The Best Punt Return Specialists in NFL History
There are many excellent return specialists today in Hester, McGee, Cribbs, Carr, Rossum, Davis, Hall, and many more.
Some specialize in returning mainly punts or kickoffs.
Some do both.
Devin Hester deserves mention.
He has scored seven touchdowns on punt returns in the first two seasons of his career.
But, it is the NFL: Not For Long.
One can never assume he will score again, nor not suffer a career ending injury at any given moment.
Even if he never does anything again on the gridiron, his two seasons have put his name on many peoples list.
I wanted to give him mention, as well as Mike Nelms, Eddie Brown, Jermaine Lewis, Darrien Gordon, Leroy Irvin, Louis Lipps, "Bullet" Bill Dudley, Emlen Tunnell, George Atkinson, Greg Pruitt, Leon Johnson, Neal Colzie, Vai Sikahema, Dick Christy, Fulton Walker, Lemar Parrish, J.T. Smith, Rodger Bird, Claude Gibson, and Oakland's Tim Brown.
These are some of the best ever to have returned punts in NFL history.
I recently did an All Time Kickoff Returners list, where I told you about the best kickoff AND punt returner in NFL history:
His 23,330 total yards ranks second All Time.
He also averaged 10.8 yards per punt return on 463 attempts.
His 19,013 total return yards is a record, as is his 4,999 punt return yards.
His nine punt return touchdowns is the second most ever in NFL history.
Brian's 231 fair catches are the most ever, and his 33 in one season is also an NFL record.
He is one of just four players in NFL history to gain over 2,000 yards four times in his career.
This article just deals with punt returners, so let us get to it in no particular order.
Eric Metcalf was a first round draft pick by the Browns in 1989. He did return a few kicks his rookie year, but was primarily utilized at Halfback.
He ran for a career high 633 yards on a career high 187 carries. He also scored for a career high 10 touchdowns, to go with 51 receptions. He completed the only pass of his career that year, for a 32 yard touchdown.
Metcalf only carried the ball 183 total times over the next three seasons, but did catch 133 passes over that time.
He led the NFL with 52 kick returns, 1,052 kick return yards, and 2 touchdowns in 1990. He returned one for a career long 101 yards. Eric never returned a kickoff for a touchdown again in his career.
In 1991, Cleveland decided to let Eric return punts. He was spotted that year, with 12 returns. He became the Browns full time punt return specialist the next season, and stopped returning kicks for Cleveland.
He led the NFL with 44 punt returns that year, and took one for a touchdown.
He made his first Pro Bowl in 1993, when he led the NFL with 2 punt returns for touchdowns. One of his touchdowns came on a 91 yard return. His 12.9 yards per punt return was his career high. Eric also carried the ball 129 times for 611 yards that year, and caught 63 passes.
Eric returned to the Pro Bowl the next season, as he led the NFL again with two punt returns for touchdowns. He took one punt for a career long 92 yards.
Metcalf ended up playing for the Atlanta Falcons in 1995. He led the NFL again in punt return touchdowns, while also catching a career high 104 passes for a career high 1,189 yards. He also scored 9 times on offense.
He played for San Diego in 1997, and made his last Pro Bowl team. Metcalf led the NFL with 3 punt return touchdowns.
He played for Arizona and Carolina in each of the next two seasons. After not playing in the NFL in 2000, Eric signed with the Washing Redskins in 2001.
There, he scored for the last time in his career, when he took a punt for a league leading 89 yards.
He did end up playing one game for Green Bay in 2002, but retired shortly thereafter.
Metcalf's 10 punt return touchdowns are the most in NFL history, and his 12 total return touchdowns are second in NFL history.
He also caught 541 passes in his 13 year career, to go with 55 total touchdowns.
His 17,230 total yards from scrimmage is in the top 15 in NFL history.
Many also might recall he is the son of Terry Metcalf, the All Pro running back of the Saint Louis Cardinals in the 1970's.
Rick Upchurch was drafted by the Denver Broncos in the fourth round of the 1975 draft. He was used as a return specialist immediately.
He had 1,084 yards on 40 kickoff returns for an impressive 27.1 average. He also had an 11.6 yard per punt return average on 27 attempts.
Upchurch exploded onto the NFL scene the next year, and was named to his first All Pro team. He scored 4 times on punt returns that season, which tied an NFL record. He also led the league with a 13.7 average, and a career best 92 yard return.
Rick led the NFL in 1977 with 653 punt return yards. He also scored on a 87 yard return, helping the Broncos capture the AFC Championship.
Upchurch, now primarily a punt returner and wide receiver, went back to the Pro Bowl in 1977. He led the NFL with a 13.7 punt return average, while scoring on a 75 yard return.
