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What's So Special About Special Teams?
John Tuvey
August 12, 2009
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NFL coaches will tell you special teams constitutes a third of the game, and analysts will feed that soundbite back to you with every return touchdown, blocked kick, or bobbled snap.

Fantasy players, on the other hand, largely ignore special teams. Oftentimes they’re lumped in with team defense, if they’re even used at all.

But that’s starting to change. Between special teams stars like Devin Hester moving into larger roles in the offense and leagues adding tweaks like return yardage into their scoring system, return men are beginning to show up on the fantasy radar.

So whether your league includes return touchdowns with your team defense scoring, you’re looking to pick up an extra touchdown or two from one of your fantasy regulars, or you draft players specifically for their contributions in the return game… here’s a little something for you.

Worth noting: the league has changed the rules regarding wedges on kickoff returns, reducing those three-, four-, and five-man walls you’ve grown accustomed to seeing. The expectation is that kickoff return yardage will be reduced, with kick returns more closely resembling punt returns.

TEAMS

New England Patriots—The Pats are one of only two NFL teams to rank in the top 10 in kickoff return average each of the past three seasons and one of only four with a kickoff return touchdown each of the past three years. They’ve also ranked in the top 10 in punt returns two of the past three seasons, so it’s obvious special teams are a focus. Matt Slater, who set a UCLA record with three kickoff return touchdowns in 2007, is expected to take over Ellis Hobb’s role as kick returner, and Wes Welker is available for punt returns.

Buffalo Bills—Bobby April’s special teams units consistently rank among the league’s best; last year the Bills led the NFL in punt return average with a 15.5 ypr mark, two and a half yards better than the next best team. Buffalo has finished in the top 10 in both punt and kickoff returns two of the past three seasons, paced by Leodis McKelvin (second with 1,486 kickoff return yards last season) and Roscoe Parrish (eight in punt return yards with 322 and a league-best 15.3 yards per return).

Oakland Raiders—Yes, the Raiders. This is where all that speed Al Davis loves to draft comes into play. Last year Oakland finished second in punt returns (13.0 ypr) and scored a league-high three times. Johnnie Lee Higgins is electric in the open field, and if the Raiders can’t find a way to get the ball to him in the regular offense… well, there’s always punt and kick returns.

San Diego Chargers—The Bolts are the other team besides New England to rank in the top 10 in kickoff returns each of the past three years, and last season they also finished eighth in punt returns. With LaDainian Tomlinson healthy, Darren Sproles is available for return duty—the same duty that produced 1,625 yards (1,376 on kickoffs, 249 on punts) and a touchdown last year.

Chicago Bears—So what if Hester is spending less time on special teams and more time trying to be Jay Cutler’s favorite target? Danieal Manning was more than adequate in kickoff returns last season; in fact, not only was he one of 14 1,000-yard kickoff return men he also averaged eight yards more per return than Hester. Rookies Joaquin Iglesias (16th in the nation in kickoff returns in 2007) and D.J. Moore (11th in punt returns last year) give the Bears plenty of depth if they opt to keep Hester for offensive use only.

Philadelphia Eagles—Philly’s in the same boat as the Bears, with more return men on their roster than available returns. DeSean Jackson ranked third in the league in punt return yardage (440) last year, while Quintin Demps and Ellis Hobbs ranked fourth and seventh, respectively, in kickoff return yardage—Hobbs as a member of the Patriots. And oh yeah, they drafted Jeremy Maclin, who set NCAA records for total yardage during his two seasons at Missouri.

REGULAR FANTASY CONTRIBUTORS

These are guys you’re drafting anyway for their work with the offense, but they bring a little extra to the table in special teams as well. At the top end, you’re talking about five additional touches per game—and with these speedsters, any additional touch is an opportunity to go the distance.

Darren Sproles, Chargers—With LT healthy, Sproles’ workload as a third down/change of pace back shouldn’t preclude him from the return duties that produced 1,625 yards and a touchdown last year.

Leon Washington, Jets—Like Sproles, Washington should have enough help in the backfield that he won’t be pulled off of special teams. Last year Leon totaled 1,534 return yards and added a touchdown.

Steve Breaston, Cardinals—There has been talk Chris Wells would see some work on kickoff returns, but he’s already healthy and may soon be the starter. Breaston, meanwhile, contributed 904 return yards last season.

Devin Hester, Bears—Just 877 return yards a year ago, and zero touchdowns. But there’s still that threat.

Jerious Norwood, Falcons—Norwood returned 51 kicks for 1,311 yards last year, and with Harry Douglas out there’s talk he may give punt returns a shot as well.

Eddie Royal, Broncos—If he is in fact slated to be the Rams’ No. 1 receiver, he may not even receive the 37 return opportunities he turned into 740 yards last season.

Ted Ginn, Dolphins—Another candidate for reduced special teams with an escalated role in the offense; last year Ginn added a smattering of punt returns along with 32 kickoff returns for 711 total return yardage.

Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants—Don’t overlook Bradshaw, especially if he loses some third-down touches to rookie Andre Brown; he returned 39 kickoffs for 897 yards a year ago.

DeSean Jackson, Eagles—His 8.8 yards per punt return wasn’t impressive, but there’s no question he has the skills. Whether Philly needs him more as a No. 1 receiver or a return man remains to be seen.

Miles Austin, Cowboys—The Dallas slot receiver and likely replacement for T.O. as a home run threat also returned 29 kicks for 624 yards a year ago.

