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The Best Kickoff Returners in NFL History

Two weeks ago, I looked at the best punt returners in NFL history; today, a look at the top kickoff returners. Again, we begin with a graph of the league average yards per kickoff return from 1941 through 2013. The variation here has been relatively minor, falling in a 5-yard window from 18.9 yards per return to 23.7.

In 2011, the NFL moved kickoffs up from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line; immediately after, kickoff return average climbed to a 23.7, the highest in NFL history. Kickoff returns dropped from 2,033 in 2010 to 1,374 in 2011, so it’s reasonable to conclude that the increase in average was a reflection of sample bias; with fewer kickoffs being returned, we can presume that returners were, on average, taking the ball out of the end zone in more advantageous situations. On the other hand, the average also spiked in 1994, when the kickoff was moved back from the 35 to the 30! In 1993, there were 1,381 kickoff returns; in 1994, there were 1,842. That spike seems harder to understand.

In any event, we will again adjust kickoff returns for era. I used essentially the same formula as I did to calculate the best punt returners:

1) Assign 15 yards for every kickoff return touchdown.

2) Calculate each player’s Adjusted Yards per Kickoff Return for each season, defined as simply (Kickoff Return Yards + 15*KRTDs) / Kickoff Returns.

3) Subtract the league average AY/KR rate from each player’s AY/KR average.

4) Multiply that result by the player’s number of kickoff returns, to produce a value-over-average statistic.

As before, this is far from a perfect solution. In fact, there may be even more shortcomings here than there was with punt returns, and I will again mention some of those at the end of this post. But I do think this system is an improvement over the current ways in which we measure kickoff returners, so let’s march onwards.

In 2013, the top kickoff returner was Cordarrelle Patterson, and the system surely does not succumb to any shortcomings here. The Vikings rookie led the NFL in both kickoff return average and touchdowns, and ranked second in yards to Devin Hester (who needed nine more returns to gain those extra 43 yards). Patterson averaged 33.1 adjusted yards per kickoff return; given his 43 returns and the NFL average of 23.4, that means Patterson provided 416 yards of value over average, easily the most in the league. The table below shows the amount of value added by every kickoff returner in 2013; by default, the table displays the top 10, but you can change that number in the dropdown box on the left. As always, the table is fully sortable and searchable, too.

