Over the years, the NFL has made a flurry of changes to the kickoff to help eliminate collisions and reduce the number of concussions. While it has cut down on head injuries, it has led to fans seeing fewer exciting kickoff returns.
Due to the new rules, NFL teams that have dangerous returners have a special advantage when it comes time for the kick. While plenty of clubs like to settle for a touchback so their offense can start with adequate field position, we see a far more exciting approach when certain players go back to return a kick.
While we haven’t seen a player make a Devin Hester-like impact on the return game, there are plenty of dangerous weapons that go back to play a position that requires nerves of steel. Let’s take a look at the five most dangerous returners in the NFL today.
Mecole Hardman, wide receiver, Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs knew they saw something special in Mecole Hardman before the 2019 NFL Draft. The team needed another explosive weapon to pair with Tyreek Hill and the decision to trade a fifth-round pick to jump up to the No. 56 overall selection was an easy one. It didn’t take very long for the rookie to prove he is a game-changing talent.
Mecole Hardman’s stats on the offensive side alone were impressive, with 538 receiving yards and six touchdowns on only 26 receptions. His greatest impact, though, came as a returner. Hardman recorded 1,426 all-purpose yards, ranked fifth in overage yards per return (26.1) and he exploded for the longest play of the season. Oh, the rookie also proved to be quite the style expert before the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl LIV. In a single year, Hardman was drafted, won a Super Bowl ring and became an All-Pro returner.
Diontae Johnson, wide receiver Pittsburgh Steelers
It proved to be quite the year for rookies making an impact on special teams. Johnson didn’t come in with the same level of attention that Hardman received, but he proved he could handle the NFL once he stepped on the field. In fact, it’s one of the reasons we project him to become an NFL star during the 2020 season.
Johnson, a third-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, simply dominated as a punt returner in his rookie season. Playing a position that few players are even willing to try, he routinely exploded for big plays every game. Among Johnson’s most impressive stats, averaging a league-leading 12.4 yards per punt return, via Pro Football Reference. The former MAC Special Teams Player of the Year earned second-team All-Pro honors in his rookie season and we expect even more contributions from him on offense moving forward.
Cordarrelle Patterson, wide receiver, Chicago Bears
The Chicago Bears didn’t make many moves during the 2019 offseason, but they wisely invested in Cordarrelle Patterson. When an offense struggles to generate big plays, finding a returner who can help make up for it is crucial and one fo the NFL’s best returners lived up to his reputation.
There’s just something special about watching Patterson return a kick. The moment he gets a little space and hits the afterburners, everyone on the field can only watch him take it to the house. The 29-year-old earned first-team All-Pro honors as a returner for the third time in his career this past season. He has averaged 29.9 yards per kickoff return on 204 attempts, which is just behind Gale Sayers (30.6) in the NFL’s all-time record book.
Deonte Harris, wide receiver, New Orleans Saints
Talk about coming out of nowhere and shocking the football world. Harris drew very little attention coming out of Assumption College, a Division II program in Massachusetts. Of course, he also walked out of D-II with the NCAA record for combined touchdown returns (14) and the single-season touchdown returns (eight) D-II record.
The Saints thought they might have found a special returner, but Harris performed even beyond their expectations. The 5-foot-6 receiver finished third in yards per kick return (26.8) and fourth in yards per punt return (9.4). Across 60 total returns, Deonte Harris racked up 982 total return yards. While he might not make a significant offensive impact, Harris’s impact on special teams will make him an All-Pro returner for years to come.
Andre Roberts, wide receiver Buffalo Bills
Many of the NFL’s top returners demonstrate the wave of explosive, young talent that is just making its mark on the NFL. At 32 years old, though, Roberts keeps bouncing around the NFL and making a substantial impact.
The 2020 NFL season will mark the first time since 2014-’15 that Roberts has stayed with one organization for consecutive years. After bouncing around with the Detroit Lions (2016), Atlanta Falcons (2017) and New York jets (2018), Roberts found a home in Buffalo. While he fell short of being an All-Pro returner, he still averaged 26.6 yards per kickoff return and eight yards per punt return last season. He might not be the most recognized player in the NFL, but he excels in his role and is widely regarded as one of the best returners in recent years.