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The Best Punt Returners in NFL History

Six years ago, I wrote a series of posts looking at the best returners in NFL history. Today, I want to update that list by examining the best punt returners in NFL history. As with most statistics, yards per punt return has fluctuated throughout most of NFL history. The graph below shows the average in this metric from 1941 through 2013:

y pr

I’m not quite sure why the average was so high in the ’40s, but I believe the dropoff in 1952 came when the NFL started recording fair catches in the denominator (I’m not sure when that stopped, either). Regardless of the reason, it’s clear that we need to adjust punt return averages for era. So here’s what I did:

1) Assign 15 yards for every punt return touchdown.1

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

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

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

There are lots of drawbacks to this method — and I mention some of them at the end of this post — but I think it’s an improvement over the current ways in which we measure punt returners.

Let’s apply this formula to the 2013 season. The top punt returner by this metric was Dexter McCluster, who returned 58 punts for 686 yards and 2 touchdowns, numbers which led the league on all counts. That means McCluster averaged 12.3 Adjusted Yards per Punt Return; since the league average in 2013 was 9.6 AY/PR, that means McCluster produced 161 extra yards of value (had the AP selected an All-Pro punt returner, McCluster would have been the likely pick). The table below shows the amount of value added by every punt return 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.

RkPlayerAgeTmPRYardsTDsAY/PRVALUE
1Dexter McCluster24KAN58686212.3161
2Tandon Doss24BAL23359116.3154
3Marcus Sherels26MIN22335115.9139
4Antonio Brown25PIT32409113.3118
5Jeremy Ross252TM17263116.4115
6Devin Hester31CHI18256115.199
7Golden Tate25SEA51585011.597
8Micah Hyde23GNB2429611381
9Dwayne Harris26DAL20256113.680
10Ted Ginn Jr.28CAR26316012.267
11Travis Benjamin24CLE22257112.461
12Jacoby Jones29BAL19237012.555
13Julian Edelman27NWE35374010.739
14Jordan Poyer222TM8114014.337
15LaMichael James24SFO23251010.931
16Eric Page22TAM23251010.931
17Griff Whalen23IND810401327
18Leon Washington312TM67801321
19Josh Cribbs30NYJ89601219
20Austin Pettis25STL237018.518
21Robert McClain25ATL19193010.211
22Skye Dawson23TAM1170177
23Danny Amendola28NWE1130133
24Lardarius Webb28BAL1130133
25Alterraun Verner25TEN1110111
26Darius Butler27IND1909-1
27Chad Hall27KAN1909-1
28LaVon Brazill24IND32508.3-4
29T.Y. Hilton24IND1715909.4-4
30Jim Leonhard31BUF76309-4
31Ryan Broyles25DET1404-6
32Randall Cobb23GNB32307.7-6
33Justin Veltung22STL76108.7-6
34Eric Decker26DEN1202-8
35Greg Jenkins24OAK64908.2-8
36Brandon Tate26CIN3633609.3-9
37Jacoby Ford26OAK97708.6-9
38Chris Rainey25IND42907.3-9
39Jeremy Kerley25NYJ1311508.8-9
40Robert Alford25ATL1000-10
41Javier Arenas26ARI1000-10
42Richie Brockel27CAR1000-10
43Travaris Cadet24NOR1000-10
44Tony Carter27DEN1000-10
45Drayton Florence33CAR1000-10
46Charles James23NYG1000-10
47John Kuhn31GNB1000-10
48Brandon LaFell27CAR1000-10
49Trumaine McBride28NYG1000-10
50Jerome Murphy26WAS1000-10
51Chase Reynolds26STL1000-10
52Josh Thomas24CAR1000-10
53Nick Williams23WAS1000-10
54Usama Young28OAK1000-10
55Armanti Edwards252TM42807-10
56Jack Crawford25OAK1-10-1-11
57Micheal Spurlock302TM2320709-13
58Keshawn Martin23HOU3934519.2-13
59Shiloh Keo26HOU31505-14
60Damaris Johnson24PHI1210008.3-15
61Devon Wylie255TM2402-15
62Richard Sherman25SEA1-60-6-16
63Pacman Jones30CIN118808-17
64Phillip Adams25OAK85907.4-18
65Josh Morgan28WAS85907.4-18
66Keenan Allen21SDG1512508.3-19
67Lance Moore30NOR2000-19
68Davone Bess28CLE41904.8-19
69Jayron Hosley23NYG3903-20
70Trindon Holliday27DEN3227118.9-20
71Tavon Austin22STL3328018.9-21
72Kyle Wilson26NYJ41303.3-25
73Wes Welker32DEN107007-26
74Eddie Royal27SDG74105.9-26
75Damian Williams25TEN41203-26
76Cole Beasley24DAL106806.8-28
77Chris Thompson23WAS73605.1-31
78Darius Reynaud292TM1813507.5-37
79Harry Douglas29ATL105705.7-39
80Rueben Randle22NYG2923708.2-41
81Santana Moss34WAS1813007.2-42
82Will Blackmon29JAX5200.4-46
83Kyle Williams252TM126105.1-54
84Marcus Thigpen27MIA3426407.8-62
85DeSean Jackson27PHI147105.1-63
86Darren Sproles30NOR2919406.7-84
87Ace Sanders22JAX2514005.6-99
88Patrick Peterson23ARI3319806-118
89Leodis McKelvin28BUF3218005.6-126