1Cordarrelle Patterson22MIN431393233.1416
2Quintin Demps28KAN33992130.5234
3Devin Hester31CHI521436027.6218
4Dwayne Harris26DAL28857030.6201
5Jacoby Jones29BAL31892129.3181
6Trindon Holliday27DEN28775128.2134
7Keshawn Martin23HOU36947026.3104
8Jordan Todman23JAX26712027.4103
9Leon Washington312TM17500029.4102
10Knile Davis22KAN10321133.6102
11LeGarrette Blount27NWE17494029.196
12Brandon Tate26CIN35914026.194
13Travis Benjamin24CLE3146048.776
14Damaris Johnson24PHI17441025.943
15LaMichael James24SFO12321026.840
16Jeremy Ross252TM21514125.237
17Deonte Thompson24BAL7201028.737
18Percy Harvin25SEA15805835
19Emmanuel Sanders26PIT10268026.834
20Eric Page22TAM22548024.933
21Travaris Cadet24NOR9239026.628
22David Reed26IND24590024.628
23Cassius Vaughn26IND5142028.425
24Antonio Cromartie29NYJ6164027.323
25Josh Cribbs30NYJ20490024.522
26Isaiah Pead24STL5138027.621
27Doug Martin24TAM14004017
28Micah Hyde23GNB22531024.116
29Taiwan Jones25OAK2662302414
30Kerry Taylor242TM26003013
31Brad Smith302TM4106026.512
32Perrish Cox262TM382027.312
33David Wilson22NYG9222024.711
34Dennis Johnson232TM6151025.210
35Doug Baldwin25SEA257028.510
36Ted Ginn Jr.28CAR25595023.89
37Darius Reynaud292TM18430023.98
38Shaun Draughn26BAL253026.56
39Damian Williams25TEN5123024.66
40Stephen Burton24JAX499024.85
41Ace Sanders22JAX3750255
42Lance Dunbar23DAL1280285
43Tashard Choice292TM1280285
44Kerwynn Williams222TM1280285
45Josh Boyce22NWE9214023.83
46Jackie Battle30TEN1260263
47Kevin Ogletree262TM1250252
48LaRod Stephens-Howling26PIT1250252
49Terrance Williams24DAL6142023.71
50Andre Caldwell28DEN6141023.50
51Jeremy Lane23SEA247023.50
52Jason Snelling30ATL1230230
53Jeff Demps23TAM493023.3-1
54Griff Whalen23IND122022-1
55Alex Green25NYJ122022-1
56Kahlil Bell27GNB122022-1
57Clyde Gates27NYJ9209023.2-2
58Bobby Rainey262TM7162023.1-2
59Andre Ellington24ARI121021-2
60A.J. Jefferson25MIN121021-2
61Justin Forsett28JAX121021-2
62Patrick DiMarco24ATL121021-2
63Omar Bolden25DEN244022-3
64Skye Dawson23TAM367022.3-3
65Cierre Wood222TM120020-3
66Jonathan Dwyer24PIT490022.5-4
67Greg Jones32HOU243021.5-4
68Shane Vereen24NWE366022-4
69Jeremy Kerley25NYJ119019-4
70T.J. Graham24BUF119019-4
71Michael Hill242TM119019-4
72Jacoby Ford26OAK11253023-5
73Patrick Peterson23ARI118018-5
74Danieal Manning31HOU118018-5
75Dorin Dickerson25DET118018-5
76Benny Cunningham23STL13299023-5
77Denard Robinson23JAX488022-6
78Brandon Boykin23PHI9205022.8-6
79Alterraun Verner25TEN117017-6
80Spencer Larsen29TAM117017-6
81John Kuhn31GNB240020-7
82Antonio Brown25PIT116016-7
83Santana Moss34WAS115015-8
84Luke Willson23SEA115015-8
85Tommy Bohanon23NYJ115015-8
86Chris Rainey25IND6131021.8-10
87Markus Wheaton22PIT237018.5-10
88Robert Turbin24SEA8177022.1-10
89Dan Herron242TM113013-10
90Markus Kuhn27NYG113013-10
91Jacquizz Rodgers23ATL25575023-11
92Marcus Easley27BUF483020.8-11
93Lavelle Hawkins27SDG8176022-11
94Pierre Thomas29NOR112012-11
95Chris Banjo23GNB112012-11
96Damontre Moore21NYG112012-11
97Tyler Clutts292TM112012-11
98Theo Riddick22DET112012-11
99Jerrel Jernigan24NYG11246022.4-12
100Johnathan Franklin24GNB482020.5-12
101Cameron Heyward24PIT111011-12
102Cole Beasley24DAL111011-12
103Kendall Hunter25SFO481020.3-13
104Greg Little24CLE7151021.6-13
105Greg Jenkins24OAK10221022.1-13
106Golden Tate25SEA357019-13
107LaVon Brazill24IND357019-13
108DeSean Jackson27PHI110010-13
109Randall Cobb23GNB110010-13
110Andre Smith252TM110010-13
111James Casey29PHI110010-13
112Jarius Wright24MIN1909-14
113Robert Woods21BUF1909-14
114Joe Webb27MIN1909-14
115Mitch Unrein26DEN1808-15
116Chris Polk24PHI1808-15
117Deji Karim27HOU478019.5-16
118Anthony Dixon26SFO5101020.2-16
119Joseph Randle22DAL1707-16
120Rhett Ellison25MIN1707-16
121Quinton Patton23SFO1707-16
122Jay Ross26BUF1707-16
123Troy Davis22NYJ1707-16
124Malik Jackson23DEN1606-17
125Marvin Mitchell29MIN1606-17
126Jamize Olawale24OAK1606-17
127Erik Lorig27TAM1606-17
128Joe Banyard25MIN1606-17
129Kyle Bosworth27DAL229014.5-18
130Leon McFadden23CLE1505-18
131Dylan Gandy31DET1505-18
132Adam Gettis24WAS1505-18
133Will Ta'ufo'ou27JAX1505-18
134Michael Palmer25PIT1505-18
135Matt Asiata26MIN228014-19
136Danny Woodhead28SDG12262021.8-19
137Antrel Rolle31NYG1404-19
138Joique Bell27DET1404-19
139Michael Robinson30SEA1404-19
140Dexter McCluster24KAN1303-20
141Mychal Rivera23OAK1303-20
142Jermaine Kearse23SEA13283021.8-21
143Jeremy Stewart24OAK595019-22
144Nick Williams23WAS9188020.9-23
145Devon Wylie255TM594018.8-23
146Zach Ertz23PHI1000-23
147Chase Blackburn30CAR1000-23
148Tim Barnes25STL1000-23
149Jared Crick24HOU1000-23
150Ed Dickson26BAL1000-23
151Jacob Tamme28DEN1000-23
152Gavin Escobar22DAL1000-23
153Nick Bellore24NYJ1000-23
154Patrick Bailey28TEN1000-23
155Brandon Mosley25NYG1000-23
156Austin Spitler27MIA1000-23
157Derrick Coleman23SEA1000-23
158Vonta Leach32BAL1000-23
159Kellen Davis28SEA1000-23
160Jake Stoneburner24GNB1000-23
161Daniel Adongo24IND1000-23
162Tavon Austin22STL18398022.1-24
163Marquise Goodwin23BUF16351021.9-24
164Charles Clay24MIA223011.5-24
165Jerome Felton27MIN222011-25
166Darren Sproles30NOR12255021.3-26
167Leger Douzable27NYJ220010-27
168Chris Thompson23WAS8160020-27
169Riley Cooper26PHI1-40-4-27
170Ronnie Brown32SDG6113018.8-28
171Cedric Peerman27CIN466016.5-28
172Felix Jones26PIT23510022.2-29
173Chase Ford23MIN21708.5-30
174Kyle Juszczyk22BAL21708.5-30
175Kenjon Barner24CAR21708.5-30
176Kyle Williams252TM7134019.1-30
177Brandon Marshall29CHI1-80-8-31
178Devin McCourty26NWE7132018.9-32
179Michael Cox24NYG20436021.8-32
180Micheal Spurlock302TM18389021.6-33
181Brandon Graham25PHI21407-33
182John Carlson29MIN21306.5-34
183Joe Anderson25CHI582016.4-35
184Marcus Thigpen27MIA39878022.5-35
185Dante Rosario29CHI21005-37
186Matt Slater28NWE21005-37
187Sharrif Floyd21MIN2904.5-38
188Tyrann Mathieu21ARI2804-39
189Fozzy Whittaker242TM29638022-41
190Josh Morgan28WAS12239019.9-42
191Javier Arenas26ARI23493021.4-46
192Niles Paul24WAS20411020.6-57
193Toby Gerhart26MIN7106015.1-58
194Eric Weems28CHI557011.4-60
195Michael Ford23CHI53707.4-80

Two Chiefs make it into the top 10; together, Quintin Demps and Knile Davis helped Kansas City lead the league in return average by 3.5 yards more than the next best team. Along with a great defense, the return units (remember, Dexter McCluster was the top punt returner of 2013) were the reason the Chiefs led the league in average starting field position (the 33.6-yard line). The bottom of this list is filled with “returners” who presumably covered a fair number of onside kicks and intentionally short kickoffs. Still, Arizona and Washington each have regular returners near the bottom, and both squads suffered from terrible return units.