Rick's best year as a pass catcher was in 1979. He had career bests with 64 receptions for 937 yards and seven touchdowns. He also averaged 10.1 yards on punt returns, as he was honored as an All Pro.
Upchurch spent his last few years as a wide receiver mainly. In 1982, Rick returned 15 punts and scored the last two touchdowns of his career via special teams. He also led the NFL with a career best 16.1 yards per return.
His leading the NFL in punt return average three times is tied for an NFL record.
Upchurch retired after the 1983 season with 267 receptions and 24 touchdowns. He also rushed for 349 yards on 49 attempts, and scored three times.
He had a 24.8 average on 95 kick returns, and a 12.1 average on 248 returns.
His eight punt return touchdowns are tied for the third most in NFL history.
Leslie Speedy Duncan
Speedy was an undrafted rookie who was signed by the 1964 San Diego Chargers in the AFL.
He only got to play 5 games as a rookie, but did manage to intercept a pass and return one of his nine kickoff returns for a career best 91 yards.
Speedy got on the field more the next year, and lead the league in punt return yardage, average, and two touchdowns, along with four interceptions, and garnered his first All Pro honors.
Duncan was an All Pro again in 1966, when he picked off a career best seven balls. He also scored on a league leading 81 yard punt return, and led the league with a 13.2 yards per punt return average.
Duncan was an All Pro once again in 1967, when he averaged 12.1 yards per punt return, and picked off two passes.
He took one interception for a league leading 100 yard touchdown return.
Speedy scored his last punt return TD in 1968. He took a punt for a career long 95 yards, which led the league.
In 1969, he had six interceptions for a career best 118 yards, while scoring a touchdown.
He then was injured in the sixth game of the 1970 season, and missed the rest of the year.
Duncan joined the Washington Redskins in 1971, and made his last All Pro team after leading the NFL with a 10.6 yards per punt return average.
He also scored his last NFL touchdown, when he took his lone interception for a 46 yard score.
Speedy was an important member of the 1972 NFC Champion Redskins.
He retired after the 1973 season with a 10.9 career average on punt returns, and four punt return touchdowns. He also had 24 career interceptions for three touchdowns, and a 25.2 average on 180 kickoff returns.
Duncan had the most combined kick returns in AFL history, and the second most total yards.
His leading the league in punt return average three times is tied for an NFL record.
Billy White Shoes Johnson
"White Shoes" was a 15th round draft pick by the Houston Oilers in 1974.
In 1975 he tied an NFL record with four kick returns for touchdowns in a season.
He would celebrate his touchdowns with the "Funky Chicken" dance.
This dance, coupled by his white shoes shoes, made him a fan favorite across the league. In today's No Fun League, he would be penalized by that STUPID rule Goodell has implemented.
Johnson was named to both the NFL's 1980's All-Decade Team, and to the 75th Anniversary All-Time Team.
He set seven team records in Houston and four in Atlanta and held the NFL record for punt return yardage when he retired.
He is ranked third All Time in punt return yardage in NFL history, and still holds the Oilers' record for punt return yardage.
If you want a full flavor of this dynamic players career, I had profiled him months ago in my Crazy Canton Cuts series that you can find in my archives.
Jack was drafted in the 6th round of the 1951 draft.
He had four punt return TD's as a rookie, which led the NFL and is a record.
He also had an NFL leading 89 yard punt return that year. .
Jack returned two punts for touchdowns that year, and made the first of his six All Pro teams. He also led the NFL with a 21.5 average on punt returns.
Christianson returned 85 punts in his career, and scored 8 touchdowns on punt returns.
He also led the NFL twice in interceptions, and scored three touchdowns.
Jack rushed the ball 19 times for 178 yards in 1951, scoring twice.
When he retired, he had a career average of 12.7 yards per punt return, and scored on eight punt return touchdowns.
His eight punt return touchdowns are tied for the third most in NFL history.
He also took 59 kickoffs at a 22, five yard per return average.
Jack Christianson was deservedly admitted into Canton in 1970.
Dave was a fifth round pick of the New York Giants in the 1989 draft. He was used as a returner and third down back immediately.
He led the NFL in punt return yardage with 582 yards. He also led the NFL with a 76 yard punt return touchdown, while catching 34 passes for four touchdowns. He made his first All Pro team that year.
Meggett led the NFL in punt returns,yardage, and touchdowns in 1990, when he 43 returns for 467 yards and a score.
Meggett would go on to be on of the top return specialists and 3rd down backs for many years. He caught 50 balls in 1991, while averaging 10.3 yards on punt returns and 22.8 on kickoff returns.
In 1992, he took his only score off of a kickoff return, when he went 92 yards.
