What’s so special about special teams? It’s a largely overlooked third of the game of football, especially when it comes to fantasy. Consider that Randy Moss and LaDainian Tomlinson combined for one fewer touchdown than the entire league scored on special teams last season and you can see why it winds up on the back burner.
In many leagues, special teams touchdowns are rolled into the team defense category—where again they’re treated like the red-headed stepchild, accounting for not even half of a typical year of defensive touchdowns. When you factor sacks and picks and points allowed into the fantasy scoring equation, special teams are all but forgotten.
You’ll note that special teams touchdowns are projected along with defensive touchdowns in The Huddle’s rankings; in fact, it’s the Bears (read: Devin Hester’s) projected five return scores that bump them to the top of the charts.
But there’s more to the fantasy ramifications of special teams play than just Hester. With that in mind, here’s a look at some of the other return games to keep in mind—whether your team adds return yardage and scores to the bottom line or even if return scores are just lumped in with your team defense.
We’ve projected the Bears with five return scores in 2008—which is actually on the conservative side, seeing as Bears return men have 11 return touchdowns the past two seasons. It might surprise you, then, that Chicago’s kick returners posted the lowest per-attempt average in the NFL last season (18.4). They made up for it on punts, ranking second at 14.8 yards per return and scoring as many touchdowns on punt returns as any other team did in the entire return game combined. It’s all Hester, and if he gets worked more into the offense and sees his return work decreased you can start moving the Bears’ defense down your rankings. Right now that doesn’t seem to be a problem, as Chicago isn’t paying Hester all that money because they think he’s the next Jerry Rice.
Josh Cribbs is a poor man’s AFC version of Devin Hester, and after seeing Hester’s contract he’d like to remove the “poor” from that description. And while Cribbs is talented and electric, he still needs a little bit of blocking help to make things happen. Last year he received plenty of it, as the Browns ranked first in the NFL in kickoff return average and third in punt return average. As an entire entity the Browns defense/special teams isn’t necessarily a big fantasy helper, but if you separate the return game or Cribbs as a specialist he’s about as close as you can get to Hester and the Bears without paying the top dollar that acquisition requires.
The Ravens were one of the first teams to follow Chicago’s Hester blueprint when they reached for speedy special teams ace Yamon Figurs in the third round last year. Worked out quite well, though, as Figurs was one of just five players to return both a punt and a kick for a touchdown (the others were Hester, Cribbs, Nate Burleson and Darren Sproles). With rookie Ray Rice expected to pitch in on kickoff returns as well, the Ravens’ special teams is poised to pick up whatever fantasy slack is left by their aging defense.
Bobby April is to special teams what Alex Gibbs is to offensive lines: casual observers won’t recognize the name, but astute football fans know just how valuable they are. Year in and year out April’s special teams units rank among the league’s best, and last year was no exception. Terrence McGee was a solid kickoff return man and Roscoe Parrish led the league in punt return average. That duo should be joined by top pick Leodis McKelvin, whose three punt return touchdowns at Troy State led the nation last season. Buffalo’s defense is an up-and-coming unit, so if you’re stuck at the end of your draft and your league folds special teams scores into team defense the Bills are a viable sleeper candidate.
A quick strength of schedule note: the Bears (week 14 vs. Jacksonville, week 15 vs. New Orleans), Ravens (week 15 vs. Pittsburgh, week 16 at Dallas) and Bills (week 14 vs. Miami, week 16 at Denver) all play teams that allowed multiple return touchdowns last season during this year’s fantasy playoffs. The other teams with similarly friendly schedules are the Lions, 49ers, Chiefs, and Colts. Also worth noting: Indy surrendered four return scores last season, most in the NFL; the Broncos and Raiders gave up three each while the Rams, Lions, Dolphins, Cowboys, Steelers, Saints, 49ers, and Jaguars allowed two each.
A few other teams and players of note:
• The St. Louis Rams are the only team besides the Browns and Ravens to rank in the top 10 in both kickoff and punt returns. Their primary return man is Dante Hall, who was Devin Hester before there was a Devin Hester.
• The aforementioned Nate Burleson is still listed as the Seattle Seahawks’ primary return man for both punts and kicks. If he’s asked to play a larger role in the passing game he may need to relinquish some of those duties.
• Jacoby Jones electrified fans of the Houston Texans in the preseason with a pair of punt return touchdowns, but his regular-season numbers weren’t quite as thrilling. Factor in Andre Davis and his three kickoff return touchdowns and 30.3 yards-per-return average, and the Texans might provide more bang for your special teams buck than any other squad in 2008.
• Steve Breaston could bring a spark to the Arizona Cardinals’ return game. Only Josh Cribbs, Ted Ginn, and Oakland’s Chris Carr had more kickoff returns of 20 or more yards last season and only Hester had more punt returns of 40-plus yards.
• The Jacksonville Jaguars still plan to use Maurice Jones-Drew on kickoff returns, and the Oakland Raiders are threatening to do the same with Darren McFadden. The Minnesota Vikings have also indicated they could use Adrian Peterson in that role, but their offseason acquisition of Maurice Hicks—who has 2,930 kickoff return yards the past two seasons—and the presence of Aundrae Allison—whose 28.7 yards per kickoff return last season ranked third in the league—suggests otherwise.
• The Detroit Lions, who allowed the second-highest kickoff return average and third-highest punt return average last season, close the season against Minnesota, Indianapolis, and New Orleans. And oh yeah, they play Devin Hester… twice.