For McCluster, much of his value was the result of high volume, although maintaining above-average play over 58 punt returns is very impressive. Jeremy Ross, Tandon Doss, Marcus Sherels, and Devin Hester all averaged at least 15 AY/PR over 15+ carries, which puts them in the discussion for best punt returners of the year. And Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown, in addition to being the number one receiver, was also the fourth-best punt returner. That’s a pretty good year.

The two names at the bottom of the list are interesting ones. The punt returner who added the least value in 2013 was Leodis McKelvin, who gained just 180 yards on 32 punt returns, providing -126 yards of value. That’s pretty incredible, because McKelvin ranked as the number one punt returner in the NFL in 2012 according to this metric. The number one punt returner in 2011 was Patrick Peterson, and that was a season for the ages. But in 2013, Peterson graded as the second worst punt returner, picking up only 198 yards on 33 returns.

Let’s take a look at the 200 best punt return seasons in football history using this metric.  As you can see, Peterson’s 2011 season ranks as the third best ever:

RkPlayerYearAgeTmPRYardsTDsAY/PRVALUE
1Desmond Howard199626GNB58875315.9330
2Devin Hester200725CHI42651416.9321
3Patrick Peterson201121ARI44699417.3312
4Devin Hester201028CHI33564318.5288
5Billy Johnson197523HOU40612316.4287
6J.T. Smith198025KAN40581215.3276
7Rodger Bird196724OAK46612013.3273
8LeRoy Irvin198124RAM46615314.3260
9Billy Grimes195023GNB29555220.2258
10Billy Johnson197725HOU35539216.3256
11Jermaine Lewis200026BAL36578216.9244
12Rick Upchurch197624DEN39536415.3238
13Leodis McKelvin201227BUF23431220233
14Speedy Duncan196523SDG30464216.5233
15Brian Mitchell199123WAS45600214232
16George Atkinson196821OAK36490214.4231
17Dick Christy196126NYT18383222.9230
18Devin Hester200624CHI47600313.7227
19Mike Haynes197623NWE45608214.2225
20DeSean Jackson200923PHI29441216.2222
21Bob Hayes196826DAL15312222.8222
22Eddie Brown197624WAS48646113.8220
23Dante Hall200325KAN29472217.3219
24Pat Studstill196224DET29457015.8218
25Michael Lewis200231NOR44625114.5216
26Jack Christiansen195123DET18343422.4214
27Rick Upchurch197725DEN51653113.1212
28Neal Colzie197521OAK48655013.6211
29Louis Lipps198422PIT53656112.7210
30John Taylor198826SFO44556213.3209
31Alvin Haymond196927RAM33435013.2206
32Roscoe Parrish200725BUF27440116.9205
33Irving Fryar198523NWE37520214.9204
34Rick Upchurch197826DEN36493114.1203
35Santana Moss200223NYJ25413217.7202
36Devin Hester201129CHI28454217.3199
37Ollie Matson195525CRD13245221.2198
38Johnnie Lee Higgins200825OAK44570314198
39J.T. Smith197924KAN58612211.1194
40Bruce Taylor197022SFO43516012194
41Jack Christiansen195224DET15322223.5193
42Lemar Parrish197427CIN18338220.4190
43Tyrone Hughes199323NOR37503214.4190
44Brian Mitchell199426WAS32452215.1189
45Lynn Swann197422PIT41577114.4186
