Special teams have the ability to tip the balance of the game in the margins, despite the fact that, to be fair, the offense and defense receive most of the attention. On this side of the ball, the game continues to evolve, with touchbacks moving out to the 25-yard line instead of the usual 20-yard line for a year.
Although this new kickoff rule has not necessarily had a significant impact on the percentage of kicks returned (36.56 percent this year compared to 35.54 percent the previous year), the quality of returns has probably decreased. Compared to last year’s average of 23.9 yards per return, this season’s average kickoff return is just 21.8 yards.
Players are navigating these rules to provide their clubs with significant value as returners as the league works to determine the best structure for special teams’ rules. Here are the seven returners who have received the highest grades thus far this season.
Despite his significant character issues, Hill has been a significant asset to the Chiefs since the fifth round of this year’s draft. Penalties have had a small impact on his traditional return statistics, with two touchdown catches being called back thus far. Even with those out of the picture, he has been nothing short of explosive for Dave Toub’s team.
So far, he has returned punts for 19, 32, and 50 yards, and he has also returned kickoffs for more than 30 yards. Look for Hill to have a successful career as a return specialist for the Chiefs after taking over for Knile Davis and De’Anthony Thomas in Kansas City, who were both typically successful.
The undrafted rookie punter Richard has been a major factor in Oakland’s fourth-best special teams unit thus far, along with the superb play of punter Marquette King and ace Bryden Trawick. His season has been filled with good returns, with an average of 24.8 for kickoff returns and 12.1 for punt returns, along with a few big plays.
For instance, in the final two minutes of the Raiders’ 28-27 road victory against the Ravens, his 47-yard punt return set up the winning touchdown.
Tate has found success in Buffalo after the Bengals let him go following training camp. He now provides the Bills with the same solid returner play that he previously provided to Cincinnati and New England.
Tate has recovered from a career-low of 6.5 yards per punt return last year to 10.8 this year, making returns of 13, 18, 21, 30, and 31 in the first seven games. He has also returned a kickoff for 45 yards, resulting in a 23.0 average on kickoff returns.
Grant is the third rookie on this list. He has performed admirably this season in the role that has traditionally been filled by star receiver Jarvis Landry (Landry was the return specialist with the highest grade the previous season). With no fumbles to his name, Landry has performed admirably as a kick and punt returner, averaging 24.2 yards per kick return and 11.7 yards per punt return.
When he returned a punt 74 yards for a touchdown against the Titans, he showed great speed and elusiveness. He broke four potential tackles and seemed to get faster as he got closer to the end zone.
Sadly for the Colts, Bray was recently placed on injured reserve due to a broken ankle. He was building well on what he started a year ago when he was the league’s highest-graded return specialist from week 8 on.
Before the injury, he was building on that. He finished the season tied for the league’s highest kickoff return grade, with half of his returns netting 25 or more yards, despite not having a return of more than 39 yards.