Monday, April 15, 2019

The NFL's Top Kick/Punt Returners of All-Time

By John Turney
In this exercise, we will attempt to compose a fair list of returners, both kick and punt, and try to adjust a bit for era since there was a "live ball" era in punt returning beginning in 1974.

All we can say is we value touchdowns more than average, though the average is important. As you will see many of these players at the bottom of the list has two, three, or maybe four years of great production then they didn't return much after that. The players nearer the top returned for most of their career, though that is a general rule, not ironclad.

Here goes:
1. Devin Hester
Both a kick and punt returner he excelled at both, scoring 14 touchdowns in his career. He was voted First-team All-Pro three times and Second-team All-Pro once and was Second-team on the 2000s All-Decade which exposes why there should be Mid-decade All-Pro teams. He'd be the clear First-team pick on that one. He came along in the middle of the 2000s (his career went from 2006-16) and while his peak was the best of that decade, he didn't have as many years of service in it.

Fourteen times he was the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week. He holds the NFL record for punt return touchdowns with 14 and also has five kick returns for touchdowns for a total of 19. he led the NFL in punt return average twice and led in TD returns three times and led or tied for the NFL lead in KR TDs twice.

In 2011 Gale Sayers said, "Devin Hester deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, no doubt about it" and later Deion Sanders added, "Devin Hester is 'the best ever.'"  We think that closes the case.

2. Gale Sayers
Still the top kickoff returner ever with a 30.6 average and six touchdowns (6.6% of his total kick returns). He was also a great punt returner but didn't have enough attempts to qualify for the NFL's leader boards in that category. Sayers led the NFL in kickoff return average of 31.2 yards in 1966 and in 1967 had an average of 37.7 yards per return but Travis Williams (see below) was ahead of him for the NFL lead.

All one need do to appreciate Sayers is watch his highlights on returns. He was simply amazing.

3t. Rick Upchurch
A four-time All-Pro and four-time Pro Bowl and was First-team All-Decade for the 1970s and Second-team All-Decade for the 1980s. However, for the 1980s it was for the position of kick returner and he didn't deserve that. His 'specialness' was as a punt return guy, not a kickoff return guy.

That said, he led the NFL in punt returns three times and took eight punts back for scores. Did get a benefit from being on the leading edge of the 'live ball era' for punt returners due to rule changes in 1974.

3t. Billy Johnson
Was All-Pro three times and went to three Pro Bowls and took six punts (plus two kicks) back for scores. He was First-team All-Decade for the 1980s and Second-team All-Decade for the 1970s, the reverse of Rick Upchurch. Like Upchurch played in a 'live ball' era.

5. Deion Sanders
Sanders truly passed the eye test and returned nine kicks (six punts and three kickoffs) for touchdowns and did it when teams tried to avoid kicking to him. Had he been a full-time returner his numbers would be stunning. He was the All-Decade punt returner for the 1990s.

In pure skill might rival Hester as the best ever, all around only lack of the 'compiled stats' of an Upchurch or Johnson keep him from being third on our list.

6. Jack Christiansen
Smooth, fluid, and fast, Christiansen owns a 12.8-yard punt return average, tied for best all-time and had eight touchdown returns, including four in 1951 (two in each of two games). 

Adequate and not often used on kickoffs. He was a HOF safety and still ranks with the elite at that position.

Note: there is evidence that Christiansen was given on extra return in his career and if that is properly taken away his punt return average was 12.9 (up from the official 12.8) but that is a discussion for another day. 

7. George McAfee
McAfee is tied with Jack Christiansen for the highest punt return average ever. Like Christiansen, he too was fast and smart and effective. His career punt return average was 12.8 officially the best ever.

8. Cordarrelle Patterson
Patterson is second only to Gale Sayers in kick return average (30.0) and has taken six back for scores. And he's doing it (the last few years) in an era where most of the kickoffs are touchbacks due to NFL rule changes designed (we suppose) to limit kickoff returns.