46Darrien Gordon199626SDG36537115.3186
47Darrien Gordon199727DEN40543314.7186
48Jermaine Lewis199723BAL28437216.7185
49Pacman Jones200623TEN34440314.3182
50Az-Zahir Hakim200023STL32489115.8181
51Woodley Lewis195227RAM19351220.1180
52Allen Rossum200328ATL39545114.4179
53Mel Gray199130DET25385116179
54Jackie Wallace197827RAM52618011.9178
55Veryl Switzer195422GNB24306113.4178
56Dave Meggett198923NYG46582113177
57Emlen Tunnell195127NYG34489315.7176
58Vai Sikahema198624STL43522212.8175
59Darrien Gordon199424SDG36475214175
60Greg Pruitt198332RAI58666111.7173
61Henry Ellard198423RAM30403214.4172
62Mack Herron197426NWE35517014.8171
63Henry Ellard198524RAM37501113.9170
64Bert Zagers195724WAS14217217.6170
65Tamarick Vanover199925KAN51627212.9170
66Phillip Buchanon200323OAK36491214.5170
67Speedy Duncan196725SDG36434012.1169
68Walter Stanley198927DET36496013.8167
69Floyd Little196725DEN16270117.8167
70Mike Martin198424CIN24376015.7167
71Kelvin Martin199227DAL42532213.4167
72Jacquez Green199822TAM30453115.6162
73Derrick Mason200026TEN51662113.3162
74Ron Smith197330SDG27352214.1161
75Dexter McCluster201324KAN58686212.3161
76Deion Sanders199831DAL24375216.9160
77Eric Metcalf199325CLE36464213.7160
78Desmond Howard200030DET31457115.2159
79Jimmy Williams200223SFO20336117.6158
80Eddie Kennison199623STL29423215.6158
81Patrick Crayton200930DAL36437213158
82Vai Sikahema198725STL44550112.8158
83Rex Bumgardner194825BUF16336222.9157
84Red Cochran194927CRD15314222.9157
85Karl Williams199625TAM13274122.2157
86Dick Christy196227NYT15250218.7157
87Troy Brown200130NWE29413215.3156
88Dennis Northcutt200225CLE25367215.9156
89Herb Rich195022BAL12276124.3156
90Jerry Davis194824CRD16334222.8155
91Tandon Doss201324BAL23359116.3154
92Ray Mathews195223PIT26397216.4152
93Allen Rossum200429ATL37457112.8152
94Dwayne Harris201225DAL22354116.8151
95Jeff Fisher198123CHI43509112.2150
96Karl Williams199726TAM46597113.3149
97Rick Upchurch198230DEN15242218.1148
98Travis Williams196923GNB8189125.5148
99Leroy Kelly196523CLE17265217.4147
100Jeff Ogden200025MIA19323117.8146
101Amani Toomer199622NYG18298218.2145
102Dana McLemore198424SFO45521111.9144
103Claude Gibson196425OAK29419014.4144
104Craig Yeast199923CIN10209223.9143
105Lem Barney196924DET9191122.9143
106Johnny Williams195225WAS24366216.5142
107Josh Cribbs200724CLE30405114142
108Vai Sikahema199230PHI40503113142
109Brian Westbrook200324PHI20306216.8141
110Josh Cribbs200926CLE38452112.3141
111Noland Smith196825KAN18270115.8141
112Dante Hall200224KAN29390214.5140
113Marcus Sherels201326MIN22335115.9139
114Bruce Harper197823NYJ30378113.1139
115Ed Podolak197023KAN23311013.5139
116Brian Mitchell200234PHI46567112.7138
117Eddie Drummond200424DET24316214.4138
118Roscoe Parrish200826BUF21322116138
119Bobby Joe Edmonds198622SEA34419112.8136
120Chuck Latourette196823STL28345112.9135
121Ron Gardin197026BAL28330112.3135
122Nate Burleson200726SEA58658111.6135
123Travis Benjamin201223CLE3149154.7134