Next, let’s look at the 300 best kickoff return seasons in football history using this metric. Of note: Patterson’s 2013 season was the 2nd best ever, behind only Josh Cribbs’ magnificent 2007 season (remember, that year, Cribbs also provided 142 yards of punt return value over average):

12007Josh Cribbs24CLE591809231.2493
22013Cordarrelle Patterson22MIN431393233.1416
32000MarTay Jenkins25ARI822186126.8396
41967Travis Williams21GNB18739444.4393
52005Terrence McGee25BUF461391130.6377
61985Ron Brown24RAM28918334.4374
72005Jerome Mathis22HOU541542229.1364
81994Mel Gray33DET451276329.4360
91981Mike Nelms26WAS371099029.7347
102010Brad Smith27NYJ501432229.2337
112003Jerry Azumah26CHI411191229.8334
121992Deion Sanders25ATL401067227.4317
131998Terry Fair22DET511428228.6315
141977Raymond Clayborn22NWE28869332.6313
152009Josh Cribbs26CLE561542328.3312
162001Ronney Jenkins24SDG581541227.1311
171999Tremain Mack25CIN511382127.4310
181963Abe Woodson29SFO29935333.8307
192002Michael Lewis31NOR701807226.2306
201970Cecil Turner26CHI23752435.3301
212012Jacoby Jones28BAL381167231.5296
221989Rod Woodson24PIT36982127.7296
232006Justin Miller22NYJ461304229295
242010LaRod Stephens-Howling23ARI571548227.7295
251988Tim Brown22RAI411098127.1292
262008Leodis McKelvin23BUF521468128.5291
271980Horace Ivory26NWE36992128288
281950Vitamin Smith27RAM22742335.8287
291967Gale Sayers24CHI16603340.5287
301996Michael Bates27CAR33998130.7287
311962Abe Woodson28SFO371157031.3286
322007Andre' Davis28HOU32968331.7283
331999Tony Horne23STL30892230.7282
342004Terrence McGee24BUF521370327.2281
351989James Dixon22DAL471181125.4280
362011Joe McKnight23NYJ341073132278
371970Jim Duncan24BAL20707136.1277
381994Andre Coleman22SDG491293227277
392003Dante Hall25KAN571478226.5275
401963Bobby Jancik23HOU451317029.3273
412002Chad Morton25NYJ581509226.5270
422000Darrick Vaughn22ATL391082328.9268
431971Dave Hampton24GNB461314128.9267
441986Mel Gray25NOR31866128.4267
452004Dante Hall26KAN681718225.7265
462008Ellis Hobbs25NWE451281128.8265
472007Leon Washington25NYJ471291328.4264
482008Danieal Manning26CHI361070130.1260
491970Alvin Haymond28RAM351022129.6259
501995Glyn Milburn24DEN471269027259
511983Fulton Walker25MIA36962026.7258
521984Bobby Humphery23NYJ22675131.4253
531947Chet Mutryn26BUF21691133.6253
541968Chuck Latourette23STL461237026.9251
551996Tyrone Hughes26NOR701791025.6251
562005Justin Miller21NYJ601577126.5250
571972Ron Smith29CHI30924131.3250
581998Roell Preston26GNB571497226.8250
591991Mel Gray30DET36929025.8247
601994Kevin Williams23DAL431148127245
612001Steve Smith22CAR561431226.1244
621950Wally Triplett24DET8411153.3244
631997Michael Bates28CAR471281027.3242
641994Tyrone Hughes24NOR631556225.2241
651952Lynn Chandnois27PIT17599237240
661994Brian Mitchell26WAS581478025.5240
671967Noland Smith24KAN411148128.4238
681966Gale Sayers23CHI23718232.5236
691968Preston Pearson23BAL15527237.1235
702013Quintin Demps28KAN33992130.5234
712009Percy Harvin21MIN421156228.2230
721985Buster Rhymes23MIN531345025.4230
732004Eddie Drummond24DET411092227.4228
741995Brian Mitchell27WAS551408025.6226
752010Stefan Logan29DET551448126.6225
761993Tony Smith23ATL38948125.3224
772010Leon Washington28SEA571461326.4223
782002Brian Mitchell34PHI431162027221
791996Glyn Milburn25DET641627025.4219
801964Clarence Childs26NYG34987129.5218
811960Leon Burton25NYT30862229.7218
822013Devin Hester31CHI521436027.6218
832010Eric Weems25ATL401100127.9215
841981Carl Roaches28HOU28769128215
852009Stefan Logan28PIT551466026.7214
862009Johnny Knox23CHI32927129.4214
871987Paul Palmer23KAN38923225.1213
881973Herb Mul-Key24WAS361011128.5213
892009Courtney Roby26NOR421154127.8213
902003Bethel Johnson24NWE30847128.7213
911958Ollie Matson28CRD14497237.6211
921999Allen Rossum24PHI541347125.2211
932012Percy Harvin24MIN16574136.8210
941979Jimmy Edwards27MIN441103025.1209
951999Michael Bates30CAR521287225.3208
961987Sylvester Stamps26ATL24660128.1208
972001Desmond Howard31DET571446025.4208
982000Derrick Mason26TEN421132027207
991970Mercury Morris23MIA28812129.5205
1001988Jamie Holland24SDG31810126.6204
1012006Chris Carr23OAK691762025.5204
1021983Steve Brown23HOU31795126.1204
1031963Gary Ballman23PIT22698132.4203
1041992Mel Gray31DET421006124.3202
1052000Allen Rossum25GNB501288126.1202
1061956Joe Arenas31SFO27801130.2202
1071999Brock Marion29MIA621524024.6202
1082013Dwayne Harris26DAL28857030.6201
1091947Eddie Saenz25WAS29797228.5201
1101995Tamarick Vanover21KAN431095226.2201
1111998Vaughn Hebron28DEN461216126.8200
1121969Bobby Williams27DET17563134199
1131995Tyrone Hughes25NOR661617024.5199
1141973Wallace Francis22BUF23687231.2198
1151965Gale Sayers22CHI21660132.1197
1161965Tom Watkins28DET17584034.4197
1171952Ollie Matson22CRD20624232.7197
1182004Willie Ponder24NYG36967127.3197
1192008Allen Rossum33SFO471259127.1197
1202009Clifton Smith24TAM31902029.1196
1212012David Wilson21NYG571533127.2196
1221997Tamarick Vanover23KAN511308125.9196
1231998Corey Harris29BAL35965128196
1241986Dennis Gentry27CHI20576129.6195
1252010Marc Mariani23TEN601530125.8195
1261963Timmy Brown26PHI33945129.1194
1271976Duriel Harris22MIA17559032.9194
1281974Terry Metcalf23STL20623131.9194
1291997Eric Guliford28NOR431128126.6193
1301969Mercury Morris22MIA431136126.8192
1311970O.J. Simpson23BUF7333149.7192
1321956Al Carmichael28GNB33927128.5192
1332000Charlie Rogers24SEA661629124.9191
1341998Glyn Milburn27CHI621550225.5191
1351992Jon Vaughn22NWE20564129189
1361983Zachary Dixon272TM511171123.3189
1371963Carver Shannon25RAM28823129.9188
1381975Terry Metcalf24STL35960127.9188
1391979Roy Green22STL411005124.9187
1401981Reggie Smith25ATL471143024.3187
1411962Johnny Counts23NYG26784130.7187
1422002Kevin Faulk26NWE26725229186
1431954Les Goble22CRD27749228.9186
1441953Joe Arenas28SFO16551034.4185
1451996Herschel Walker34DAL27779028.9185
1462005Koren Robinson25MIN471221126.3185
1471975Rick Upchurch23DEN401084027.1184