Can he keep it up and still get 30 yards a pop and a few touchdowns over the next several years in this 'dead ball' era for kickoff returners? Time will tell. Since he's active he's still a "riser" so we kept him a little low. But look for him to be a "Top 5-6" guy when he hangs 'em up.

9. Josh Cribbs
A tremendous, tremendous kickoff returner and a fine punt returner as well (Good on special teams coverage, too). He holds the NFL record for KR for TDs with eight and returned three punts for scores for good measure. He was the First-team kick returner for the 1990s All-Decade team. We'd rank him just a hair behind Patterson as the second-best kick returner ever.

Patterson, of course, is still active and we will see if he can maintain that rank with the adverse climate for kicker returners he faces. Cribbs, by contrast, was in a golden era for returners where conditions (post-1994 rule changes) were ideal.

10. Travis Williams
The Roadrunner was unstoppable in his short career. His numbers rivaled Gale Sayers but fell just short. His speed set him apart rather than moves and cuts and he had good size (6-1, 210) as well. He scored six touchdowns in just 102 KR for a rate of  5.9% second only to—Sayers (6.6%).

Had he done it a bit longer we'd rank him just behind Sayers, but we think Patterson and Cribbs nose him out but we admit it is debatable. As it is he led the NFL in kick return average twice including an incredible 41.1 yards in 1967 (still the NFL record) and four touchdowns (still tied for NFL record for one season).

11. Mel Gray
A five-time All-Pro and was a Second-team 1990s All-Decade choice as both the kick returner and punt returner. It's amazing a guy with his resume is 11th on this list. It shows that in this case "elite" goes past the first dozen or so picks, like on some of our other lists.

Gray led the NFL in punt returns twice and KOR twice and returned nine for scores (six were KR).

12. Dante Hall
The "Human Joystick" finished with 14,386 combined return yards and six KR TDs and six PR TDs.  He was really fun to watch. He was the First-team punt returner for the 1990s All-Decade team. He was also the Second-team kick returner on the All-Decade squad. He was All-Pro once and a Second-team All-Pro twice.

13. Brian Mitchell
Handled kick and punt returns for the Redskins, Eagles, and Giants and amassed 23,330 return yards and 13 touchdowns (nine on punts). He was All-Pro in 1994 and 1995 and a Second-team All-Pro in 1991. His return average on kickoff returns was not elite (23.1) and his punt return average was excellent (10.8) but not in the Hester/White Shoes Johnson/Upchurch range so he falls to thirteen on our list due to that.

He was also good on coverage even leading Washington in tackles one season and usually getting in on a handful of tackles. 

14. Desmond Howard
All-Pro in 1996 he led the NFL in returns, yards (still the NFL single-season record), average and touchdowns (the PR quadruple crown). he was a decent kick returner but a star as a punt returner, ending his career with eight PR TDs.

15. Dave Meggett
In the Brian Mitchell mode, a third-down back and player who handles all returns. He was All-Pro in 1989 and 1990 (consensus) and Second-team All-Pro in 1995, he has eight returns TDs to his credit (seven on punts) and 13,996 return yards.

16. Eric Metcalf
A fine slot receiver at times in his career, Metcalf was one of those shifty players who handled both kick- and punt return duties for his teams. He took 10 punts back for scores and two kicks. He was decent as a KR but it was his punt return skills that were most impressive.

17. Leon Washington
Washington returned both kicks and punts, another of the duel returners but Washington excelled at kick returns rather than punt returns which is a bit unusual.

18. Darren Sproles
Seven PR TDs and two KRs for scores for Sproles who was a fine third-down back as well. There is little difference between numbers 13 through 18, in a sense they could all be tied for 13th.

19. Tamarick Vanover
Vanover had a short career due to some off-field issues, but when he played he was explosive. He was a big guy (220 pounds for a returner) and like Travis Williams or Cordarrelle Patterson, his speed was what was hard for coverage units to handle.

20. Two-Bits Homan
Not much is known about Homan. We first learned of him via Dan Daly's book The Pro Football Chronicles. It explained that some researchers suggest he had the highest punt return average ever, though unofficial, at 13.6 yards.