124Darius Reynaud201228TEN31410214.2133
125Mike Fuller197623SDG33436013.2133
126Antwaan Randle El200324PIT45542212.7133
127Julian Edelman201024NWE21321116132
128Reggie Barlow199825JAX43555113.3131
129Clarence Verdin199027IND31396012.8131
130Mike Nelms198126WAS45492211.6131
131Darrien Gordon200131ATL31437014.1131
132Louis Lipps198523PIT36437213130
133Quan Cosby200927CIN40474011.9130
134B.J. Sams200525BAL33401012.2130
135Mel Gray198726NOR24352014.7130
136Mel Renfro196423DAL32418113.5129
137B.J. Sams200424BAL55575211129
138Ken Ellis197225GNB14215116.4128
139Tom Casey194824NYY9229127.1127
140Reggie Bush200823NOR20270315.8126
141Domenik Hixon200925NYG17256115.9125
142Troy Brown200029NWE39504113.3125
143Dante Hall200729STL19286115.8125
144Mike Fuller197724SDG28360113.4125
145Jo-Jo Townsell198828NYJ35409112.1124
146Charlie Rogers199923SEA22318115.1123
147Reggie Swinton200126DAL31414113.8123
148Rickie Harris196522WAS31377112.6122
149Clifton Smith200823TAM23324114.7121
150Bobby Jancik196424HOU12220119.6121
151Leon Johnson199723NYJ51619112.4121
152Bruce Harper197722NYJ34425012.5121
153Speedy Duncan196624SDG18238114.1121
154Bill Thompson197327DEN30366012.2120
155Dennis Northcutt200427CLE36432012120
156Tim Brown199428RAI40487012.2120
157Buddy Young195125NYY12231120.5120
158Bill Baird196324NYJ4143139.5119
159Lionel James198725SDG32400113119
160Jon Arnett195823RAM18223012.4119
161Hank Poteat200023PIT36467113.4118
162Dick Jauron197424DET17286016.8118
163Antonio Brown201325PIT32409113.3118
164Antwaan Randle El200526PIT44448210.9117
165Tom Watkins196427DET16238216.8116
166Jim Bertelsen197222RAM16232014.5116
167Billy Stacy195923CRD29281210.7115
168Jeremy Ross2013252TM17263116.4115
169Gerald Willhite198627DEN42468111.5115
170Dave Meggett199428NYG26323213.6115
171Manfred Moore197424SFO5149132.8115
172Bob Hayes196725DAL24276112.1114
173Jeff Groth198124NOR37436011.8114
174Dave Meggett199024NYG43467111.2114
175Bill Thompson196923DEN25288011.5114
176Dennis Morgan197422DAL19287115.9114
177Gale Sayers196522CHI16238115.8114
178Deltha O'Neal200124DEN31405113.5114
179Dana McLemore198222SFO7156124.4113
180Johnny Robinson196022DTX14207115.9113
181Jacoby Jones200824HOU32386213113
182Willie Wood196125GNB14225218.2112
183Fulton Walker1985272TM62692011.2112
184Billy Johnson197422HOU30409013.6112
185Desmond Howard199828OAK45541212.7112
186David Palmer199523MIN26342113.7112
187Ben Davis196722CLE18229113.6111
188Ken Konz195628CLE13187115.5111
189Lamont Brightful200223BAL15241117.1111
190Dexter Carter199326SFO34411112.5111
191Julian Edelman201226NWE17263116.4110
192Charlie Trippi195331CRD21239011.4109
193Tim Brown199327RAI40465112109
194Robert Bailey199426RAM11031118109
195Joe Scudero195525WAS25241110.2109
196Jermaine Lewis199824BAL32405213.6109
197Doak Walker195427DET4117133108
198George McAfee194123CHI5158134.6108
199Darrien Gordon199323SDG31395012.7107
200Frank Bernardi195623CRD18217112.9107