1481979James Owens24SFO411002124.8184
1491993Tyrone Hughes23NOR30753125.6184
1501960Ken Hall25HOU19594132.1182
1512008Clifton Smith23TAM36992128182
1522008Chris Carr25TEN35984028.1182
1531973Mack Herron25NWE411092127182
1541961Abe Woodson27SFO27782129.5181
1551998Tim Dwight23ATL36973127.4181
1561971Travis Williams25RAM25743130.3181
1572013Jacoby Jones29BAL31892129.3181
1582001Darrick Vaughn23ATL611491124.7181
1592006Terrence McGee26BUF521355026.1181
1601958Lenny Lyles22BAL11398238.9180
1612007Darren Sproles24SDG371008127.6179
1621980Rich Mauti26NOR31798025.7179
1631993Robert Brooks23GNB23611127.2178
1641960Jack Larscheid27OAK30852028.4178
1651979Ira Matthews22OAK35873125.4177
1661972Bruce Laird22BAL29843029.1177
1672008Darren Sproles25SDG531376126.2176
1681974Larry Jones23WAS23672129.9176
1691966Roy Shivers25STL27762128.8176
1701968Ron Smith25RAM26718128.2176
1712006Maurice Jones-Drew21JAX31860128.2175
1721975Allen Carter23NWE32879127.9174
1731981Fulton Walker23MIA38932124.9174
1742002Brandon Bennett29CIN491231125.4174
1751961Dick Bass24RAM23698030.3173
1761981Stump Mitchell22STL551292023.5173
1771998Michael Bates29CAR591480125.3173
1781989Mel Gray28DET24640026.7172
1792008Josh Wilson23SEA691753025.4172
1801998Tremain Mack24CIN451165126.2172
1811993Corey Harris24GNB16482030.1171
1821994Randy Baldwin27CLE28753127.4170
1831972Rocky Thompson25NYG29821128.8170
1841949Jack Salscheider25NYG15474132.6169
1851969Carl Garrett22BOS28792028.3168
1861965Mel Renfro24DAL21630130.7167
1871972Vic Washington26SFO27771129.1166
1882005Pacman Jones22TEN431127026.2165
1891969Bo Scott26CLE25722028.9165
1901961Timmy Brown24PHI29811128.5165
1912010Brandon Tate23NWE411057226.5164
1922002Eddie Drummond22DET401039026164
1931971Ike Thomas24DAL7295246.4163
1941988Anthony Miller23SDG25648126.5162
1952012Joe McKnight24NYJ391072127.9162
1961964Odell Barry23DEN471245026.5162
1971985Glen Young25CLE35898025.7162
1981962Bobby Jancik22HOU24726030.3161
1991989Marc Logan24MIA24613126.2160
2001966Kermit Alexander25SFO37984026.6160
2011948Joe Scott22NYG20569129.2160
2021960Lenny Lyles24SFO17526131.8159
2031965Alvin Haymond23BAL20614030.7159
2042003Najeh Davenport24GNB16505031.6159
2052012Leon Washington30SEA27784129.6159
2062010David Reed23BAL21616130158
2072012Josh Cribbs29CLE431178027.4158
2081993Mel Gray32DET28688125.1158
2091946Abe Karnofsky24BOS21599129.2157
2101991Nate Lewis25SDG23578125.8157
2112010Devin Hester28CHI12427035.6157
2121978Tony Green22WAS34870126157
2131978Steve Odom26GNB25677127.7156
2142004Dominic Rhodes25IND481188125.1156
2151985Ken Jenkins26WAS411018024.8155
2161986Tim McGee22CIN431007023.4155
2172009Bernard Scott25CIN16504132.4155
2181994Jon Vaughn242TM33829226154
2191997Kevin Williams26ARI591458024.7154
2202011Percy Harvin23MIN16520133.4154
2212012Marcus Thigpen26MIA381040127.8154
2221971Cliff Harris23DAL29823028.4154
2232010Micheal Spurlock27TAM441129126154
2241972Al Nelson29PHI25728029.1154
2252007Rock Cartwright28WAS521339025.8153
2261967Floyd Little25DEN35942026.9153
2271991Dexter Carter24SFO37839123.1153
2281978Larry Anderson22PIT37930125.5152
2291990Mel Gray29DET41939022.9152
2301976Lawrence Williams23KAN25688027.5152
2311969Jim Duncan23BAL19560130.3151
2321956Tommy Wilson24RAM15477132.8151
2332006Laurence Maroney21NWE28783028151
2341975Harold Hart23OAK17518131.4151
2351968Max Anderson23BUF39971125.3150
2361958Willie Galimore23CHI9338139.2150
2371987Dennis Gentry28CHI25621125.4149
2382001Brian Mitchell33PHI411025125.4149
2391963Bobby Mitchell28WAS9343139.8149
2402006Ellis Hobbs23NWE10360137.5149
2411968Lem Barney23DET25670127.4149
2421963Herb Adderley24GNB20597130.6148
2431966Goldie Sellers24DEN19541230.1148
2441994Herschel Walker32PHI21581128.4148
2451995Dave Meggett29NWE38964025.4147
2462004Tim Dwight29SDG501222124.7147
2471966Timmy Brown29PHI20562229.6147
2482004Torrie Cox24TAM33866026.2146
2491978Keith Wright22CLE30789026.3146
2502000Desmond Howard30DET571401024.6146
2512011Randall Cobb21GNB34941128.1146
2521998Steve Broussard31SEA29781127.4146
2532008Leon Washington26NYJ481231126146
2541970Mark Washington23DAL5242151.4146
2551995Ernie Mills27PIT541306024.2146
2561964Bo Roberson29OAK36975027.1145
2571953Lynn Chandnois28PIT21610129.8145
2581984Dokie Williams24RAI24621025.9145
2591992Johnny Bailey25PHO28690024.6144
2601999Jason Tucker23DAL22613027.9144
2611981Willie Tullis23HOU32779124.8143
2621985Carl Monroe25SFO28717126.1143
2631996Tamarick Vanover22KAN33854126.3143
2641964Abe Woodson30SFO32880027.5143
2652003Jonathan Carter24NYJ18517129.6142
2662009Ted Ginn Jr.24MIA521296225.5142
2672008Jerious Norwood25ATL511311025.7142
2681980Dave Williams26CHI27666125.2142
2691953Buddy Young27BAL11378135.7142
2701978Dennis Pearson23ATL25662127.1141
2711970Lemar Parrish23CIN16482131.1141
2722011Richard Goodman24SDG34936128141
2732006Michael Turner24SDG36954026.5141
2741974Billy Johnson22HOU29785027.1141
2752006Maurice Hicks28SFO571428025.1141
2761977Wilbert Montgomery23PHI23619127.6140
2771946Frank Seno25CRD13408132.5140
2781995Steve Broussard28SEA431064024.7140
2791962Timmy Brown25PHI30831128.2140
2802000Tony Horne24STL571379124.5139
2811989Anthony Miller24SDG21533126.1139
2822008Rock Cartwright29WAS511307025.6138
2831961Dick James27WAS21617029.4138
2842008Quintin Demps23PHI521314125.6137
2851997Aaron Glenn25NYJ28741127137
2862005Willie Ponder25NYG35905126.3137
2872004Bethel Johnson25NWE411016125.1137
2882002MarTay Jenkins27ARI20559128.7137
2892009Lardarius Webb24BAL35918126.7136
2902011Darren Sproles28NOR401089027.2136
2911962Larry Garron25BOS24686129.2136
2921975Vic Washington29BUF35923026.4136
2931989Herschel Walker272TM13374129.9136
2941981James Brooks23SDG40949023.7136
2951962Dick James28WAS32889027.8135
2961967John Gilliam22NOR16481131135
2971970Mel Blount22PIT18535029.7135
2981996Derrick Witherspoon25PHI531271224.5135
2992010Brandon Banks23WAS461155125.4135
3001995Qadry Ismail25MIN421037024.7134

