If you've played fantasy football for long enough, you've both praised and cursed special teams. Fantasy owners often spend hours fretting over their running backs, wide receivers, and other starters, but they rarely give even a brief thought to special teams. Kick and punt returners can make an impact in fantasy football leagues. Sometimes it's as a component of the team defense, and other times individual running backs or receivers pile up extra points via their return roles.
Each week during the regular season, we'll look at the matchups ahead and discuss the prospects of the kick and punt returners.
Tennessee Titans at Baltimore Ravens
We regularly rip on Titans return man Chris Carr, and he deserves praise for a very good afternoon against the Vikings in Week 4. Granted, the Vikings have some of the worst coverage units in the NFL, but we cede that Carr did a fine job of finding the holes. Now that we got that out of the way, we can say that we'd rather predict a quiet week ahead for Wall Street than to count on Carr doing anything against the Ravens.
Yamon Figurs (hamstring) came back in Week 4 after missing the previous contest. He nearly made a game-changing return when he took the overtime kickoff 51 yards against the Steelers. Unfortunately, a holding call negated the gain. The Titans rank 30th in kickoff return average allowed (27.8) and 29th in punt return average allowed (13.7). Figurs tends to be more dangerous at home, and we'd be disappointed if he didn't have at least one big return this Sunday.
Kansas City Chiefs at Carolina Panthers
The Chiefs released B.J. Sams this week and officially handed the main jobs to two rookie running backs. Dantrell Savage will return punts and, at worst, handle half the kickoffs. Jamaal Charles is also in the kickoff mix. The pairing piled up 128 yards on four kickoff returns last week. We like their speed and potential, but the Panthers aren't likely to offer much room. Kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd continues to lead the NFL in touchbacks (nine), and the punt coverage team has been solid. The weakness? Jason Baker has had two punts blocked, so Herm Edwards might go after him.
The Panthers haven't gotten much out of Jonathan Stewart on kickoffs this year, and Ryne Robinson (knee) still doesn't look ready to handle those duties. Chiefs kicker Nick Novak doesn't have a touchback yet this year, so Stewart will have more chances this Sunday. Mark Jones has done a nice job with punt returns, but he can't expect the same opportunities as Stewart. Dustin Colquitt and the punt coverage unit have done a very good job with their ample opportunities. Maybe John Fox will spice it up and give Steve Smith a couple shots in the near future.
Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions
The Lions kicked to Devin Hester when they hosted the Bears last year, and the Pro Bowler replied with a 97-yard kickoff return touchdown. Hester showed in Week 4 that his ribs injury isn't going to slow him down, and we're not going to let decent coverage rankings lead us to believe the Lions can stop Devin. As usual, fantasy football owners should boost up the Bears defense/special teams due to Hester's presence
The Bears coverage units showed a few small cracks against the Eagles last week, but they still rank very well. Punter Brad Maynard leads the NFL in fair catches (nine), and Robbie Gould is tied for fourth in kickoff distance (68.9). We'd be surprised if Brandon Middleton (kickoffs) or Mike Furrey (punts) produced any returns worth writing about. Middleton has shown some a bit of promise, but this is a lopsided matchup.
Atlanta Falcons at Green Bay Packers
Like most of the Falcons, kickoff return Jerious Norwood seems more comfortable at home. All three of his 30-yard efforts have come in Atlanta, and he is averaging only 20.1 yards per attempt on the road. We don't expect much out of him against the Packers, but we will be keeping an eye on Adam Jennings. The punt returner has produced gains of 37, 18 and 16 yards the last three games, and the Packers haven't been happy with Derrick Frost. Jennings may have a shot to make a big play.
Michael Koenen doesn't always punt it very far, but the Falcons have allowed only seven returns for 19 yards over his 20 efforts. Those stats suggest the Falcons will be able to neutralize Will Blackmon, who has been a little quiet since his Week 1 touchdown. Blackmon and Koenen will also duel on kickoffs, where the returner is clocking in at an ugly 20.1 average thus far. Again, the edge should go to Koenen and a strong coverage unit.
Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans
Return man Justin Forsett seems to still be getting his feet wet after two games with the Colts. The club has produced only three return touchdowns in Tony Dungy's six-plus years, and it's easy to dismiss this part of the Colts as boring. The Texans have done a solid job covering kickoffs, and if Forsett finds a seam, it may come on punt returns. That's us being nice, though. We really don't expect much.