21. Ollie Matson
World-class speed and nice size (6-2, 220) he scored nine touchdowns (six on kickoffs) and was never really a full-time returner, he was saved a bit, we suppose, as a "secret weapon" perhaps like Deion Sanders. We may be shorting him here, but we ran into a logjam of guys from 9 to 20 who could be in any order. So, if you think he should be ninth—fine. Fifteenth? Fine. We couldn't disagree. 

22. Abe Woodson
And excellent cornerback he was one of the best KR artists ever and a good punt returner as well.

23. Terry Metcalf
Metcalf didn't score a lot of touchdowns on returns but he is high in the averages. He was, outside Upchurch and Johnson, the best of the decade of the 1970s, though.

24. Darrien Gordon
An exclusive punt returner he scored 6 times on returns in his first four years and was All-Pro in 1997.

25. Jermaine Lewis
A competent kick returner, Lewis was a great punt returner, scoring two touchdowns in three different seasons, led the NFL in punt returns twice and was a two-time All-Pro.

26. Bobby Mitchell
Like Ollie Matson was not used full-time as a returner yet still took eight back for scores (5 KR).

27. Michael Bates
Bates was a great coverage guy on special teams and twice led the NFL in kickoff return average and took six back for scores. He also was the All-Decade kickoff returner for the Team of the 1990s.

Chandnois had a 29.6-yard average, one of the best-ever and returned three for touchdowns.

29. Bill Dudley
Dudley, who was a good runner, receiver, passer, and kicker was also a great punt returner. He ended his career with a 12.2-yard average on punt returns and was pretty good on kick returns, too.

30. Percy Harvin
All-Pro in 2009 Harvin returned 152 kicks for 4127 yards (good for 27.2 a pop) and  5 touchdowns with a long of  105 yards. 

Smith was All-Pro in 1980 and could have been in 1979 and in 1981 he was just as good but didn't net a touchdown. He was good after those years but peaked in the 1979-81 frame when he averaged almost 600 punt return yards a year and scored four touchdowns.

32. Buddy Young
Young had six touchdowns and high averages in both KR and PR (27.7 and 10.4 respectively).

33. Jacoby Jones
The tally was nine touchdowns for Jones, five on kicks and four on punts, he was an All-Pro in 2012 and 2014.

34. Speedy Duncan
Duncan was solid on kick returns but stellar on punt returns, especially for his era. He was a pretty good defensive back as well. Finished his career with George Allen and the Reskins. 

35. Ron Smith
A dead-ball-era punt return guy, still did well, was better known for his kickoff return prowess. He was steady, but not super spectacular but very effective for a relatively long time. Was a fine nickel back as well—he started some at corner, was decent safety but as a fifth back, he more than held his own.

36. Alvin Haymond
A good kick and punt returner, he played in the dead-ball era for punt returners and still maintained a good average. He would have had a higher average if he didn't despise the fair catch. His aggressive style caused him to try and return punts others would have just raised their hands and fielded. He thought any chance at extra yards was worth the risk, but it did hurt his average.

He also was a fierce coverage guy, much like Michael Bates and Josh Cribbs, he was a combination of returner and gunner.

37. Ted Ginn
Seven total return touchdowns for Ginn, who is always a marked man. We see teams try and keep the ball away from him as much or more than anyone in recent memory.

A solid punt returner with a 10.0 career average and three scores, on kickoffs Rossum averaged 23.2 yards but did have five touchdowns. The averages are okay, the scores are good he strikes us as a bit of a compiler, being very good for a long time but still, he amassed 15,046 combined return yards in his career, so that does count for something.

Tunnell didn't have a great punt return average but had some fantastic years and took five back for scores. He was a very good kick returner but was not used there full-time.

40. Tyreek Hill

Will move up when he gets more seasons under his belt, but he's already qualified for the NFL leaderboard with 84 returns (the NFL requires a minimum of 75) and he's posted a 12.0 average on punt returns and also has a kickoff return to his credit for a total of 5 return TDs in three years.