Cribbs was able to sustain a 31.2 AY/KR average over 59 kickoff returns, which makes him a worthy selection for the top returner. MarTay Jenkins is the single-season leader in kickoff return yards (how many people knew that?!), but he’s also the single-season leader in kickoff returns.

Travis Williams took four of his 18 kickoffs back for touchdowns, including two in the first quarter against the Browns. Deion Sanders’ 1992 season checks in at number 12, while Gale Sayers has three top-115 seasons. But the king here is undoubtedly Mel Gray; in addition to a top ten season in ’94, he had two other top-60 seasons, and four more in the top 250. Does that make him the best kickoff returner ever?

As before, I’m going to utilize two different methods to create career rankings. The first is to simply sum the values produced by each returner in every season of his career. But adding the grades for each season tends to award longevity over dominance, and a really bad season can cancel out a really good season. Some might think those are good aspects of the system, but when we think of the best returners, we tend to think of them at their best. So the other formula I used was to take 100% of each kickoff returner’s best season, 90% of their second best, 80% of their third best, and so on; I also did not include any season where the kickoff returner had a below-average grade.

Under either system, Gray stands out as the champ. His raw numbers are not incredibly impressive but that’s because he played in the dead ball era of kickoff returns. For example, his career AY/KR is 1.5 yards worse than Cribbs, but he provided over 500 more yards of value over the course of his career (despite having just 14 more returns). That’s because of the era adjustment (and since Gray was so dominant for so long and almost never below average, his “sum of all seasons” grade looks to be unbreakable). Here’s how to read Gray’s line: he played from 1986 to 1997, returned 421 kickoffs for 10,250 yards and 6 touchdowns, and averaged 24.6 AY/KR. If you add his value from each season of his career, he produced 1802 yards of value over the average kickoff returner; using the 100/90/80 system, Gray produced 1235 yards of value.

