While offense and defense (rightly) get most of the headlines, special teams can tip the balance of the game in the margins. The game continues to evolve on this side of the ball, with, if only for a year, touchbacks coming out to the 25 instead of the customary 20-yard line. While this new kickoff rule has not necessarily had a big impact on the percentage of kicks being returned (36.56 percent this year versus 35.54 last year), the quality of returns has likely gone down. This season the average kickoff return is just 21.8 yards versus last season’s mark of 23.9 per return. As the league works to determine the optimal rule structure for special teams, there are players working through and around these rules to give their clubs substantial value as returners. Below we present our seven highest-graded returners so far this season.
1. Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs
His significant character concerns aside, Hill has been a huge value to the Chiefs since being drafted in the fifth round this year. His traditional return statistics have been hurt a bit by penalties, with two touchdown returns called back so far. Even with those removed from the equation, he’s been nothing short of explosive for Dave Toub’s group, helping flip the field with punt returns of 19, 19, 32 and 50 so far, while adding three kickoff returns of more than 30 yards as well. After supplanting the usually effective Knile Davis and De’Anthony Thomas in Kansas City, look for Hill to have a nice career as a return specialist for the Chiefs.
2. Jalen Richard, Oakland Raiders
Along with the brilliant play of punter Marquette King and ace Bryden Trawick, the undrafted rookie Richard has been a big reason why Oakland’s special teams have graded out as the fourth-best unit in the league so far. His season has been a collection of solid returns, averaging 24.8 as a kickoff returner and 12.1 as a punt returner, with the occasional big play sprinkled in. For example, his 47-yard punt return during the last two minutes of the Raiders’ game against the Ravens set up the winning touchdown in a 28-27 road win.
3. Brandon Tate, Buffalo Bills
After being released by the Bengals following training camp, Tate has caught on in Buffalo, giving the Bills the same solid play as a returner he’s been known to give both Cincinnati and New England in years past. After a career-low 6.5 yards per punt return last year, Tate has rebounded to 10.8 per return this year, producing returns of 13, 18, 21, 30 and 31 in the first seven games. He’s also added a 45-yard kickoff return to the mix en route to a 23.0 average on kickoff returns.
4. Jakeem Grant, Miami Dolphins
Grant is the third rookie to make this list, and has done a fine job this season in what has traditionally been star receiver Jarvis Landry’s roll (Landry was last season’s highest-graded return specialist). In spelling Landry, he’s been all-around solid as both a kick and punt returner, averaging 24.2 yards per kick return and 11.7 yards per punt return, with no fumbles so far. His 74-yard punt return for a TD against the Titans was an excellent display of speed and elusiveness, breaking four potential tackles while seemingly getting faster the closer he got to the end zone.
5. Quan Bray, Indianapolis Colts
Unfortunately for the Colts, Bray was placed on IR recently with a broken ankle. Prior to the injury he was building nicely on what he started a year ago, where he was, by a large margin, the highest-graded return specialist in the league from his week 8 debut onward. Despite not having a return of more than 39 yards, he ended his season tied for the highest kickoff return grade in the league, with half of his returns netting 25 or more yards.
6. Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks
After two return touchdowns (and the second-highest grade among return specialists) as a rookie, Lockett continues to give the Seahawks’ return game an explosive threat in his sophomore year. While he hasn’t been as daring as a year ago — fair catching more punts (13) than he’s returned (12), his average on the punts he’s returned has been significantly higher, on the back of returns of 13, 15, 22 and 62 yards so far.
7. Marcus Sherels, Minnesota Vikings
Sherels is the only return man with two touchdowns thus far through seven weeks, busting through for 54-yard and 79-yard touchdowns against the Panthers and Texans, respectively. Both returns were not brilliantly blocked up — displaying Sherels’ long-developed ability to squeak through small lanes and find pay dirt for the Vikings. His grade would be higher if not for a devastating muff last week against the Eagles, and the fact that he mostly only returns punts.