It remained to be seen if he will be one of the 'front-loaded guys' (most of the production early in career) or if he will he stay out of trouble and be one of the all-time greats.

41. Claude Gibson
Gibson has a very high average (12.6) on punt returns but just three touchdowns in the early days of the AFL.

42. Steve Van Buren
Van Buren was adept at both KR and PR but only qualifies for the leaderboard in kick returns with 76. He had five returns for scores in 110 combined returns.

43. Timmy Brown
Brown was another of the many skilled at all returns but was in his case he was more successful on kick returns with five touchdowns and a 26.0 average at kicks and also had one touchdown on punt returns.

44. Vai Sikahema
One of the "consistent but not spectacular" returners. Fair as a kick returner, very good as a punt returner. He had a 10.9 career average and four PR TDs. He was All-Pro in 1987 and a Second-team All-Pro in 1986 and 1992.

45. Henry Ellard
As a returner, Ellard was All-Pro in 1984 (consensus) and 1985 he scored four touchdowns from 1983-85 (most in NFL) and a 13.5-yard average (highest in NFL) and 1121 yards (second in NFL in that span).

46. LeRoy Irvin
When Irvin scored a punt return touchdown on MNF in Chicago in 1981 it was the first time a Rams had returned a punt for a score since 1961. He scored two more that season and one the next before handing over the punt return duties to Ellard. He was All-Pro in 1981 (consensus) and 1982. He led the league in yards, average, and touchdowns in 1981.

47. Glyn Milburn
Milburn was prolific in terms of yards but not so much in terms of touchdowns but his averages were good, but not too spectacular.  He was All-Pro in 1995 and 1999 but 1998 was his best season.

48. Mike Nelms
All-Decade kicker returner for the 1980s, though we think that's a stretch. He was All-Pro in 1981, 1982, and 1983 and Second-team All-Pro in 1980.

49. Tyrone Hughes
Five touchdowns in his first two seasons, Hughes was a fine two-way returner. He racked up tons of KR yardage the first three years after the rules changed moving kickoffs to the 30-yard line.

50t. Tim Brown
Brown was a very good returner one of a "next group" we list that were a bit front-loaded in their stats (complied them in early part of their career), especially in his KR stats. However, did return punts effectively for a good while. He had good averages but was not above the curve in terms of average or TD returns.

Since they are all similar in many ways we've tied them at 50.

50t. Rod Woodson
Woodson was good at both KR and PR and though his averages were okay, he did score 2 PR TDs and 2 KR TDs.

50t. Joey Galloway
A big three years at start of career then leveled off but then did take a kick to the house in 2004 at age 33.

50t. Julian Edelman
Edelman has a fine 11.2 average on 177 returns and four touchdowns on punt returns.

50t. DeSean Jackson

Four scores in his first three seasons, but then, like Ellard and Irvin didn't stay in the role after that.

50t. Steve Smith
Six touchdowns in his first two seasons, four on punts, but little production after that. Again, just part of the trend of younger players handling the returns and as they become starters they are replaced by younger players. Smith was an All-Pro returner in 2001.

50t. Eddie Kennison
In the Irvin, Ellard and even DeSean Jackson mold, a few good years, then didn't return much after that.

50t. Louis Lipps
Yet another player with front-loaded returns (two really good years, then nothing).

50t. Adam Jones

Pacman, to us, ended with great numbers but were built upon his first two seasons but he did finish with five punt return touchdowns.

50t. Marcus Sherels 
Sherels led the NFL in punt return touchdowns in 2016 and has a healthy 10.6 career average and a total of five punt returns he took to the house. He's still active and could add to those totals. 


Okay, so we copped out by tying so many guys at number 50. But, if you're a purist we put them in order so you can see where we would have ranked them had we not tied them all.

Additionally, there are lots more excellent returners. Lots. Here are a few but we will omit some so if your 'guy' isn't mentioned it's because he was very good, but likely not great. The players tied at 50 on the list could really be mentioned below, or there are some below who could move up, but really the top of the list has the best of the best.

