Top 10 Returners In the 2024 NFL Draft

Back by popular demand, we’ve got another returner-related article. This one is a little different though, as we’re focusing on the top 10 returners in the 2024 NFL Draft, not established pros. Returners are more important than ever this year due to the new kickoff rules the NFL has implemented. Field position is critical, and it’s always nicer to start a drive at the 35 than at the 25. These players will help teams do just that, so let’s meet them!

For this list, I’m only looking at players who had returning experience in college. An NFL team could use another player as a returner come training camp, but there’s no way to know how they’ll perform if they’ve never filled that role. We have a nice mix of some higher-end prospects and players who are valued exclusively for their special teams skills. The bulk of them are receivers, but they all have speed and/or shiftiness. See the full list (starting with the #1 prospect) below!

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1. WR Xavier Worthy, Texas

Let’s start with the guy who led the nation in punt return yards last year (371) and added a return TD. Oh yeah, he also set the all-time 40-yard dash record at the Combine, running it in 4.21 s. Worthy’s ability to get upfield in a hurry won’t surprise you. He possesses extreme athleticism to dodge tackers, but he can also simply outrun them. It will cost a late first-round pick or a very early selection on day 2 to acquire him since he is a highly coveted receiver. Whoever ends up taking him will have the added bonus of obtaining the most dangerous return man in the entire draft. Good luck catching him in open space.

2. WR Ainias Smith, Texas A&M

Another punt returner, Smith can likely contribute in both return phases. His 40 time won’t necessarily wow you, though it’s a very strong 4.48 seconds. However, that number looks insane when you realize he was in the middle of recovering from a broken leg. Smith reminds me a lot of his former teammate, RB De’Von Achane, in that both are a little undersized but incredibly fast and shifty. He ranked 8th this past season with 14.3 yards per punt return and scored a return TD. Given his smaller stature (5’10” and 190 lbs) and recent injury, Smith is a probably day 3 pick who could provide great value in the slot and in the return game.

3. WR Lideatrick Griffin, Mississippi State

Our top-ranked player who specialized in kick returns, Griffin is a 5’10” slot receiver whose top skill is his vision. Don’t get me wrong; he runs fast (4.43-s 40) and changes direction well. On kick returns though, seeing the hole and then decisively hitting it are the two most important factors. He didn’t return kicks quite to his standard in 2023 (21.9 yard average), but he topped 30 yards per return in each of the prior 3 years, including an FBS-topping 32.3 figure to go along with a TD in 2022. Griffin is considered a late-round prospect, but his return capabilities could push him ahead of similar receivers.

4. DB Dee Williams, Tennessee

This name might not be familiar to most of you who aren’t ardent college football fans. I wrote Williams’ listed position, but he barely played on defense for the Volunteers. He actually led all players in 2022 with an 18.7-yard punt return average, and he finished 8th in 2023 (with 1 TD each season). Not a Combine invitee, Williams is estimated to run a 4.5-s 40, which is adequate. His primary attribute is his ability to stop on a dime and juke potential tacklers. Williams shifts so fast that you can’t predict which way he’ll go, setting him up for big games. As an added bonus, he can probably be had as a priority UDFA signing.

5. WR Xavier Legette, South Carolina

Legette is the least-likely player on this list to actually return kicks in the NFL. The reason for that is he might end up being somebody’s #1 WR (I am a big fan of him as a receiver, and apparently so is Carolina), so he might not get opportunities in the return game if he is deemed too valuable to risk on special teams. The Gamecocks shielded him more themselves in 2023, which is a shame because his 29.2 yards per return ranked 3rd in 2022 (he also scored a TD). A big 6’1″, 217-lb receiver with a 4.39-s 40, Legette can break returns with speed or power, but you’ll need a high 2nd-round pick at worst to select him.

6. WR Anthony Gould, Oregon State

Stop me if you’ve heard this description before: a small slot receiver with speed and quickness. For the third (and not last) time this list, we have such a player. Gould is the shortest of the group at 5’8″, but he’s super fast (4.39-s 40) and very productive. He ranked second in the FBS with 18.3 yards per punt return in 2022 while scoring 2 TDs, and he validated that tape with a 16.1-s average in 2023 (though with a smaller sample size). Always looking to advance up the field, Gould has diagonal cuts that few in this draft can match. Despite his 714 receiving yards last year, he is still considered a day-3 prospect, so he’s very obtainable.

7. CB Daequan Hardy, Penn State

I realize there are a bunch of punt returners on this list and only 3 kick returners. It just so happens that most of the top KRs are underclassmen. Among punt returners, Hardy led all players with 2 TDs and finished 7th with 14.6 yards per return. Hardy is an incredibly explosive player with a 4.38-s 40, but his issue, like many on this list, is his size. He’s only 5’9″, so the slot would be his only home on defense. With 2 INTs and 7 PBUs last year, he’s certainly capable and should be an interesting developmental prospect in the 5th round or so. His return numbers should entice a team to take a chance on him.

8. CB Kool-Aid McKinstry, Alabama

McKinstry might end up being drafted higher than anyone else on this list depending on how boards shake out. A big, accomplished CB who somehow ran a 4.47-s 40 at his Pro Day with a Jones fracture in his foot, McKinstry oozes athleticism. He isn’t known as the most fundamentally sound CB, but he’s got the talent and production. On special teams, he did his damage in 2022, when he earned 332 punt return yards (2nd) with a 15.8-yard average (3rd). His unstructured style of play fits that role really well, as defenders find him unpredictable. If you want him, expect to pay a late first-round pick.

9. WR Ladd McConkey, Georgia

I promise this is our last slot receiver. Sorry, but they often have the traits you look for in the return game, and they aren’t usually #1 receivers who teams are afraid to use on special teams. McConkey didn’t actually return a single punt last year, as he became too valuable on offense. In 2022, he returned punts at a 12.3-yard average, tying for 8th in the FBS. The Georgia slot receiver is known as a dangerous runner after the catch with short-area quickness, but did we see a 4.39-s 40 coming? Measuring at 6’0″ didn’t hurt either. He’ll require a high 2nd-round pick for his services, as we now know about his untapped upside.

10. RB Will Shipley, Clemson

Our only RB on this list, Shipley did not return all that many kicks. When he did though, he was stellar, compiling a 26.6-yard average over 3 seasons. As a running back, Shipley is used to finding open lanes with excellent vision, and he possesses the burst (4.39-s 40) to attack holes in a flash. Sharp cuts, agility to squeak through small openings, and quick feet are all part of Shipley’s game. Overshadowed in part by belonging to an underwhelming RB class, Shipley is a mid-round prospect who never averaged below 5 yards per carry in a season. The more you can do, the better, and Shipley has proven to be a lethal returner.

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