The career of a kick returner often resembles a comet, as it shines brightly for a short period of time before fading into oblivion.
Legendary return men, Billy "White Shoes" Johnson, Eric Metcalf, Dante Hall and Mel Gray all enjoyed spectacular periods where they were revered for their ability to produce electrifying touchdown returns in the kicking game. Their dazzling displays of elusiveness and playmaking was seemingly endless as they continued to break off long returns despite facing a host of tactics designed to neutralize their impact. Although these spectacular phases would lead to adulation and Pro Bowl recognition, they were often followed by dormant periods where these proven game-changers would have difficulty finding room in the kicking game.
Whereas the droughts are not uncommon for even the league's top returners, they exemplify the difficult challenges returners face in remaining prolific playmakers for extended periods of time. Thus, a returner should be judged on his overall impact, not on his return average or touchdowns.
While elite returners are capable of setting up their offenses with short fields, the fear of these game-changers delivering field flipping returns causes some special teams coaches to avoid taking part in the risky endeavor completely. These coaches are willing to concede chunks of hidden yardage to sidestep the potential explosive plays (plays covering 20 yards or more) rendered by the playmakers. Given the importance that winning the field position battle has on the impact of the game, the value of having a dynamic weapon in the return game is invaluable.
With big-play potential and impact as critical factors, here is my list of the top returners in the league today:
1. Devin Hester, Bears
Hester is undoubtedly the NFL's most feared returner after torching the league for 11 kickoff and punt return scores during his first two seasons. Hester relied on his explosive speed and quickness to produce big plays at a dizzying rate. The two-time Pro Bowler amassed 12 returns over 40 yards during that two-year span, and baffled countless foes with his high-risk, high-reward running style. Although the three-year veteran seemingly lost his mojo last season when he posted career lows on kick and punt returns, Hester's potent skills still rank above the rest at the position, and make him worthy of his spot at the top of the list.
2. Josh Cribbs, Browns
The "do it all" playmaker might rank as the league's top special teamer, given his contributions as a returner/cover man on the Browns' kicking units. The former Pro Bowler has posted stellar averages as a kick and punt returner while leading the team in special teams tackles in consecutive seasons. While Cribbs' exceptional cover skills are noteworthy, his sensational return skills rival some of the greatest returners to play in recent years. The hard-nosed returner displays excellent instincts and vision while searching for creases in coverage, and flashes an explosive burst while shooting through the gap. In addition, he is a powerful runner who specializes in running through arm tackles in traffic. With at least one kick return touchdown in four straight seasons, Cribbs is one of the league's biggest game-changers in the return game.
3. Darren Sproles, Chargers
The diminutive speedster has quickly ascended to the ranks of the elite after thriving as a dual threat in the kicking game. Sproles has ranked among league leaders in kick and punt returns the past two seasons, and is one of the most dangerous returners in the game. With an outstanding combination of speed, quickness and elusiveness, Sproles is an explosive jitterbug who specializes in finding cracks in the coverage. He has produced at least five kick returns over 40 yards in each of the past two seasons, and found pay dirt in each campaign. In addition, he has shown the same big play potential as a punt returner with four returns over 20 yards, and a robust 11.3 yard average in 2008. Although Sproles has increasingly gained acclaim as a third-down back, his exceptional return skills should be celebrated when tabbing the top returners in the game.
4. Leon Washington, Jets
The versatile big-play threat has shined as a return specialist since entering the league in 2006. The former Pro Bowler is an elusive runner with excellent quickness and vision. He patiently sets up his blocks, and flashes an exceptional second gear when accelerating through the hole. Although Washington excels as both a kick and punt returner, it is his ability to generate big plays off kickoffs that pushes him into the elite category. Washington has scored four times off kickoff returns the past two seasons, and amassed 11 returns over 40 yards during that span. With few returners capable of matching Washington's impact in the kicking game, the former Pro Bowler deservedly ranks among the league's best returners.
5. Reggie Bush, Saints
The electrifying return man provides countless highlights while bringing back punts in New Orleans. As an elusive speedster with exceptional quickness and cutback ability, Bush specializes in reversing the field on his returns to take advantage of undisciplined cover men running out of their lanes. The unconventional method produces big results as the fourth-year pro led the league in punt return touchdowns (three) despite playing in only 10 games. Though critics have derided Bush for failing to live up to the hype as a running back, the sensational playmaker deserves kudos for emerging as one of the top returners in the game.