We think Hester has a good chance at the Hall of Fame, his 19 touchdowns is off-the-charts. We think Upchurch and Johnson also played at a Hall of Fame lever with both starting in their careers in the mid-1970s and still had All-Pro seasons in the early 1980s.

After that it's hard to say, Patterson, IF, and only if, he gets more touchdowns in this difficult era might get some consideration. Josh Cribbs is super, but not the returner Hester was but was a good cover guy might maybe be a semi-finalist someday.

Mel Gray was great but pales in comparison to Hester so, in the final analysis, we think Hester is the only pure returner with a good chance at Hall of Fame. Upchurch and Johnson may just cancel each other out and never get there.

With all that said, here is a list of interesting names—
Andre Roberts—Current player moving up fast. If his next couple of years measure up to his last few he will move up into the list.
Jakeem Grant—Basically the same as Roberts.
Jamal Agnew—Basically the same as Grant.
Ron Brown—His 1985 season was amazing (3 KR TDs and was consensus All-Pro), but teams kicked away from him after that and it was effective in limiting his numbers.
Cecil Turner—Like Brown, he had one stunning season and the rest were just okay. However, in 1969-70 he averaged nearly 33 yards per return and scored four touchdowns. He just couldn't sustain that pace.
Lemar Parrish—A great corner who had a career 9.2 yard average on punt returns and was a good kick returner, too. Had one huge year in punt returns (1974) and one in kick returns (1970) which skew his averages some but his taking five kicks to the house cannot be ignored, either. Almost an "all or nothing" type.
B.J. Sams—Began big then didn't sustain.
Reggie Bush—Only had 104 punt returns but took four back for touchdowns. Somehow we expected more when he came out of USC.
Amani Toomer—Another good returner that likely didn't get enough opportunities, 109 returns and three scores.
Az-Zahir Hakim—Was excellent for three seasons with the Rams. A career 10.7 average and three touchdowns.
Bruce Harper—a forerunner to the Meggetts and Mitchells and Sproleses as a duel retuner but didn't have quite the success they did.
Dexter McCluster—All-Pro in 2013, had a great year, but that is his lone stellar performance.
Ellis Hobbs—Owns an excellent 26.5 career average and has taken three kickoffs to the house.
Irving Fryar—Career arc is similar to  Irvin, Ellard, DeSean Jackson, and Kennison.
John Taylor—He was Second-team All-Decade for the 1980s but we feel it was based on the strength of just two seasons.
Terrence McGee—Had two great KR seasons (one with 3 TDs) and two good ones.
Karl Williams—consistent but never spectacular, he returned a punt for a TD in each of five different seasons and ended with a good, but not great, 10.1 PR return average. Less than average as a kick returner.
Kelvin Martin—A fine punt returner for the early 1990s Cowboys.
Kevin Williams—Took over for Kelvin Martin and was similar except a bitter kick returner than Martin.
Mack Herron—Mini Mack qualifies for the all-time charts in both kickoff and punt returns and has good averages. He was one of our favorites, but we left him off the list because he played just three seasons and had just one return for a score.
Micah Hyde—Another front-loaded punt returner.
Pat Studstill—Pretty effective as a returner. A good position punter, too.
Patrick Peterson—Obviously still active he had one of the best punt return seasons ever as a rookie with four touchdowns (led NFL), 699 yards (led NFL), and had a 15.9-yard average but has averaged just 7.4 yards a return since.
Roscoe Parrish—A career 11.6 punt return average and three touchdowns.
Bruce Taylor—Great rookie year, looked promising, then tailed off.
Santana Moss—A 10.8 career PR return average, 3 house calls.
Tom Watkins—A good two-way returner who was overshadowed by the Gale Sayers and Travis Williams of the world.
Travis Benjamin—Active, pretty consistent. Could make a move if he keeps it up.
Troy Brown—A classic "Steady Eddie" but did lead the NFL in PR avg in 2001 and was All-Pro that season.