RkPlayerFirst YrLast YrKRYardsTDsAY/KRSumValue
1Mel Gray1986199742110250624.618021235
2Josh Cribbs2005201340710505826.112951122
3Abe Woodson195819651935538529.11193956
4Michael Bates199320033739110524.61105919
5Brian Mitchell1990200360714014423.21102860
6Terrence McGee200320092075450526.7897820
7Tyrone Hughes199319982836999324.9960804
8Glyn Milburn199320014079788224.1954797
9Leon Washington200620132616815826.6918776
10Gale Sayers19651969912781631.5844741
11Dante Hall2000200842610136624794736
12Ron Smith196519742756922325.3802672
13Allen Rossum1998200951411947523.4660665
14Darren Sproles200520133288296225.4821646
15Percy Harvin200920131153241528.8676596
16Travis Williams196719711022801628.3618595
17Lynn Chandnois19501956922720330.1683590
18Alvin Haymond196419731704438226.3670584
19Timmy Brown196019681844781526.4656579
20Mike Nelms198019841754128023.6636579
21Justin Miller200520091523966526.6608576
22Ron Brown198519911994493422.9626567
23Joe Arenas195119571393798127.4673566
24MarTay Jenkins200020021513865225.8588563
25Ollie Matson195219661433746626.8626562
26Rod Woodson198719942204894222.4624554
27Michael Lewis200120072485989324.3593551
28Buddy Young194719551253465428.2743546
29Herschel Walker198919972155084223.8621544
30Dennis Gentry198219921924353322.9610544
31Deion Sanders198920001553523323556532
32Ellis Hobbs200520101413739326.8578527
33Bobby Jancik196219671584185026.5565523
34Jacoby Jones200720131333549427.1529512
35Tamarick Vanover199520022265422424.3542502
36Jerome Mathis20052007722054329.2482467
37Tony Horne199820001433577425.4488460
38Chris Carr200520122566276024.5476457
39Mercury Morris196919731112947327495456
40Al Carmichael195319611914798225.3511456
41Terry Metcalf197319811213087225.8480444
42Devin Hester200620132225504525.1434443
43Corey Harris199220012385528123.3472441
44Fulton Walker198119861673779122.7442440
45Jim Duncan19691971421369233.3462440
46Kevin Williams199320003227309122.7375440
47Danieal Manning200620131163103126.9465438
48Brad Smith200620131112852426.2362434
49Clarence Childs196419681343454226458427
50Ronney Jenkins200020031904550324.2444423
51Eddie Payton197719821563676223.8498422
52Joe McKnight20102012762205229.4433418
53Darrick Vaughn200020031032620426431417
54Cordarrelle Patterson20132013431393233.1416416
55Tremain Mack199820001463583224.7416412
56Speedy Duncan196419731804539025.2496412
57Quintin Demps20082013962630227.7440410
58Bobby Humphery198419891302974223.1416410
59Bobby Mitchell195819681022690527.1466408
60Stefan Logan200920121714343125.5418408
61Stump Mitchell198119881774007022.6449405
62Chad Morton200020062295401323.8410403
63Dave Hampton196919761132923326.3396395
64Dave Meggett198919982525566122.1386395
65Darrin Nelson198219921633659022.4471389
66Vic Washington197119761293341126425384
67Dick James195619651894676024.7371382
68Steve Van Buren19441950762030327.3446381
69Jon Vaughn199119941032390423.8400376
70Bruce Laird197219831523748024.7401371
71Lenny Lyles19581961812161327.2401370
72James Dixon198919911012315123.1382368
73Bethel Johnson200320061473611224.8388367
74Nate Lewis199019951693825122.7416366
75LaRod Stephens-Howling200920131644092325.2363362
76Raymond Clayborn19771979571538327.8363359
77Larry Anderson197819841894217122.4385358
78Willie Ponder200420061223064225.4374353
79Andre Coleman199419971934466423.5341343
80Sammy Martin198819911002317123.3385342
81Tim Dwight199820072034753223.6346339
82Leodis McKelvin20082012912407126.6327339
83Herb Adderley196119681203080225.9380338
84Reggie Swinton200120052084919223.8388336
85Bruce Harper197719832435407022.3382335
86Clifton Smith20082010752038127.4342331
87Chet Mutryn19461950731902126.3329329
88Vaughn Hebron199319981583802124.2339327
89Al Nelson196519731012625026342327
90Desmond Howard199220023597959022.2190323
91Jerious Norwood200620111453695025.5362323
92Noland Smith19671969822137126.2333320
93Andre' Davis200220092054821423.8296319
94Jerry Azumah200120051192885224.5309317
95Mel Renfro19641967852246226.8341316
96Eddie Drummond200220072505811223.4277314
97Cecil Turner196819731082616424.8250312
98Cullen Bryant19731984691813326.9338311
99Glen Young198319881132626023.2351308
100Terry Fair199820051112698224.6287307
101Preston Pearson196819751142801224.8282303
102Greg Pruitt197319841062514123.9293303
103Rock Cartwright200220112315450123.7219302
104Horace Ivory19781982701696124.4295302
105Carl Roaches198019851543352222306300
106Brock Marion199420011232951024290297
107Anthony Miller19881993501269226312297
108Keith Wright19781980701767025.2320295
109Walter Roberts196419691072728125.6325293
110Steve Odom197419791944451223.1303292
111Vai Sikahema198619932354933021347291
112Larry Marshall197219781383396024.6347291
113Carl Garrett196919771543704024.1269290
114Herb Mul-Key19721974541505128.1301290
115Clarence Davis19711977792140027.1341290
116Rocky Thompson19711972651768227.7301288
117Brandon Tate200920131543870225.3307287
118Tommy Wilson19561962621689127.5301287
119Billy Johnson197419841232941224.2284285
120Tim Brown19881997491235125.5269285
121Jon Arnett195719661263110224.9294284
122Sylvester Stamps19841989922079122.8274281
123James Owens197919841272801222.3281281
124Maurice Jones-Drew20062009792054226.4288279
125Steve Smith20012006982371224.5265278
126David Reed20102013631740127.9292275
127Dexter Carter199019962505412221.8298275
128Dave Grayson196119671102798125.6284275
129Abner Haynes196019671213025125.1293273
130Rich Mauti197719841252852022.8281272
131Courtney Roby200520101213007125281271
132Kevin Faulk199920091814098222.8169269
133Rick Upchurch19751979952355024.8281269
134Joe Scott19481952541467127.4298269
135Spec Sanders19461948441205228.1286269
136Wally Triplett1950195318664137.7269266
137John Gilliam19671974741884225.9261266
138Charley Warner19631966862187326284265
139Gary Ballman19631967661754126.8264264
140Larry Garron19601967892299226.2271264
141Monk Gafford19461948551469026.7289264
142Vitamin Smith19491953571453326.3231262
143Buster Rhymes19851986621558025.1265261
144David Dunn199520011984597223.4297260
145Woodley Lewis195019581373325124.4248258
146O.J. Simpson1969197233990130.5266258
147Wallace Francis19731977842077225.1237255
148Steve Broussard199019981754060123.3243255
149Charles Wilson19901994922048122.4275254
150Roy Green19791991892002122.7229251
151Johnny Knox20092011551506127.7255251
152Aaron Stecker200020091703934123.2202250
153Ike Thomas19711973511394227.9261250
154Robert Brooks19921995511237224.8255249
155Tony Smith19921994611453124.1251249
156Roell Preston199519991473427223.5228248
157Don Shy19671973812047125.5270245
158Floyd Little196719751042523024.3208243
159Jamie Holland198719911332806121.2234243
160Bobby Williams19661971771934225.5240240
161Eric Weems200820131313184124.4186240
162Tom Moore19601965711882026.5255238
163Deji Karim20102013902306125.8245236
164Eddie Saenz19461951932191223.9204236
165Eric Metcalf198920022805813220.928230
166Randy Baldwin199119961172607122.4213229
167Ken Jenkins198319861082427022.5242226
168Clarence Verdin198619942374930120.9263226
169Dave Williams19771981882019323.5243226
170Cannonball Butler196519721333131123.7187225
171Tom Watkins196119681012510024.9190224
172Duriel Harris19761981561416025.3224224
173Harold Hart19741978461236127.2233223
174Charlie West19681978852127025227223
175Brian Baschnagel19761983892102123.8230223
176Johnny Sample19591962601560126.3235222
177Jack Larscheid19601961391106028.4227222
178Alvin Hall198119871282819122.1239222
179Larry Brunson19741980872022023.2224221
180Eric Guliford19931998661660125.4224221
181Dwight Stone198720001863927121.2114221
182Kermit Alexander196319731533586023.4140220
183Chuck Latourette19681970591491025.3216220
184Leon Burton1960196030862229.7218218
185Chuck Fenenbock19431948671658125225215
186Terrence Wilkins199920062235091122.9227214
187Jacoby Ford20102013751874425.8222213
188Carver Shannon19631964461265127.8216213
189Zeke Moore19671972641618125.5222212
190Irv Cross19611967441227027.9231212
191Frank Seno19431949801916124.1218210
192Micheal Spurlock200620131072594324.7185210
193Jimmy Edwards19791979441103025.1209209
194Charlie Rogers199920032174877222.6173209
195Albert Bentley198519921493192021.4219207
196George Atkinson19681975761893024.9225207
197Eddie Brown19741979811957024.2214206
198David Wilson20122013661755126.8208206
199Richard Goodman20112012521433127.8211204
200Pacman Jones20052012802001025198204