Also active in the return game (though given their status in their team’s offense, they may not be as involved this season): Pierre Thomas, Saints (31-793 on kickoff returns last year); Felix Jones, Cowboys (16-434-1, kickoffs); Domenik Hixon, Giants (24-242, punts; 3-180, kickoffs); Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars (13-281, kickoffs; 7-69, punts); Jonathan Stewart, Panthers (15-349, kickoffs); Jamaal Charles, Chiefs (15-321, kickoffs); Reggie Bush (20-270-3, punts); Wes Welker, Patriots (24-347, punts; 1-26, kickoffs); Santonio Holmes, Steelers (34-226 punts).

RETURN SPECIALISTS, OFFENSE

These players are unlikely to be drafted in a typical fantasy league but would have plenty of value in a league where return yardage adds to your bottom line.

Johnnie Lee Higgins, Raiders—Oakland’s receiver rotation is far from settled, and so is their quarterback situation. In other words, Higgins’ best shot at scoring might come in the return game, where he housed three punt returns a year ago while totaling 570 punt return yards and 842 via kickoff returns.

Mark Jones, Titans—When Tennessee lost Chris Carr via free agency, they turned their return chores over to Jones. Even if he does crack the Titans’ receiver rotation, they run the ball so much that he’ll find much more work in the return game. Last year he produced 1,401 combined yards on 40 kickoff and 39 punt returns.

Josh Cribbs, Browns—Eric Mangini is trying to find ways to get the electrifying Cribbs involved in the offense; meanwhile, Cribbs is trying to find ways to get more money into his bank account. Assuming the negotiations don’t result in Cribbs opting not to play, the Browns will use him on special teams as well as in Wildcat formations and maybe even as a regular receiver. Last year Cribbs amassed 1,338 combo return yards and scored on a kickoff return.

Clifton Smith, Buccaneers—There’s talk out of Tampa that Smith may see some touches in the ground game, though at present he’s behind Earnest Graham and Derrick Ward in the pecking order. Whatever workload from scrimmage Smith receives shouldn’t cut into the special teams duties that netted him 1,316 combo return yards and a kickoff return touchdown last season.

RETURN SPECIALISTS, DEFENSE

Talk about specialization: if you’re in an IDP league that also tallies return yards, these are some names work keeping an eye on.

Leodis McKelvin, CB, Bills—McKelvin will be competing for a starting corner spot in Buffalo, and after last season’s showing—plenty of good, with dashes of glaringly bad—teams won’t be afraid to throw at him. So he’s a threat for picks, as well as to match the 1,494 combo return yards he rolled up a year ago.

Josh Wilson, CB, Seahawks—Wilson is also in the mix for a regular gig in the secondary, but after leading the NFL a year ago with 1,753 kickoff return yards it’s difficult to see the Seahawks pulling him completely off that duty.

Quintin Demps, S, and Ellis Hobbs, CB, Eagles—As noted above, Philly has multiple players with return capabilities so if Demps starts at safety and Hobbs is the nickel corner they may each be asked to pare back their kickoff returns; last year Demps produced 52-1,314-1 while Hobbs rolled up 45-1,281-1.

Chris Carr, CB, Ravens—Carr is expected to compete with Samari Rolle for the Ravens’ nickel gig, but the real reason Baltimore brought him to town is to upgrade their return game. Carr amassed 1,307 combined return yards last year handling those duties for the Titans.

Will Blackmon, CB, Packers—Blackmon is fighting for a roster spot, at present holding off Patrick Lee for the No. 4 cornerback job. Assuming he stays in Green Bay, he’ll be the Packers’ primary return man—a gig that saw him produce 1,553 combined return yards and score on a pair of punt returns.

ROOKIES TO WATCH

Their roles are yet to be determined, but these rookies enter the league with return skills that were likely at the forefront of their team’s reasons for drafting them.

Jeremy Maclin, Eagles—Maclin’s 5,600 total yards in two seasons at Missouri included five kick return touchdowns (three kickoff, two punt). If he doesn’t leapfrog Kevin Curtis, Jason Avant, and/or Hank Baskett for playing time he’ll likely be Philly’s primary return man.

Austin Collie, Colts—Indy’s special teams are usually on the shaky side, so if Collie doesn’t beat out Pierre Garcon for the No. 3 receiver job he could end up reprising the role of return man he played during his days at BYU.

Derrick Williams and Aaron Brown, Lions—Brown ranked fifth and Williams 28th in kickoff returns in college football last season, and Williams also hit the charts as a punt returner. There is likely to be plenty of kickoff return opportunities in Detroit, and it’s tough to see either player earning enough playing time with the offense to pull them away from special teams.

Mike Wallace and Joe Burnett, Steelers—The Super Bowl champs ranked 29th in kickoff returns and 31st in punt returns a year ago, so it was no surprise they drafted Burnett (#7 in kickoff returns and #10 in punt returns last year at Central Florida) and Wallace (43rd in the country in kickoff returns last season). If both make the roster, it should allow the Steelers to pull Holmes off of punt return duty while still upgrading their return game.

Percy Harvin and Asher Allen, Vikings—Allen actually has return experience, ranking 42nd in kickoff returns as a sophomore at Georgia. Harvin hasn’t returned kicks since high school, but the Vikings want to get the ball in his hands as often as possible so he’s being worked at both positions. With Charles Gordon and Aundrae Allison no longer on the roster, those jobs are wide open.

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