Desmond Howard’s 1996 season was incredible. His record 875 punt return yards will be tough to beat: he played for the best team in the league, and the Packers defense gave him 58 punts to return. To break that record, a punt returner will almost have to play for a team with a great defense, as it’s going to be hard to do much better than Howard’s 15.1 yards per punt return average. Then, in the playoffs, Howard continued his dominant return ways. He scored the first touchdown of the game against the 49ers via a punt return, and added a 99-yard kickoff return in the Super Bowl, which led to him capturing MVP honors. Also of note: Football Perspective favorite Pat Studstill’s 1962 season cracks the top 25.

The final step in this process is to convert these ratings into a career grade. The simplest thing to do would be to sum the values produced by each returner in every season of their career. I did that, and I’ve included that result in the table below, but I also included another measure that I think works better. Adding the grades for each season tends to award longevity over dominance, and a really bad season cancels 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 formula I used was to take 100% of each punt 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 punt returner had a below-average grade.

Using this formula, Devin Hester grades as the best punt returner ever. Here’s how to read his line: His first year returning punts was in 2006, and his last was in 2013; for his career, he has returned 264 punts for 3,241 yards and 13 touchdowns, giving him a 13.0 AY/PR average. If you sum his values from every season, you get a total of 945, but by my preferred measure, he comes out with a value of 961, making him the best punt returner ever.

RkPlayerFirst YrLast YrPRYardsTDsAY/PRSumValue
1Devin Hester2006201326432411313945961
2Rick Upchurch197519832483008812.6981792
3Billy Johnson197419882823317612.1865770
4Brian Mitchell199020034634999911.1680760
5Darrien Gordon199320023143601611.8620665
6Desmond Howard199220022442895812.4585633
7Speedy Duncan196419742022201411.2701631
8Jermaine Lewis199620042953282611.4479587
9J.T. Smith197819902672764410.6557559
10Vai Sikahema198619932923169411.1604537
11Jack Christiansen19511957851084814.2540512
12Dave Meggett198919983493708710.9531486
13Dante Hall200020082162261610.9366481
14Mike Fuller197519822522660210.7526473
15Mel Gray198719972522753311.1476472
16Roscoe Parrish200520121651920311.9445463
17Allen Rossum199820093073056310.1227442
18Bill Thompson196919781571814011.6547425
19Dick Christy1958196367905414.4409422
20Bob Hayes196519741041158311.6412404
21Henry Ellard198319931351527411.8379403
22Eric Metcalf1991200235134531010.3214397
23Tim Brown198820043263320310.3372396
24Dennis Northcutt200020092552592310.3298394
25Deion Sanders198920042122199610.8280390
26Josh Cribbs200520132032250311.3371385
27Alvin Haymond19641973253214818.5237367
28Dana McLemore198219871521598410.9300367
29Irving Fryar198419912062055310.2275357
30Claude Gibson196119651101381313402353
31Rodger Bird19661968941063011.3365351
32Troy Brown199320072522625310.6252351
33LeRoy Irvin198019891471457410.3260332
34Louis Lipps198419921121234311.4272327
35Karl Williams199620042552565510.4168326
36Clarence Verdin19881994178165049.6110326
37Santana Moss200120131301398311.1235323
38Leodis McKelvin2008201371817312.1169320
39Neal Colzie197519811701759010.3237313
40Patrick Peterson201120131281323410.8115312
41Leroy Kelly1964197394990311312310
42Pacman Jones200520131281296510.7200307
43Greg Pruitt197319841942007110.4312300
44Michael Lewis20012007186181819.9100295
45Julian Edelman200920131071321312.8322290
46John Taylor198719951491517210.4232289
47Kelvin Martin198719962612567310194286
48B.J. Sams200420081281378211299285
49Az-Zahir Hakim199920051651773311255285
50Floyd Little1967197481893211.4300284
51Bruce Taylor19701976142132309.3210284
52Mike Haynes197619851121168210.7209283
