Ranking the NFL's Most Explosive Kick Returners Heading into 2012

Gianluca Nesci@@GianlucaNesciContributor IIIApril 18, 2012

Ranking the NFL's Most Explosive Kick Returners Heading into 2012

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    Few things in the NFL are more exciting than watching a player break tackles and race to the end zone while returning a kickoff or punt.

    A big play on special teams has the ability to change the momentum of a game, and none more so than a return for a touchdown.

    Despite the introduction of new rules that limited the return game this past season, there is still a large group of players who consistently bring the crowd to life with a great kick return.

    Here are the 10 most electrifying return men to watch for as we look ahead to the 2012-13 season.

    Honorable Mentions: Brandon Banks, Antonio Brown, DeSean Jackson, Brandon Tate.

    Who do you think are the most exciting return men in the NFL? Have your say in the comment section below.

10. Randall Cobb

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    Whenever you tie the record for the longest kickoff return for a touchdown in NFL history, you know you have some serious talent in the return game.

    That 's exactly what Randall Cobb did in the 2011 regular season opener against the New Orleans Saints, equaling the 108-yard touchdown scored by Ellis Hobbs back in 2007.

    Oh and by the way, Cobb was a rookie last season.

    If his first season in the league is any indication, the 21-year-old Kentucky product looks destined to have a solid future as a return man.

    Given the embarrassment of riches that the Packers have at the wide receiver position, it may be at least another season before Cobb gets extended playing time on offense but he should continue to get the chance to wreak havoc on special teams.

9. Joe McKnight

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    In only his second year in the league, the 24-year-old took over the reigns from Brad Smith, who left for the Buffalo Bills following an impressive 2010 campaign returning kicks for the Jets.

    A USC Trojan, Joe McKnight averaged 31.6 yards per kickoff return this past season, the best mark in the league by a fair margin when considering only those players with 20 or more returns.

    The highlight of his season was a 107-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens, a play that was just one yard short of the all-time NFL record we mentioned on the previous slide.

    McKnight also led the league with five returns of 40 yards or more last season, giving quarterback Mark Sanchez and the Jets offense great field position throughout the year.

8. Jacoby Ford

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    Only two years ago, Jacoby Ford took the NFL by storm with his impressive kickoff return ability. As a rookie, he racked up 1,280 yards on kickoffs and set an Oakland Raiders franchise record with three touchdowns.

    This past season was a difficult one for Ford, who struggled with a foot injury that saw him miss a significant portion of the year.

    But despite only appearing in eight games, the former Clemson Tiger still managed to excite fans with a 101-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Cleveland Browns.

    Watch as John Brenkus breaks down the spectacular return here.

    A former NCAA All-American track star, Ford is renowned for his breathtaking speed.

    During the 2010 combine, the 5'9" wide receiver ran a 4.28 40-yard dash, easily the quickest time posted at the annual event.

    If he's able to break through the first wave of tacklers, you're simply not going to catch him.

    If Ford stays healthy for the entire year, expect him to be one of the top return men in the league once again.

7. Ted Ginn Jr.

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    The San Francisco 49ers were at the top of most special team categories last season, ranking No. 1 in both kickoff and punt return averages.

    The main reason for that was none other than Ted Ginn Jr.

    The former Ohio State Buckeye racked up 1,266 total return yards on the campaign, proving to be a major threat returning both kickoffs and punts. Ginn's average of 27.6 yards per kickoff was good enough for third in the league, while he finished fourth with a mark of 12.3 yards per punt return.

    He crowned his stellar campaign with one of the most memorable sequences in NFL history against the Seattle Seahawks.

    Within the space of just over a minute, Ginn returned a kickoff 102 yards for a touchdown, before scoring again thanks to a 55-yard punt return.

    He may never be the star receiver that the Miami Dolphins hoped for when they selected him with the ninth overall pick in 2007, but he is an explosive return man.

    The 27-year-old has six return touchdowns in his career so far—three each on punts and kickoffs—and fans should expect that number to increase this season.

6. Leon Washington

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    Until he decides to stop fielding kickoffs, the veteran return man will be a fixture on lists such as this.

    With 1,461 yards and three touchdowns in 2010, Washington’s exploits returning kicks were a major reason why the Seattle Seahawks made the postseason.

    The 29-year-old was held without a touchdown this past season but still managed to go beyond the 1,000-yard mark, finishing third in kickoff yardage. He also averaged over 25 yards per return once again (25.2), something he has done consistently during his six-year tenure in the league.

