This is it! What you’ve all been waiting for! I’m not entirely sure why, but the 2022 version of this discussion has been the #1 post here on Takeaways since it went live. Therefore, among all the position reviews, this is the one that returns: the top 10 returners for the 2023 season! As with last year’s edition, 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. Field position is critical, and it’s always nice to start a drive at the 35 than at the 20. These players will help teams do just that, so let’s meet them!
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Note: The teams listed are the players’ current teams. Any team names in (parentheses) denote previous teams that the players were on in 2022 before switching this offseason.
1. Marcus Jones, Patriots
The AP doesn’t always get their All-Pro teams correct. They did in this case. Jones, a 3rd-round rookie CB who was coveted for his return ability, showed what he can do from the start, making the first team. He led the league with 362 punt return yards, ranking second in yards per return (12.5) as well. Jones was also one of only 3 players to return a punt for a TD (Kalif Raymond and Donovan Peoples-Jones were the others). A dual-threat, Jones finished 5th with 645 kick return yards. His elusiveness always gives the Patriots great field position, and he’s the premier return weapon in the league right now.
2. Keisean Nixon, Packers
Despite playing just 10 games as a late addition to the Green Bay lineup, Nixon led the league in kick return yardage with 1009. He was the only player to hit 950 or above. That earned him a first-team All-Pro slot as a kick returner. Nixon only returned 11 punts, but his 12.7 average on those was special as well. Back to kicks, Nixon took one 105 yards to the house, marking the longest return of 2022. The Packers started doing better on offense once he became the returner. That demonstrates a tangible on-field difference stemming from the return game. You can’t have a bigger impact than that.
3. KaVonte Turpin, Cowboys
Another NFL newcomer, all the 2022 USFL MVP did in his debut season was earn first-team All-Pro honors as a punt returner. His 303 return yards ranked 9th, and his 10.4 yards per return ranked 6th among qualified players. However, it was his style of returning that drew eyeballs. Rarely content to take a fair catch unless told to do so, Turpin consistently made the first guy miss, despite that guy often being right in his face. His 508 KR yards at 24.2 yards per clip weren’t too shabby either. Now Dallas needs to find a way to het Turpin more involved in the offense because he is so explosive.
4. Kene Nwangwu, Vikings
Exclusively a kick returner, Nwangwu specializes and does his job well, becoming the 2nd-team All-Pro KR in 2022. He runs just like the RB that he is, with a decisive, hard-charging style that lacks hesitation. That enabled him to pick up 920 yards and a TD on kick returns. Only division rival Keisean Nixon, slotted at #2 above, had more yardage. Last year, I thought he was on the verge of a breakout, and he delivered. With Dalvin Cook gone, maybe Nwangwu can earn a few touches in the running game. He has shown that he can hit a homerun on any play.
5. Devin Duvernay, Ravens
If he had more opportunities, he might have been ranked even higher. Actually, he didn’t even receive enough return touches to qualify for the average yardage rankings on ESPN or Pro Football Reference. Regardless, he had enough volume to show his skills and become the AFC’s returner for the Pro Bowl. His 25.5 and 11.9 yards per kick and punt return, respectively, were both solid, and he even scored a TD on one of just 15 KR attempts. Duvernay was also tasked with winning the field position battle due to Baltimore QB injuries. With his special teams background, HC John Harbaugh knows he’s got a weapon in Duvernay.
6. Jamal Agnew, Jaguars
Our #1 returner from last year didn’t have quite as good of a campaign in 2022, but it was good enough to earn a Pro Bowl spot as Duvernay’s replacement. In typical fashion, he was superior as a kick returner with 547 yards at 26 yards per return. However, he also contributed as a punt returner, with 205 yards there as well. Agnew didn’t have a kick six to fluff up his numbers like last year, but he was still a top 10 returner (he wouldn’t be on this list if he weren’t!). Though the Jags haven’t really integrated his explosiveness into the offense, he remains a big-time threat on special teams.
7. Nyheim Hines, Bills (Colts/Bills)
I had to slot the NFL’s leader in return TDs (2) somewhere! Hines’ 29.2 yards per kick return ranked 2nd in the NFL, though that figure is admittedly inflated by his two house calls. He was more utilized as a punt returner, finishing 8th among qualified players with 9.8 yards per return on 27 attempts. His shiftiness allows him to make tacklers miss in the open field, but he drives through contact when necessary as an RB. I’d say Hines was a bit feast or famine in 2022, but I think Buffalo will be just fine with him taking some risks if he scores free points at a better rate than anyone else in the NFL.
8. Ray-Ray McCloud, 49ers
Both a KR and a PR, McCloud did particularly well on punt returns, earning 356 yards (2nd) at 10.8 yards per attempt (4th). He was no slouch in the kicking game though, earning 599 return yards there. Unlike Hines or Nwangwu, McCloud returns with a receiver’s mindset. He doesn’t look for any extra contact, though he is unafraid of it. McCloud’s confidence in his ability to dodge the opponent’s gunner kept him from calling fair catches; he attempted 33 punt returns, tied for 2nd leaguewide. That high volume guaranteed the Niners improved field position almost every possession, which really helped rookie QB Brock Purdy.
9. Braxton Berrios, Dolphins (Jets)
Berrios was nearly identical to McCloud in the kicking game, earning 600 yards–just 1 yard more–on the same 26 attempts. His punt return average of 11.4 was stellar, ranking third among those with at least 20 attempts. The difference is that Berrios wasn’t utilized in the punt game nearly as often as McCloud even though the Jets’ defense was forcing opponents off the field. Now a Dolphin in the city where he went to college, Berrios figures to take over for Jevon Holland or Raheem Mostert in the punting or kicking games, respectively. With more use, he could shoot up these rankings.
10. DeAndre Carter, Raiders (Chargers)
It was a really close call between McCloud, Berrios, and Carter. The difference is that as well as Carter did as a PR, he wasn’t nearly as dominant as a KR. He averaged only 19.1 yards per kick return, but he wasn’t helped by numerous missed blocking assignments by the Chargers special teams. Punt returning is a more individual skill, as even with great blocking you need to make people miss. Carter excelled at that, finishing second with 11.7 yards per return and racking up 339 yards. He’ll need to keep that up because his touches at WR are sure to drop after the drafting of Quentin Johnston in the first round this year.