53Bruce Harper19771982183178419.8258281
54Jake Scott197019761301357110.6318279
55Freddie Solomon19751983177161449.5145278
56Woodley Lewis19501958138102637.8152275
57Tamarick Vanover199520021972016410.5153273
58Emlen Tunnell19481959258220958.911271
59DeSean Jackson200820131311294410.3120268
60Jacoby Jones200720132352398410.5214268
61Lemar Parrish19701978131120549.7168267
62Charlie Trippi1947195463864214.2275264
63Ted Ginn Jr.200720131561741311.4269263
64Billy Grimes1949195268901213.7183262
65George Atkinson19681975148124738.7136259
66Bert Zagers1955195828383315.3269259
67Ray Mathews1951195961779313.5267257
68Bobby Joe Edmonds198619951341471111.1283254
69Willie Wood19601971187139127.6-139254
70Lem Barney19671976143131229.4195250
71Ollie Matson195219646559539.8192246
72Antwaan Randle El20022010311255758.5-203246
73Dexter McCluster2010201379959312.7242246
74Walter Stanley19851992175161919.355244
75Wes Welker20042013251248709.9233243
76Ron Smith19651974235178827.7-42241
77Jo-Jo Townsell198519901271360210.9256239
78Tom Watkins1962196896970310.6158234
79Reggie Barlow199720031581639210.695231
80Mack Herron1973197584982011.7211225
81Eddie Brown19741979172151118.940224
82Bobby Mitchell1958196869699310.8206223
83Dwayne Harris2011201357690212.6158223
84Eddie Kennison199620071531528310.355222
85Rickie Harris19651972128102938.484222
86Pat Studstill1961196559716012.1191222
87Bill Dudley194219531241515312.6113220
88Eddie Royal200820131001072211161220
89Eddie Drummond20022007140128049.682220
90Rod Woodson19871999260236229.246216
91Phillip Buchanon20022010120107639.318215
92Charlie Rogers199920031201248110.587213
93Reggie Swinton200120051321311210.2134212
94David Palmer199420001621610210.152211
95Jon Arnett1957196612098118.384211
96Paul Johns1981198474843211.8237209
97Mike Nelms19801984212194829.3162208
98Keith Moody1976197988920311230208
99Jim Bertelsen1972197674821011.1189207
100Mike Martin19831989140138109.9119204
101Jeff Ogden1999200257749113.4198202
102Robbie Martin19811986175167039.8177202
103Buddy Young1947195567698210.966201
104Hugh McElhenny1952196412692027.5-1201
105Stanley Morgan1977198192960110.6207201
106Johnnie Lee Higgins2007201011597338.9-41198
107Johnny Williams1952195342538213.5203197
108R.W. McQuarters19982008227202039.1-77196
109Glyn Milburn19932001304298419.938196
110Nate Burleson200320091561523310.1174195
111Lynn Swann1974197961739112.4168193
112Veryl Switzer1954195548464110194193
113Johnny Bailey19901995148142029.8118192
114Gale Sayers1965196827391215.6200190
115Tyrone Hughes19931998162141128.9-128190
116Travis Benjamin2012201325406217.4196190
117Leo Lewis19831991201186819.4111188
118Terry Metcalf1974198184936111.3165187
119Jacquez Green1998200272832212152185
120Red Cochran1947194933583218.6189184
121Derrick Mason19972004182159028.9-161180
122Darius Reynaud2009201310298521055178
123Brian Westbrook2003200739498213.5168178
124Jackie Wallace1974197883852010.3109178
125Ron Gardin1970197134419112.8182177
126Ken Konz195319596855618.4151177
127Noland Smith1967196963635110.3182176
128Carl Taseff1951196211785027.5107175
129Jeremy Ross2012201321366118.1179172
130George McAfee19411950112143121370170
131Carl Garrett1969197243487011.3176169
132Tandon Doss2012201327412115.8167166
133Bill Butler1959196488850210124166
134Lionel James19841988124119329.9113165
135Abe Woodson1958196512395628-68165
136Mark Jones20042009159148309.386165
137Jon Staggers197019749479238.982165
138Gerald Willhite198219881011012110.2138163
139Tommy Vigorito1981198579830210.9168163
140Patrick Crayton20042011135129129.8101162
141Abner Haynes1960196785875110.5157161
142Ernie Steele1942194855809014.7135161
143Johnny Roland196619714945229.8123161
144Al Carmichael1953196112291207.5117160
145Jimmy Williams200220069381718.9-24158
146Rex Bumgardner1948195224395217.7124157
147Micheal Spurlock200720138178021026157
148Jerry Davis1948195225398217.1120157
149Herb Rich1950195414281121.1144156
150Ray McLean1941194742622215.5143155

