Today we’re checking out our last special teams group: the top 10 returners for the 2022 season. For these rankings, both kick returners and punt returners will be evaluated. Neither type of returner will be favored over the other, but a player who does both might get a few brownie points. As we discussed in the punter rankings, field position is critical for any team. If you have a good returner, then you’re probably starting most drives further upfield than you would be with an average or poor returner. That in turn leads to shorter fields for your offense and even better punting situations if drives stall. Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be much correlation between great returners and great teams, but they undoubtedly make good teams better. That’s why we’re talking about them here, so off we go!
1. Jamal Agnew, Jaguars
I wasn’t putting anyone other than the man who scored a kick-six on top here. That week 3 play, a 109-yard return on a short end-of-half FG, tied the NFL record for longest return play. He has 6 combined kick and punt returns, but he specializes in kicks, with a strong 25.3-yard career return average. Oddly, Agnew only had 11 punt returns last season despite being the primary returner, which suggests that opposing punters shied away from him (smartly). The fact that he’s coming off a season-ending hip injury does not dull his prospects for 2022.
2. Andre Roberts, Panthers
When last season started, Roberts was a Texan. I have no idea why they released him other than the fact that the Texans don’t know their heads from their…well, anyway. The Chargers were glad they did. Roberts averaged 27.3 yards per kick return last year, second in the NFL, and racked up 1010 return yards. He didn’t have his best punt returning season, which is probably why his streak of 3 straight Pro Bowl selections as a returned was snapped. Still, his burst is still there (as shown by his 101-yard TD last season), so his punt return averages should regress to the mean in a positive way next year.
3. Kene Nwangwu, Vikings
Minnesota drafted Nwangwu as an RB in the 4th round last year despite not needing a back, most likely because of his return ability. I’m not sure even they knew what they were getting. Nwangwu was inactive to start the year, but he played the final 11 weeks and made them count. Though he didn’t qualify because he didn’t play enough, Nwangwu averaged 32.2 yards per kick return on 18 attempts, taking 2 of them to the house. That average would have been tops in the league. As this list concerns 2022, I think he could continue to ascend with his dynamic returns.
4. Braxton Berrios, Jets
Among players who DID qualify for the title, Berrios had the most yards per kick return with 30.4. That, along with his 852 total kick return yards (3rd in the NFL), earned him first-team All-Pro honors as a kick returner. He didn’t return many punts (only 15), but when he did, he was good at it, with 13.4 yards per return. Berrios also tied Agnew for the longest kick return TD in the league last year (102 yards). His numbers have improved each year as he’s gained more opportunities, so 2022 could be his best year yet, despite the disrespect he’s receiving from Madden.
5. Devin Duvernay, Ravens
Coach John Harbaugh is a former special teams coach, so you knew he’d have somebody on this list. That somebody happens to be the guy with the highest punt return average in 2021 (13.8 yards) who made the Pro Bowl and was named a first-team All-Pro. The reason he excels so much as a punt returner is his decisiveness. Despite not possessing the raw speed or agility of other players on this list, he makes up for it by envisioning his return before catching the ball, allowing him to immediately make the necessary cut. He’s no slouch as a kick returner either, as he amassed 676 yards at 24.1 yards per return in 2021.
6. DeAndre Carter, Chargers
Carter seems to be greatly overlooked, even by teams (he’s changed uniforms several times in his 4-year career), but I noticed that he’s been a pretty strong returner in every location. His best year was definitely his most recent, as he averaged 25.1 yards per kick return in 2021 (4th-best in the NFL). Boosted by a 101-yard TD, Carter provided 904 kick return yards last year, which was second to Andre Roberts. He hasn’t returned too many punts, but his career average of 9.2 yards per return would have ranked 9th in the NFL last season. Having seemingly found his role, hopefully Carter sticks with his new squad.
7. Ray-Ray McCloud, 49ers
Dabbling in both kick and punt returns, McCloud doesn’t really blow you away at either job but is proficient at each. He ranked 7th last season with 9.7 yards per punt return and 4th in total kick return yards (776). His biggest strength is his shiftiness, which explains why has been a bit better at returning punts than kicks throughout his career. McCloud works well in space, finding small creases that he can use to gain positive yardage. Though he’s never returned a punt or a kick for a TD, he tends to pick up more yardage on punts than what’s blocked, rarely being taken down by the first tackler.
8. Tyreek Hill, Dolphins
To be completely honest, I’m not sure I completely believe (or endorse) the idea of the Dolphins putting their $30M/year receiver on punt return duty. That said, he’s listed as PR1 on the team’s depth chart, and as long as he’s there, I’m ranking him. While he has a smaller sample size than some other players due to his importance on offense, when he has returned punts, he’s been GOOD. He led the league with 15.2 yards per punt, 2 punt return TDs (with a season long of 95 yards), and 592 total punt return yards. That was the only season he returned kicks, and he took one of those to the house as well, at an average of 27.4 yards per return. The ability is elite; the only question is whether the Dolphins will utilize it.
9. Godwin Igwebuike, Lions
Igwebuike returned kicks for the first time last season, and I liked what I saw. He ranked 5th in yards per return (24.9) and 6th in total KR yardage (697). Igwebuike has not been given much playing time at RB, so Detroit must be keeping him on the roster for his special teams play. This is a shrewd move in my opinion, as he looks very sharp as soon as he catches a kickoff, dashing through any holes he can find. He’s been able to break off two returns of 40+ yards, so he’s due to score on one in the near future. Though he doesn’t return punts (Kalif Raymond is pretty good at that), his future as a kick returner looks bright.
UPDATE: The Lions had two quality return options, Igwebuike and Maurice Alexander, and they cut both of them. Detroit lists Tom Kennedy as their kick returner, and that’s a terrible choice. Hopefully another team seizes the chance to grab Igwebuike.
10. Gunner Olszewski, Steelers
A premier punt returner, Olszewski tied for second last season with 11.9 yards per return. This came after leading the league a season earlier with an outlandish 17.3 yards per runback. He’s been used less as a kick returner, though he’s averaged a consistent 23.2 yards per KR, which puts him in the middle of the pack. His ranking here, which could rise further if he plays like he did in 2020, is based mostly on his punt return ability. Given that the new Steel Curtain is likely to be forcing a lot of punts this season, Olszewski should get plenty of chances to establish himself as one of the best.
Honorable Mention: Jakeem Grant, Browns
Grant started in Miami before playing the last 11 games of the season with Chicago, but he was still able to earn Pro Bowl honors for the NFC as a returner. His forte involves punt returning, as his 11.9-yard average tied for 2nd in the league last year. This was greatly boosted by a dazzling 97-yard TD, where Grant reversed field and turned on the jets to get around the defense. He added 539 kick return yards as well. Sadly, we won’t see an encore this year because Grant tore his Achilles in training camp, and that’s the only reason he isn’t featured in the above rankings, as they’re for *this* year, and Grant won’t be playing.