When the Colts visited Houston last year, Jerome Mathis took the opening kickoff 84 yards for a touchdown. The good news (for the Colts) is that Adam Vinatieri is getting more depth this year. The bad news is that Andre Davis seems overdue for a breakout game. The excellent return man has been very quiet thus far. The Colts have covered kicks well, but we always view Davis as a major asset. Punt returner Jacoby Jones has managed gains of 33 and 17 yards the last two weeks, and Hunter Smith better not give him room.
San Diego Chargers at Miami Dolphins
Darren Sproles made the biggest impression in a fun showdown against Johnnie Lee Higgins and the Raiders last week. The little Bolt posted a 67-yard kickoff return, and he currently ranks second in the NFL with a 32.4 average. Opposing punters tend to keep the ball away from Sproles, but we're not certain Brandon Fields is good enough to consistently do that. If we had a matchup of the week or "pick to click," Sproles vs. the Dolphins coverage units would be it. Tony Sparano is clearly still working to clean up this area.
When last we saw the Dolphins, they had settled on rookie Davone Bess as the kickoff and punt returner. That means they shelved Ted Ginn, for now. We have nothing against Bess, but it's impossible not to be disappointed in the (potentially) electric Ginn. Bess hasn't done enough for us to consider him a prime weapon. The Chargers struggled to track down Leon Washington in Week 3 but improved against Higgins last week. We doubt Bess will succeed against the well-tested coverage units.
Seattle Seahawks at New York Giants
The Seahawks welcomed back their top two receivers and running back Maurice Morris to practice this week, but undrafted rookie Michael Bumpus should continue to return punts. He has looked good through two games and is a nice complement to kickoff returner Josh Wilson. The ancient John Carney is unlikely to record any touchbacks, so Wilson will get some shots this Sunday. The nearly-as-old Jeff Feagles won't be so accommodating to Bumpus. Overall, though, the Seahawks may quietly have a pretty good thing going.
Domenik Hixon should be cracking his knuckles and licking his chops. The Seahawks punting game and coverage was atrocious through the opening three weeks, and Hixon posted returns of 50 and 26 yards in the two games before the bye. We have to believe the Seahawks worked on their special teams during the week off, but this still looks like an area that Hixon can exploit. We're not as high on Ahmad Bradshaw and the kickoff return unit right now, but fantasy owners should see the Giants having an edge in the overall picture.
Washington Redskins at Philadelphia Eagles
Jim Zorn appears to be making a lot of improvements with the Redskins, and we hope his focus will eventually reach to the special teams. Rock Cartwright is consistently good-not-dynamic on kickoffs, and he seems unlikely to exploit an Eagles coverage unit that opened up to Felix Jones and allowed a 51-yard return by Devin Hester. Antwaan Randle El should be taken off of punts at this point in his career, and he is no threat to an Eagles punt team that rates as the best in the NFL.
Quintin Demps appears to be picking up his pace as a kickoff returner. He has averaged nearly 26 yards per attempt since Week 1, which is decent. It's no good enough to get us excited in a matchup with the Redskins, though. This NFC East foe ranks third in kickoff return average (17.8), and they bottled up Felix Jones last week. Rookie punter Durant Brooks has done a much better job the last two Sundays, and he better keep it going. DeSean Jackson hasn't done anything spectacular since the opener, but he remains dangerous. All in all, this looks like a fairly even matchup.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Denver Broncos
Finally! Rookie Dexter Jackson was much more hype than productivity through three games, but he pulled off a 45-yard kickoff return and 19-yard punt return in Week 4. Kicker Matt Prater averages 7.5 more yards per kickoff at home than on the road, and he may be able to pin Jackson a few times. However, punter Brett Kern has yet to record a fair catch. Jackson should have his shots to weave through the Broncos suspect coverage teams.
Injuries resulted in the Broncos using three different kickoff returners in Week 4, and it doesn't matter who they employ this Sunday. As we've noted in the past, the Buccaneers are as consistent and as good as it gets when it comes to coverage teams. They should easily be able to bottle up Andre Hall or whomever handles kicks. Punt returner Eddie Royal ranks second in the NFL (16.6) and could be a handful, but Josh Bidwell is usually solid.
