Return men. They used to be a major part of a team’s thought process when cutting down to 53 players, but now with the kickoffs being moved up to the 35 yard line, we’re going to see more touchbacks than we’ve ever seen, which means kickoff returners might be a thing of the past. Well, not exactly, but you know what I mean.
This new rule could change the way teams view return specialists as some of these players who were simply full-time special teams starters will find themselves without a job if they can’t contribute on offense or defense. What this will do, as a result, will give certain receivers more fantasy value in leagues that award points for special teams return yards and touchdowns.
Some of these “special teams only” players that might be affected on final cut day include: Stefan Logan, Marc Mariani, Devin Moore, Courtney Roby and possibly even Johnnie Lee Higgins.
Punt returns are now becoming nearly as valuable as kick returns because of the ball placement on kickoffs, and the playing field for drafting these types of players is becoming more clouded. Oh sure, the potential for a huge kick return is still there, but touchbacks are now also a big part of the kicking game which will directly affect drafting strategies and overall fantasy numbers.
Taking all that into consideration, here is a list of players I believe will rank among the top returners in the game, and how it might affect your fantasy team if you get rewarded for return yards/TDs.
1. Danny Amendola, WR, Rams — Because of his role as the starting slot receiver in this offense, he likely won’t be as affected by the new rule as some will be. Amendola combined for almost 1,600 combined return yards last year, but the Rams are expected to use Mardy Gilyard more in the return game, so don’t expect his numbers to be that good in 2011.
2. Stefan Logan, WR, Lions — This was a tough one to rank because he’s ultra-talented, but he’s buried so deep on the Lions’ depth chart at WR that there’s actually a good chance he doesn’t even make the team. Nate Burleson and Aaron Brown are both capable of returning kicks, just not as well as Logan. Still, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and say he keeps his job… and dominates. Logan scored once and combined for over 1,800 return yards in 2010, but obviously won’t be that good this year.
3. Josh Cribbs, WR, Browns — Have you noticed the Browns trying to use Cribbs more in the passing game (before his injury)? That’s because they don’t want to have any reason to have to cut this guy, and they can justify keeping him on the roster if he’s a consideration at WR. He’s one of the best dual-threat return men in the NFL and is likely to end his career as one of the top 10 all-time returners in NFL history. Honestly, I dont’ believe he’s going anywhere. Cribbs combined for nearly 1,000 return yards in 2010, but didn’t score. I believe that changes this year.
4. Leon Washington, RB, Seahawks — Very explosive runner and solid pass-catcher who has added a spark to the Seattle offense and special teams. He had three kick returns for TDs last season, but it won’t be nearly as easy this year because of the new kickoff rules and the fact that Golden Tate is expected to take some of the load. Washington combined for over 1,700 return yards last season, but I’m honestly not expecting more than about 1,100 this year.
5. David Reed, WR, Ravens — He took over the kick return duties last year after the team’s bye week, averaging an amazing 30 yards per kick return… best in the NFL. In fact, he racked up 230 return yards in one game alone, giving the Ravens a much-needed weapon in the special teams department. The only thing that will keep Reed down is CB Lardarius Webb, who also returns punts, could take a few of his kick returns.
6. Jacoby Ford, WR, Raiders — Obviously he’s got to stay healthy, but you have to admit he’s one of the most explosive return men in the game. Ford had more kick returns for TDs than he did receptions, and although I don’t believe that will be the case this year, I absolutely think he’s capable of producing three more TDs in the return game again this year.
7. Eric Weems, WR, Falcons — Interesting case here… on one hand, Weems could be a dual threat, returning both kicks and punts for the Falcons. Or, Atlanta could decide to let Harry Douglas return punts and Jason Snelling or Jacquizz Rodgers return kicks. I tend to believe the Falcons will keep Weems and let him do what he does best.
8. Michael Spurlock, WR, Buccaneers — Spurlock made it into the Tampa Bay record books last year, becoming one of only two players to have returned a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown. Spurlock is in a heated battle with Preston Parker for a WR/KR/PR spot on this roster, but based on what he did last year in the return game, not to mention the fact he knows the offense, I believe he’ll ultimately win the job. As a bonus, he might actually step up and win a starting WR job alongside Mike Williams.
9. C.J. Spiller, RB, Bills — Spiller was drafted to be a feature RB, but his contribution to the Bills last year was in the return game where he scored once and combined for nearly 1,200 yards. There’s a good chance he wins the job again this year, and he might actually be a dual returner, but if he ends up carrying the ball 20-25 times per game, it might affect what the Bills decided to do with him in the special teams department.
10. Marc Mariani, WR, Titans — The only possible way he’s not returning kicks and punts for the Titans is if he doesn’t make the roster. He won’t see the field as a receiver, so this is his only chance. The good news is… he’s pretty darn good at what he does. Nearly 1900 yards and two TDs is what he has to live up to this year, and although I don’t think he’ll sniff those numbers again, I do believe he’ll make the roster and have a pretty good season again.
THE BEST OF THE REST…
11. LaRod Stephens-Howling, RB, Cardinals
12. Deji Karim, RB, Jaguars
13. Devin Hester, WR, Bears
14. Percy Harvin, WR, Vikings
15. Brandon Banks, WR, Redskins
16. Javier Arenas, DB, Chiefs
17. Trindon Holiday, WR, Texans
18. Darren Sproles, RB, Saints
19. Brandon Tate, WR, Patriots
20. Antonio Brown, WR, Steelers
21. Mike Thomas, WR, Jaguars
22. Ted Ginn, WR, Niners
23. Davone Bess, WR, Dolphins
24. Bernard Scott, RB, Bengals