    He may not be the fastest player on this list, but he is definitely one of the best, as proven by his seven career kickoff returns for touchdowns, good for second all-time in the NFL.

    The crafty runner still has the ability to change the course of a game, and will be hungry to find the end zone once again in 2012-13.

5. Darren Sproles

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    A threat returning both kickoffs and punts, Darren Sproles is one of the most exciting players to watch in the NFL.

    At only 5’6”, the diminutive running back is able to elude even the best tacklers with his lightning fast changes of direction.

    Last season, the New Orleans Saint finished second in the league in kickoff return yardage with an impressive total of 1,089 yards. Sproles would most likely have topped the list had he been given the same number of chances as leader Brandon Banks.

    The Redskins wide receiver beat him out by 85 yards for the league lead but had 11 more returns on the season.

    With 27.2 yards per kick return last season, Sproles tied his career best mark, which he set in 2007 as a member of the San Diego Chargers.

    He didn't waste any time making an impression with his new team, returning a punt 72 yards for a touchdown in Week 1 against the Green Bay Packers.

    Drew Brees doesn’t need good field position to put points on the board, but Sproles usually gives it to him anyways with his incredible return skills.

4. Percy Harvin

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    One of the most electrifying athletes in the NFL today, Percy Harvin is always a threat on special teams.

    He only returned 16 kicks in 2011 while sharing the workload with teammates Lorenzo Booker and Marcus Sherels, yet he still managed to record three returns of over 40 yards, putting him in the upper echelon of the league in that category.

    One of those plays came against the Atlanta Falcons in late November, when the 5’11” wide receiver ran a kickoff 104 yards down the field before being stopped just short of the end zone.

    It was a run that showcased Harvin's explosive speed, as well as his incredible vision and ability to weave through would-be tacklers.

    In just three seasons in the NFL, the 23-year-old has four kicks returned for touchdowns and that number is certain to increase as his career continues.

3. Patrick Peterson

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    In just his first season in the league, the former LSU Tiger took the NFL by storm with his electrifying punt-return game.

    By returning four punts for touchdowns in one season, Patrick Peterson tied a league record that had been shared by three different players including Devin Hester.

    His most impressive touchdown came in overtime against the St. Louis Rams, when the youngster weaved through traffic en route to a 99-yard score.

    The Arizona Cardinals’ cornerback didn’t get the chance to replicate that success on kickoffs, due to the presence of established return man LaRod Stephens-Howling. Regardless, there is no doubt Peterson is one of the most electrifying returners in the game today.

    At only 21 years old, he should be a fixture on these lists for a very long time.

2. Josh Cribbs

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    Strictly as a kickoff returner, Josh Cribbs of the Cleveland Browns is the best in the NFL today. In fact, once his career comes to an end he will go down as one of the best all-time—if he wouldn't already.

    By his very high standards, the 28-year-old had a sub-par year in 2011-12, going without a touchdown and being held to only 974 yards on kickoffs. However, he did manage to put up his third career touchdown on a punt return on an 84-yard score against the Baltimore Ravens in December.

    It seems a bit unfair to brand his numbers from last season as a disappointment considering that most return men in the league would gladly take them.

    The Kent State alum will be looking to add to his NFL record of eight kickoff returns for touchdowns this season, and add to his reputation as one of the best in the business.

1. Devin Hester

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    Until he stops receiving kicks and punts, Devin Hester will be the best return man in the NFL.

    The longtime Chicago Bear is absolutely incredible to watch on special teams, and he has been giving opponents nightmares since he entered the league in 2006.

    His touchdown history is well documented, as the former University of Miami standout holds the NFL record with 12 career punt returns for touchdowns. Two of those were scored this past season, including an 82-yard scamper against the Detroit Lions where Hester actually muffed the catch and still managed to outrun everyone down the sideline.

    While he is renowned for his punt return skills, that doesn’t mean his ability as a kick returner should be overlooked. During his career, Hester has scored five touchdowns on kickoffs, including a 98-yarder this season in a matchup with the Minnesota Vikings.

    It will be interesting to see how active he is in the kick return game this upcoming season, as the Bears have added both Eric Weems and Devin Thomas to the roster recently.

    According to ESPN, head coach Lovie Smith is contemplating removing Hester from kick return duty entirely.

    However, the electrifying 29-year-old will certainly be returning punts, meaning fans will still get to see the highlight reel plays they have come to love from the special teams star over the years.