Buffalo Bills at Arizona Cardinals
The Bills are operating without Roscoe Parrish and Terrence McGee, one of the NFL's best tandems, due to injuries. McGee had previously ceded his job to rookie Leodis McKelvin, but we still appreciated the threat of McGee stepping in. McKelvin and Fred Jackson ably split punt return duties in Week 4 (five returns, 78 yards), and the Bills still look pretty dangerous with this replacement pairing. No team has allowed fewer combined return yards (253) than the Cardinals, who held down Leon Washington last week. Still, we view the Bills return game as an asset.
Despite having two veteran kickers and good return units, the Bills haven't covered kickoffs or punts particularly well. That's a major change from 2007, when they were excellent. Steve Breaston is expected to step into the No. 2 receiving role this Sunday, and we wonder if the Cardinals might take away either his kickoff or punt return duties. He has been quiet in both areas thus far, although he remains high on our list. Even though the Bills coverage units have struggled, we'll hold off on calling this a potential plus for the Cardinals.
Cincinnati Bengals at Dallas Cowboys
Glenn Holt has quietly done a solid job on kickoffs (26.2), and he has produced at least one 35-yard effort in three of four games. However, his spot may be in jeopardy due to the activation of Chris Henry. Holt and fellow receiver Antonio Chatman are the return men, and no other players have touched kickoffs or punts since the start of the preseason. We assume that duo will stay in place against the Cowboys, who've done a nice job on both coverage units. Provided he's active, Holt looks like a dangerous returner, though.
The Bengals coverage units have looked vulnerable the past couple weeks, allowing a 44-yard kickoff return to Josh Cribbs and a 26-yard punt return to Domenik Hixon. These squads typically do a pretty good job, but we won't be surprised if Felix Jones finds an opening after a frustrating Week 4. Punt returner Adam Jones was significantly better when he used his "Pac-Man" nickname. He seemingly feels free to talk trash about Chad Johnson, but Ocho Cinco might want to point out that none of Jones's 11 punt returns have garnered more than eight yards.
New England Patriots at San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers can be proud of their kickoff coverage thus far (22.4 average), but they haven't faced anyone nearly as dangerous as Ellis Hobbs. The Patriots cornerback boasts a league-best 36.0 average and seems likely to break off a touchdown before too much longer. The Patriots also feature the NFL's top punt returner (Kevin Faulk, 17.4), although he has only had five chances. This pairing should be able to exploit the 49ers coverage units, even though they've been decent thus far.
Opponents have been doing their best to avoid Allen Rossum on punts, but they can't dodge him on kickoffs. Rossum ranks fifth in kickoff return average (29.6), and he has produced returns of 44, 44 and 55 yards thus far. The Patriots cover kickoffs very well, and they better be on their best behavior. Rossum has also managed 38 yards on his meager three punt returns, and we expect Chris Hanson to boot it out of bounds or high enough to induce fair catches.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Jacksonville Jaguars
We're just hoping the Steelers can field two return units this week. Injuries have forced Mewelde Moore to the top of the running back depth chart and taken Rashard Mendenhall and Carey Davis out of the kick return picture. Wide receiver Santonio Holmes will likely stick on punt returns, where he was effective in 2006, but we're not sure who will handle kickoffs. It doesn't matter. The Jaguars currently have the league's best kickoff coverage unit.
The Steelers rank fifth in kickoff return average allowed (19.4) and third in punt return average allowed (5.2). Standing alone, those rankings are impressive. Now consider the fact that they've faced Andre Davis, Josh Cribbs, DeSean Jackson, and Yamon Figurs. Mike Tomlin's troops face another stern test against Brian Witherspoon, who ranks fourth in kickoff return average (29.7) and third in punt return average (15.8). It's a strength vs. strength battle.
Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints
Maurice Hicks made his Vikings debut in Week 4, and we couldn't be more excited. Check that. Change the "more" into "less." Over 189 career kickoff returns, Hicks has taken none to the house and managed a mere eight efforts of 40 or more yards. Ick. Charles Gordon is the punt returner du jour, but that revolving door hasn't closed yet. Frankly, we don't care who the Vikings are facing. Their return teams don't pose a threat right now.
With Deuce McAllister back, Pierre Thomas can focus more on kickoff returns. He had his best day of the season in Week 4, and hopefully that's a sign of things to come. Opposing teams are doing their best to punt away from Reggie Bush, which isn't surprising. Lance Moore is also still involved in those return duties. Anyway, the Vikings are near the bottom of the league in both kickoff and punt coverage, and they were nearly burned by the pedestrian Chris Carr in Week 4. The Saints have a huge advantage here.