Fantasy Football News

Thursday, June 23, 2011

NFL History: Best Return Men the League has ever seen

In the world of the National Football League, fans focus so much on explosive offenses and stingy defenses that it seems as though a versatile special teams unit gets overlooked.

Field position is a very important aspect in the game of football, and what better way to win ball games with a little help from a flashy return man who can score without the offense's help?

We have seen some very talented athletes make a name for themselves as a dangerous return man over the last decade or so. Just to name a few: Darren Sproles, Dante Hall, Brian Mitchell, Leon Washington, Allen Rossum, Devin Hester, Deion Sanders, Josh Cribbs, etc. etc. etc.

But who's the best of the best?

That's what I'm here to tell you. Here is a list of my top 10 kick/punt returners in the long history of the league. Well, technically I will mainly be listing guys who played during the Super Bowl era. In no particular order, here are 10 players who I would have loved to have returning balls for my team in their prime.

Dante Hall, Kansas City/St. Louis

Career numbers: 6 kick return TDs, 6 punt return TDs, two Pro Bowls and one First-team All Pro selection in nine seasons with Chiefs and Rams

In the early 2000s, Dante "X-factor" Hall was the talk of the town in Kansas City. Not only was his athletic ability incredible, but he knew how to make guys miss and then could simple turn on the jets to make his way across the goal line.

The former Chief and Ram has been out of the league since 2008, but from 2002-2007 there was no one better at returning kicks than this two-time Pro Bowler out of Texas A&M. Finishing his career with six kick returns and six punt returns for touchdowns, Hall was the most dangerous returner during his tenure, and was a pleasure to watch.
Deion Sanders, Atlanta/San Francisco/Dallas/Washington/Baltimore

Career numbers: 3 kick return TDs, 6 punt return TDs, eight Pro Bowls, six First-team All Pro selections in 13 seasons with five different teams

Sanders made his mark as a defensive back, recording nearly 500 tackles and picking off 53 passes in his career. So not only was he an effective return man, but he also ran interceptions back for touchdowns (nine in his career). The fact he had a knack for the end zone may have been what helped him get on this list.

Sanders was a natural athlete and return man, because he knew how to make guys miss and, of course, he was one of the fastest guys in the league at the time. Sanders spent 13 seasons in the league, so his nine return touchdowns (six punt, three kick; plus nine additional INT TDs) may not seem quite as impressive over a longer period of time. But either way Sanders was a threat every time he got his hands on the ball, and could make defenders look silly trying to bring him to the ground.

Gale Sayers, Chicago

Career numbers: 6 kick return TDs, 2 punt return TDs, four Pro Bowls, five First-team All Pro selections in seven seasons with Chicago

In just seven career professional seasons, Sayers was said to be one of the most dangerous players when he had the ball in his hands. An injury-shortened career shattered any hope of Sayers earning the Return King title, but his six kick returns for touchdowns puts him at No. 3 on the all-time list (tied with four others).

Sayers put up an astonishing stat of 30.6 yards per kick return throughout his career (highest in league history) and was a threat as a punt returner as well, racking up a 14.5 yds/return and two touchdowns with Chicago. Had he played a full career, there's no doubt Sayers could have ended with more return touchdowns than anyone else.
Brian Mitchell, Washington/Philadelphia/New York

Career numbers: 4 kick return TDs, 9 punt return TDs, 4,999 career punt return yards (most all-time), one Pro Bowl, one First-team All Pro selection in 14 seasons with three teams

Mitchell was primarily a threat as a punt returner, returning nine career punts for touchdowns. He is third all-time on that list (Hester and Eric Metcalf both have 10). The one-time Pro Bowler was around for well over a decade (14 years), so it isn't much of a surprise to see him sit comfortably atop the career list for punt return yards (4,999).

Mitchell led the league in punt return TDs on three separate occasions (1991, '94, '95) and, before Hester came around, was known as one of the best to play the position. The little guy had heart.

Devin Hester, Chicago

Career numbers: 4 kick return TDs, 10 punt return TDs and three Pro Bowls, three First-team All Pro selections in five seasons with Chicago

Ok, so it's possible that Sayers may not have racked up more return touchdowns than this guy if he had played a longer career. But that's only because the 28-year old Hester is a freak of nature.

One thing you want in a return man is intimidation factor, which would eventually force opposing teams to kick out of bounds to avoid said player, therefore potentially giving your offense great field position.