These results seem pretty reasonable to me. Players like Deion Sanders and Gale Sayers were great return men, but don’t rank high on the list for legitimate reasons. With Deion, he was the ultimate high risk/high reward punt returner: his 6 punt return touchdowns is impressive, but he seemed to be shooting for a touchdown or bust on every play. As a result, his average AY/PR is not all that impressive, and he only had one top-200 season (1998). For Sayers, he was more kickoff returner than punt returner, as he only returned 27 punts in his career. I’ll let you guys provide your thoughts on the rest of the list, but I’ll close with some flaws in the methodology.

Factors Adjusted Yards per Punt Return Does Not Incorporate

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

  • Fumbling is the worst thing a punt returner can do, and avoiding fumbling is an important part of being a good returner. Unfortunately, with so many punt returners fumbling on non-punt plays, it’s impossible (at least historically) to separate punt 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 punt 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 punt return gains. Similarly, the quality of the opponent and the opposing punter is a factor that is ignored here as well.
  • A punt returner can “game” the system a bit by being a bit too anxious to call for a fair catch. Similarly, a punt returner who rarely calls fair catches — and instead picks up 3-5 yards — is adding value, but is hurt by this formula.
  • To the extent punters act sub-optimally by punting out of bounds to avoid allowing a return, the punt returner is not awarded credit in my system for that value he has created.
  1. Why 15 yards? That’s a good question. Generally, we credit a player with 20 yards for every touchdown, but special teams touchdowns are less valuable than offensive touchdowns. That’s because a touchdown on 2nd-and-goal is more valuable than a special teams touchdown; if the 2nd-and-goal play is stopped at the 1, the team’s expected value on that possession is lower than the team’s expected value if the punt return is stopped at the 1, because in the latter case, the team still has four downs. In fact, the difference between a 50-yard punt return to the 1 and a 51-yard punt return is pretty small. I thought about giving only 10 yards for every punt return touchdown, but there’s another thing to consider: all punt return yards are devalued for the same reason. The average punt return yard is less valuable than the average yard gained on a play from scrimmage because there’s no possibility that the marginal punt return yard picked up a first down. As a result, I settled on 15, although as you can clearly see, this was just a “this feels right” solution. []
{ 8 comments }
  • James March 17, 2014, 7:49 am

    Ideally I’d also like the baseline league average to be smoothed a bit, as I really doubt the punting environment changed that much every other year throughout the 80s. In general that will average out but it does mean a career year in 1986 has a significantly different value than 1985, but the year-to-year variation is so large pre-1980 I don’t know how best to handle that and be consistent/fair to everyone.

    Reply
  • Andrew Healy March 17, 2014, 7:20 pm

    Great stuff, as always. And it always makes the day a little better to take a few minutes to think about White Shoes. Maybe one day we’ll have a good stat to capture the awesomeness of endzone dances (only needed to capture the past, unfortunately).

    Also I’d forgotten how good Dave Meggett was. Interesting that he ranks so highly.

    Reply
  • Richie March 18, 2014, 1:41 pm

    Punt Returner seems to be a bit of a transient position. It seems like a lot of teams change their punt returners often, and punt returners don’t keep their jobs long.

    It looks like a “full time” punt returner might expect to return about 25 punts in a season? If that’s a good baseline, how many guys get 5+ seasons with 25+ punt returns?

    It’s so weird how the NFL has certain stats/positions that basically get ignored. Most fans have a good intuitive idea what 4,000 passing yards means. What 1,000 rushing yards means. What 10 sacks means, etc. But even though I have been watching football for 30 years, and even look at stats more than others, I still really have no idea what good punt return yardages are. Or kick return yardages. Or number of returns, etc.

    Reply
    • Kibbles March 19, 2014, 11:42 am

      Returner in general is the position that has the shortest peak. Very, very few elite returners manage to remain elite for more than 2-3 seasons. See: Hall, Dante. I don’t know if it exacts a big physical toll, or if it’s the most reliant position on raw physical tools (so that losing even a quarter step can be devastating), or if it’s just a function of small sample sizes causing a lot of year-to-year variance and impatient coaches not keeping an underperforming returner around long enough to turn it around. Either way, the record for most 1st-team AP All Pro honors for a returner is just 3, a dramatically smaller number than any other position except for the kicking specialists.

      That’s what makes the guys like Upchurch and Hester so special, because they manage to defy the odds. I’d also wager that Upchurch and Hester contributed more value to their franchises than any kicker or punter in history, so if the Hall of Fame really wants to elect a special teamer, it should have given up this “Ray Guy” crusade (or the even worse Steve Tasker nonsense) and taken a longer look at Upchurch, Mel J. Gray, White Shoes, or Brian Mitchell.

      Reply
  • Brad O. March 31, 2014, 3:34 am

    I used a method very much like this for my column three years ago on The Best Kick Returners in NFL History, and came to largely the same conclusions. I think Hester is pretty clearly the best PR in history at this point, but I believe this method undervalues players like Jack Christiansen, who had fewer return opportunities.

    What’s really stunning, I think, is how dominant Mel Gray looks when you apply this system to kickoff returns. I never thought of Gray as a Hall of Famer, but he has a really strong case when you examine the numbers.

    Reply
    • Chase Stuart March 31, 2014, 8:41 am

      Kick returner post coming this week, and yes, Gray was really outstanding. His numbers benefit significantly from the era adjustment, which nobody would ever think about for returners.

      Reply
    • Kibbles April 3, 2014, 3:34 pm

      Wow, thanks for providing that link, that was an exceptionally good read.

      Reply

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