Brad Oremland performed a similar analysis three years ago, and he came to the same conclusion: Gray is the clear choice for greatest kickoff returner ever. Honestly, there’s little to discuss; unless you think the era adjustment is inappropriate (I’m willing to hear arguments), Gray’s dominance in this metric is borderline Brown/Rice-like.

In my opinion, Cribbs has been harmed by playing at the same time as Hester (and playing for the Browns). Cribbs ranks as the 2nd best kickoff returner and the 26th best punt returner (Hester was 42nd and 1st, respectively), but he has never been revered the way Hester was during his prime.

Brian Mitchell would be a popular choice for best kickoff returner ever; he certainly has longevity on his side. But while Mitchell is the career leader in kickoff return yards by over 2,000, he also had nearly 100 more returns than any other player (that, of course, is also a sign of his greatness). The negatives? Mitchell returned just four kickoffs for touchdowns in his entire career, never led the league in yards per kickoff return, and only finished in the top four in yards per kickoff return once in his career.

Sayers would be another popular pick, but he fails for the opposite reason. With just 91 returns, it’s hard to put him over players like Cribbs and Gray. And in this case, the averages are a bit misleading: Sayers played in an extremely friendly environment, which is why his numbers “look” so much better than Gray’s. Williams, a Sayers contemporary, has pretty similar career numbers and none of the hype.  Sayers was a great returner, of course, but he wasn’t the best. That honor is reserved for Mel Gray.

Factors Adjusted Yards per Kickoff Return Does Not Incorporate

There are many variables that would go into a proper rating of a kickoff returner; here are just some of the big ones that are ignored in this system.

  • Fumbling is the worst thing a kickoff returner can do, and avoiding fumbling is an important part of being a good returner. Unfortunately, with so many kickoff returners fumbling on non-kickoff plays, it’s impossible (at least historically) to separate kickoff return fumbles from other fumbles. I’ve thrown my hands up and ignored the issue, although with the time and inclination, I could include that data for the 1999 to 2013 seasons.
  • The yards a player gains on kickoff returns are not solely attributable to him, of course. The quality of the coaching staff and the strength of his blockers play a huge part in determining how yards any given kickoff return gains. Similarly, the quality of the opponent, and stadium and weather effects, are also ignored.
  • A kickoff returner can “game” the system a bit by returning kickoffs from deep in his own end zone, failing to get to the 20, but still producing an “above-average” return.
  • To the extent opposing kickers act sub-optimally by kicking short (or even out of bounds) to avoid allowing a return, the kickoff returner is not awarded credit in my system for that value he has created. My memory is cloudy on the subject, but I believe Bears opponents have done this from time to time to avoid kicking to Hester.
  • In theory, we would exclude “returns” that come from onside kicks or intentionally short kickoffs; in practice, we are unable to do this, at least historically.
  • Sunrise089

    Is there a plan for a combined Returner post to follow?

    Also, my personal sentiment is that if the takeaway you’re leaving us with after looking at the first graph is that there is reflectively LITTLE change in return yardage over time, the graph would be better off with an origin at zero.

    • Chase Stuart

      It’s possible, although I’m not sure how much interest there would be. Perhaps as part of a Mel Gray biography I can include that info 🙂

      I understand your point about a zero origin, but I decided against it. To me, a zero origin is kind of silly when talking about kickoff return averages. On the other hand, I agree that my scale could lead one to think that there is a lot of volatility, hence the lead-in language.

  • When you mentioned this on Twitter, the gaming the system point jumped to my mind. My wife is (unfortunately) a Redskins fan, and I remember her loudly lamenting the fact that Brandon Banks seemed to always take a kick from 8 yards deep and return it to the 18. The numbers look good in a vacuum, but they obviously hurt his team..and he is no longer returning kicks in the NFL.

    Is there a database somewhere that has information on kicks returned past the 20? I think some sort of value-over-touchback metric would help understand the value a returner provided to his team.

    • Chase Stuart

      One could parse this together using play-by-play data, but I’m not aware of any database that makes this readily available. The other part is a returner who catches the ball at the 10 presumably faces defenders who are closer to him, so a 20-yard return starting at the 10 might be “above average.” OTOH, if we just give him credit for taking the ball back to the 30, that’s probably giving him too much credit. Seeing as how the returner has little control over this, I suspect it’s an issue that is washed away pretty quickly once sample size increases.

      • Parsing play by play data doesn’t sound like the most fun day at the office. I’ve been doing it with playoff sacks for QBs, and it really isn’t fun.

        • Richie

          I’d rather parse play-by-play data than work on these TPS reports all day.

  • Richie

    I did not know MarTay Jenkins was the single-season yardage leader. But I’m not sure I could have even come close to guessing how many yards he had – or how many yards the average season-leader gains. I just know so little about kickoff (and punt) return stats. Why aren’t these accomplishments celebrated a little more? Is there some assumption that a kick return yard does not equal a rushing yard?

    • Kibbles

      Here’s some thoughts from a weirdo who actually loves returners and spends a lot of time thinking about them.