Well, that's exactly what the Bears have gotten from Hester throughout his five-year career. Not to mention the 10 punt return touchdowns, four kick return touchdowns and countless broken ankles for opposing defenders. In five seasons, Hester has done more than most return men will ever do in their careers. By far the best in the game today, if not in the history of the league.

Josh Cribbs, Cleveland

Career numbers: 8 kick return TDs (most all-time), 2 punt return TDs, two Pro Bowls, one First-team All Pro selection with Cleveland

This past season was Cribbs' sixth professional season with the Browns, and it marked the only season he did not return a single punt or kick for a touchdown. In his previous five season Cribbs racked up eight career kick return TDs and two punt return TDs.

To be ranked No. 1 on the career kick return touchdowns list at age 28 is pretty miraculous. Cribbs' body build (6'1''/192 lbs.) allows him to not only put a finesse move on the opposition, but he also has the ability to run through defenders on his way to the end zone.

Cribbs isn't quite as flashy and electrifying as Chicago's Hester, but his style gets the job done just as well. If he can keep up his pace, Cribbs could go down as a top three returner by career's end.
Leon Washington, New York/Seattle

Career numbers: 7 kick return TDs, 4,447 KR yards, one Pro Bowl, one First-team All Pro selection in five seasons with Jets and Seahawks

As a reserve running back, Washington didn't see much of the field in his stint with the New York Jets. That is, until he made his mark as a returner for the Jets in his second season (2007) in the league. That year he led the league with three kickoffs returned for touchdowns. He finished his four-year tenure in New York with a total of four, and went on to add three more this past season with the Seattle Seahawks.

Behind only Hester, Washington's seven KO TDs is good enough for second-most all-time. Washington, despite playing one less season than Cleveland's Cribbs, is just one KO TD shy of tying him for most all-time.

Eric Metcalf, Cleveland/Atlanta/San Diego/Arizona/Carolina/Washington/Green Bay

Career numbers: 2 kick return TDs, 10 punt return TDs, three Pro Bowls and two First-team All Pro selections in 13 seasons with seven different teams

One thing I have noticed in a couple of the previously listed returners is that they have played for several different teams throughout their careers. With the exception of Hall, Hester and Sayers, these players have played for at least two different teams with Sanders and Metcalf playing for at least five teams.

Returners are seemingly disposable in the game of football, but there are only so many great ones. Metcalf, though he played for seven teams, was one of those great ones, returning a league-best 10 punts for touchdowns. As most of the great return specialists go, Metcalf never quite made the cut as a halfback, so he was thrown around the league each year as a coveted return man.

Dave Meggett, New York (Giants)/New England/New York (Jets)

Career numbers: 1 kick return TD, 3,708 punt return yards, 7 punt return TDs, 2 Pro Bowls in 10 seasons with three different teams

Most return-men are streaky when it comes to producing touchdowns, but Meggett? He put up consistent numbers throughout his 10 seasons. Coming in to the league as a rookie for the Giants in 1989, Meggett earned a Pro Bowl trip after leading the league in punt return yards (582) and touchdowns with one.

He never ran back any more than two punts for touchdowns in any one season, but returned eight total from 1989 to 1996. His second of two Pro Bowls came in the '96 season, his second of three seasons with New England.
Desmond Howard, Washington/Jacksonville/Green Bay/Oakland/Detroit

Career numbers: 7,959 kick return yards, 1 kick return TD, 8 punt return TDs, 1 Pro Bowl, Super Bowl MVP in 11 seasons with five different teams

Another long-time journeyman, so to speak, Howard made this list solely based on his outlandish 1996 season with the Packers, in which he won a Super Bowl ring.

Yes, Howard was a productive punt returner outside of that season, returning six punts for TDs while leading the league (with two) in 1998. But it was '96 that he broke out on to the scene as a returner. After four mediocre seasons as both a wideout and returner, Howard joined Green Bay and made an immediate impact.

Leading the league with 58 returns in the punt game, Howard returned three punts for touchdowns (league-high) over 875 yards (league-high), including a 92-yard return--also, a league-high. In the Super Bowl, Howard returned a 99-yard kickoff for a touchdown, earning the game's MVP award.

Also drawing consideration:

Jermaine Lewis
Mel Gray

Who's next??

Jacoby Ford, Oakland Raiders
Brad Smith, New York Jets
DeSean Jackson, Philadelphia Eagles
Darren Sproles, San Diego Chargers
Stefan Logan, Pittsburgh Steelers/Detroit Lions
Reggie Bush, New Orleans Saints

Photo credit
Dante Hall:
Brian Mitchell:
Leon Washington:
Desmond Howard:

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