workload now that he’s a starter. Consider his return skills like the free oil changes they throw in with a new Chevy Equinox.
Santana Moss, Redskins - Moss was barely adequate as a punt returner last year (4.7 yards per attempt), but until Mike Shanahan finds someone else to do the dirty work Santana could bring a little extra to the table.
Wes Welker, Patriots - Welker ranked seventh in the league in punt returns last year while averaging 12.5 yards per attempt. The chances of Bill Belichick sending him back to those duties nine months removed from a torn ACL are... well, Belichick has done crazier things.
These players have an average draft position somewhere in the first 250 picks, but they’re not projected to be fantasy starters. However, they have additional potential in the return game that could bump them up - in some cases significantly - in leagues that reward return yardage.
Josh Cribbs, Browns - 1,994 return yards. Four return touchdowns. Is it any wonder the Browns want to get this guy the ball? Cleveland only managed that 75 times last year (55 rushes, 20 catches), but while they intend to increase those numbers Cribbs is going largely ignored in standard fantasy scoring systems. In leagues where return yards count, however, Cribbs provides a distinct competitive advantage at the position.
Mike Thomas, Jaguars - Though he’s not receiving a great deal of fantasy draft attention thus far this season, Thomas could move into Jacksonville’s starting lineup. Consider that and the 762 return yards he contributed last year and in some scoring formats he’s a sleeper with benefits.
Bernard Scott, Bengals - No player with more than one attempt averaged more than Scott’s 31.5 yards per kickoff return. In most leagues he’s merely a handcuff to Cedric Benson; when you consider his return production, he’s even more valuable than that.
Jacoby Jones, Texans - Jones has yet to carve out a real niche for himself in Houston’s high-powered passing game, but he brings serious return skills to the table: 1,064 total return yards while averaging 26.6 yards per kickoff return and 10.9 yards per punt return. The latter makes him valuable in leagues that track return yards, and if he can ever get the former going as well... look out.
Devin Thomas, Redskins - Thomas shared kickoff return duties with Quinton Ganther and Rock Cartwright last year; both are gone, so even if Thomas doesn’t emerge as one of Donovan McNabb’s favorite targets he has some return skills to fall back on.
Davone Bess, Dolphins - Bess weds average return skills (7.5 yards per punt return last year) with decent abilities as a receiver. If Chad Henne helps turn Miami into a passing team, Bess could wind up being a fantasy helper in multiple areas.
Jerricho Cotchery, Jets - With the Jets a bit short-handed at the receiver position early in the season, Cotchery may not have a chance to put his return skills to use. Should Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards take over Gang Green’s minimal passing game, however, Cotchery has experience and ability in the return game to fall back on.
Dexter McCluster, Chiefs - McCluster was rarely used in the return game in college, with just eight punt returns and 19 kickoff returns to his credit. However, much like the Vikings with Percy Harvin last year the Chiefs will want to get the ball into their talented rookie’s hands as much as possible. Don’t be surprised if he at least shares return duties with Jamaal Charles.
Jordan Shipley, Bengals - Shipley excelled in the return game at Texas, scoring four touchdowns in two seasons and averaging 12.5 yards per punt return and 24.6 yards per kickoff return. He’ll battle fellow former Longhorn Quan Cosby for punt return duties in Cincinnati.
While the bulk of return men tend to be wide receivers and running backs, there are a few defensive backs who do enough in the return game to warrant mention - especially if your IDP league also rewards return stats.
Lardarius Webb, Ravens - Webb not only played himself into a significant role in the Baltimore secondary, he also averaged 26.2 yards on 35 kickoff returns. Unfortunately, Webb tore his ACL in Week 15 and will likely begin 2010 on the PUP list. His contributions this year might be limited, but he’s a name to keep in mind.
Danieal Manning, Bears - The Bears will find a place in their secondary for the playmaking Manning; averaging 26.6 yards per kick return indicates he can contribute in the return game as well.
Ellis Hobbs, Eagles - Hobbs averaged 24.1 yards per kick return last year and is another Eagle who will benefit from the addition of special teams whiz Bobby April.