Here are some recent Hall of Famers who were excellent returners, some before they came starters and some were used as part-time returners but really didn't have enough longevity as returners to make the list but in their stints were effective—
Bob Hayes—Probably could have been one of top few ever if he returned more punts.
Floyd Little—Excellent in his first few years.
Hugh McElhenny—Numbers are good but really he's mentioned based on the style and the 'eye test'. Was fun to watch.
Leroy Kelly—Three PR TDs in his first two seasons.
Mel Renfro—Excellent in both KR and PR
Mike Haynes—Punt returns were his forte.
Herb Adderley—Excellent kick returner
Willie Wood—Good PR overall, but was special (11.3 yards per return and 2 TDs) in his first five years) and merely adequate for the rest of his career.
Darrell Green—Only used in special, clutch situations. John Madden couldn't believe the Redskins didn't use him more in a punt return capacity. (Madden said the same about Anthony Carter and the Vikings)
Yale Lary—Only averaged 6.0 yards per PR but did take three back for touchdowns.

Here are nine old-timers that deserve honorable mention—

Red Grange—No stats exist to speak of, but before he hurt his knee he was an elusive, transformative-type player.
Whizzer White—could do it all, run, catch return and even punt. Only played three years.
Charley Trippi—Did everything for the Cardinals and his returns were part of that.
Billy Grimes—Had a monster year in 1950, would have been the All-Pro PR if they had that slot on the All-Pro team at the time.
Ray Mathews—A front-loaded career has a career 12.8-yards average but not enough attempts (61) to qualify.
Jon Arnett—A very good back, and a good returner, but not great, but was fun to watch, great moves.
Andy Farkas—A career 12.4-yard PR average and a 25.9 KR average and three total touchdowns but not enough attempts in either category to qualify for an all-time chart.
Vitamin Smith—Had a monster PR year in 1949 and as a KR in 1950. Played for just four years.
Dick Christy—Excellent in the early days of the AFL. Level of competition is a question, however.


  1. i love these rankings.....that said, with greatest respect and I HATE recency bias...."Two Bits Homan" ranked ahead of Buddy Young, Alvin Haymond, and RoadRunner Williams?....damn....I wish there were film of film of the Yellowjackets and all the rest of the 20s....Ed Sabol, darn you for not being born 50 years earlier!

  2. Great list, but I felt Troy Brown and Derrick Mason deserved more attention because of their postseason excellence.

    Unless the HOF puts in more Special teams players, especially KO and Punt returners, there is no way I would put in Devin Hester.
    Yes, he was spectacular, but he wasn't much of a starting receiver or defensive back. Does that make him more worthy than starters like Lemar Parrish or Abe Woodson or Derrick Mason ?
    I don't think so...

    1. Troy brown was tremendous. I didn’t even see him on the list ? Doesn’t he hold a nfl punt return record ?

  3. Mason was considered. But really he had one huge year and was average or worse in the others. But his one TD in playoffs really wasn't enough to mive him up He was a good but not great returned...

    Brown was mentioned but didn't deserve more than that he was a good, not great returner.

    Hester given level of competition and the level of coaching and stands out.

    He's the best combined returner ever.

    Of course this could be broken down into two lists and in that case he'd be #1 PR, and Sayers would be #1 KR

  4. (1) totally agree with Devin Hester at #1; (2) glad to see you included Travis Williams near the top (tragically, he died destitute and homeless at the age of 45); (3) Emlen Tunnell should be higher than #39, he was an outstanding open field runner and probably could have had a HOF career if he had played on offense, rather than the defensive secondary; (4) No Lem Barney? ARE YOU KIDDING ME? ��

    1. Lem Barney's career average was 9.2---I should include him in honorable mentions---he only had one season with 25 or more KRs---so he wasn't qualified for that. He only had 3 seasons with 20 or more PRs--he was a part-timer really, so I looked at his career, but when doing honorable mentions and you go with guys at 9.2 and 2 PR TDs---the list gets long.

      Look at the numbers youself, only one season of an average of 10.4 and in that season only returned 9 kicks

  5. Why is Dante Hall at #12. You can make an argument for him at #2 and yo should at least put him top 5