      I’m one of the few people on the planet who DID know that MarTay Jenkins held the single-season record, and while I didn’t know the exact number, I did know he was the only guy to top 2,000 yards on kickoffs alone. I also knew that Cribbs had more combined return yardage in his 2007 season, though I’d forgotten that it was actually Michael Lewis (the former beer truck driver, not the Moneyball author) who held the record for total return yardage. Lewis was one of the rare returners who managed to lead the league in punt return yardage *AND* kickoff return yardage at some point during his career (I checked the big name dual-threat returners, and Hester is the only other big-name dual threat returner to pull off the feat, getting the kickoff yardage title just this past season), and Lewis actually managed to pull off both in the same season. I was not only aware that Sproles set the single-season all-purpose yardage record in his first season with the Saints, I also knew whose record he broke (Derrick Mason’s, from his superb 2000 season). I know that the Buffalo Bills are to returners what the Denver Broncos once were to Running Backs (Terrance McGee and Roscoe Parrish are already among the best kick returners and punt returners in history, and Leodis McKelvin will almost certainly join them if his regular defensive duties don’t hold him back). I know that Gray and Upchurch share the title for most 1st team AP All Pro awards as a returner (3 each). I’ve long argued that if the Hall of Fame really wanted to elect a player to represent special teams, it needed to abandon this Ray Guy nonsense (or, even worse, this symbolic Steve Tasker / Everyman lunacy) and start taking a much longer look at Upchurch, Gray, and “White Shoes” Johnson, who for my money are the three standard-bearers of the position and who all provided substantially more value to their team over the course of their careers. I’m biased towards Upchurch (who was the most effective of the trio on offense in addition to his elite return value), but I’d be ecstatic to see any one of the trio get even cursory consideration instead of the trendy kickers and punters that always get brought up.

      I think there are several reasons why returners don’t get much respect. First, they don’t score a lot of touchdowns. This isn’t their fault- nobody in the league gets their average touch further from the end zone (and kickoff returners start even further than punt returners). Touchdowns, however, are dramatically overweighted by the casual football-watching public. Touchdowns are the reason why everyone prefers Hester over Cribbs. Touchdowns are the reason why everyone thinks Sayers was the greatest of all time. Touchdowns are the reason why people better remember Desmond Howard than Michael Bates, who made five straight pro bowls (an unprecedented feat for a returner) and was the 1st team returner on the ’90s “Team of the Decade” (over Howard and Gray). It’s why “White Shoes” Johnson and famous end zone celebrations are a part of football lore, while Upchurch is a footnote. It’s not a returner-specific phenomenon, either (see also: Woodson over Revis for 2009 DPoY). Big plays make highlight reels, highlight reels create opinions.

      Second, a lot of return yardage gets dismissed with the idea that anyone could do it- a misconception not helped by the fact that most of the guys responsible for tackling the returner are undrafted rookies and no-names who will likely be out of the league within 2-years. The thinking remains that returns are the domain of backups and players who aren’t too valuable offensively or defensively to “risk”. And to some extent, it’s true. Even terrible kickoff returners can get nearly 20 yards every single time they touch the ball. There are a lot of “easy yards” in the return game, and the baseline needs to be adjusted appropriately. And the yards gained are arguably less valuable, since they come further away from the end zone (and the value of each yard increases with proximity to the end zone). Still, a top returner can add as much as 5-10 yards every drive, and those yards are quite valuable. That’s why I say that the top returners added more value to their franchises than the likes of Ray Guy or Morten Anderson.

      The third reason I suspect that returners are ignored traces back to fantasy football. Returners were ignored before fantasy football existed, but fantasy football has done wonders to focus attention on otherwise anonymous players and positions. I’d venture that the average NFL fan could name a lot more placekickers than punters, simply because their fantasy leagues have a starting placekicker and do not include a starting punter. They can name at least a dozen tight ends, but I think they’d be hard-pressed to name 10 offensive linemen who don’t play for their favorite team (despite there being a lot more roster spots, starting spots, and pro bowl spots devoted to linemen than TEs). If standard fantasy scoring awarded points for return yards, people would know a lot more about returners. If typical fantasy leagues included a “returner” position in the starting lineup, I have no doubt that many more people would be able to speak intelligently about who the best returners in the NFL were.

      As it is, returner stats remain the realm of trivia, minutia, and discussion fodder for the kinds of nerds who run websites devoted entirely to an examination of football statistics, or who spend huge chunks of time typing up pages in the comments section of such websites.

      • Richie

        Good stuff, Kibbles. As a side note, one of my fantasy football leagues actually awards points for return yards. However, we don’t have a “returner” position. Maybe it’s something for us to look into.

      • Chase Stuart

        Thanks, Kibbles. Excellent comment!

  • Great work here, Chase. I chose Cordarrelle Patterson as my All-Pro returner this year, but I hadn’t realized how well his numbers stacked up historically.

  • Anthony

    My uncle Travis Williams average 40.04 yards a return which is a NFL record. Thanks for mentioning his name among NFL greats.

  • Clint Mayo

    I understand that Mel Gray played in an era where there were few good kick returners, but how does that make him better than Cribbs? Comparatively, there may be a case to say that he was better in his era than Cribbs was in his own era, but overall, how does that affect the numbers?

  • William B. Senter

    I’ll still take Lynn Chandnois over any of these young guys today. Lynn was a excellent kickoff returner and he was the full time right halfback for the Steelers during his playing career as well as a great receiver. His big plays lead to a number of Steeler wins. And the only man to pass him has been the great Gale Sayers. Look at the averages of the returners today, and you will see what I mean.

  • JT Fangio

    What about Al Carmichael of the Green Bay Packers? From 53-58 he was a Human Highlight on kick returns.
    His return of 106 yds vs the Bears on 10/07/56, though equaled twice, stood for 52 years. He must have been pretty damn good, because he’s in the Packer Hall of Fame.

  • William B. Senter

    Dear Mr. Chase your records look great but they won’t change things from the way they are. The NFL takes total KOR yards and divides them by the number that were returned. This figure is the one they use, the NFL isn’t going to try all of your figuring around just to see who the Kickoff Return leader is. They aren’t accountants and don’t want to have to hire any just to figure their stats every week. So until one of these miracle men can best Lynn Chandnois’s 29.6 or Gale Sayers’s 30.6 these two will stay at the top.

  • Robbie Cordo

    Gale Sayers gets my vote (I am a Packer fan!). He was a running back BUT averaged 7% TD per KO return!