He scored on two punt returns in 1994.
In 1995, Meggett joined the New England Patriots.
Meggett made his last All Pro team in 1996, when he averaged 11.6 on punt returns. He also had a career best 588 yards on punt returns, while scoring for the final time in his career via a punt return.
Dave played two games for the New York Jets in 1998, then retired.
Meggett has the second most punt returns yardage in NFL history with 3,708 on 349 attempts for a 10.6 average.
He had seven punt return touchdowns, and one kickoff return touchdown. Dave averaged 22.1 yards per kickoff return on 252 attempts.
Meggett also scored 11 touchdowns on 336 receptions, and eight touchdowns on 398 rushing attempts for 1,684 yards.
Dave Meggett was an important member of two Super Bowl Championships with the New York Giants on special teams and offense.
Alvin Haymond was drafted in the 18th round of the 1964 draft by the Baltimore Colts.
He only had one return on both a punt and a kickoff his rookie year, as the Colts would go on to lose in the NFL Championship game.
Haymond then led the NFL in punt returns and punt return yards the next two seasons.
He also played cornerback, and scored two touchdowns off of seven interceptions those two years.
Alvin was playing for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1968, after being traded for Timmy Brown.
It would be his last as a cornerback. He had the last interception of his career, and also scored a touchdown off both off of a punt and kickoff.
Haymond then went to the Los Angeles Rams the next season. He led the NFL in punt return yards, and with a 13.2 yard per punt return average.
His three seasons of leading the league in punt return yards is an NFL record.
In 1970, Alvin lead the NFL with 53 punt returns. He also returned a career high 35 kickoffs, while leading the NFL with 1,022 kickoff return yards.
He also scored the last time in his career, when he matched a career long with a 98 yard return.
He left the Rams after 1971, and played with the 1972 NFC Champion Washington Redskins.
Haymond played for the Houston Oilers the next year, then retired with a career average of 8.5 yards per punt return, and a 26.1 per kickoff return average.
Desmond Howard was a first round draft pick of the Washington Redskins in 1992.
He was used primarily as a kickoff returner as a rookie, but did manage to score a touchdown off of one of his six punt returns.
In 1994, Howard had his best year as a wide receiver. He established career bests with 40 catches for 727 yards at an 18.2 average for 5 touchdowns.
He ended up in Jacksonville the next year, and returned 24 punts at a 10.3 average.
Howard spent the rest of his career being used mostly as a return specialist.
He went to Green Bay the following season. Though he only played one season for the Packers, it was a memorable season.
He led the NFL with 58 punt returns for 875 yards, three touchdowns, and a 92 yard return.
His 875 punt return yards are an NFL record for a single season, and he also helped propel the Packers into Super Bowl XXXI with a punt return touchdown in the playoffs.
Desmond ended up being the Super Bowl MVP, when he took a kickoff return 99 yards for a score.
His 90 punt return yards are a Super Bowl record, and his 244 all purpose yards tied a Super Bowl record.
Howard then went to the Oakland Raiders. He led the NFL in 1997 with 61 kickoff returns.
He led the NFL in punt return touchdowns in 1998, when he took two in.
Desmond split the 1999 season between Green Bay and Detroit, but did score on a 68 yard punt return for the Lions in five attempts.
Howard made his lone All Pro team the next year with Detroit, as he averaged 14.7 yards on punt returns and had 1,401 yards on kickoff returns.
He scored his last special teams touchdown that year with a league leading 95 yard punt return.
In 2001, Howard set career highs with 1,446 yards on kickoff returns, to go with a 25.4 average. He also had a career long kickoff return of 92 yards, but was tackled just short of the end zone.
After an injury plagued 2002, he retired.
Desmond Howard was labeled another Heisman Trophy winning flop in the NFL after his first four years, but he shed that label when it was all said and done.
He is the only special teams player in NFL history to win a Super Bowl MVP Award.
He had eight TD's on punt returns, which is tied for the third most in NFL history.
Desmond once returned 10 kickoffs in a game, which is tied for the most in NFL history.
He caught 123 passes for seven touchdowns, had a 22.2 average on 359 kickoff returns, and averaged 11.9 yards on 244 punt returns.
George was a first round draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1940. He ended up with the Chicago Bears before the season started, and played sparingly as a rookie.
George "One Play" McAfee made his only All Pro team the next year, when he led the league with a 7.3 yard per rush average, while scoring 12 touchdowns total.
McAfee averaged 31.6 average on five punt returns, and 31.9 yards on nine kickoff returns.
He also scored a touchdown on a 71 yard punt return, and another touchdown on a career long 97 yard kickoff return.
McAfee was inducted into Canton in 1966.
He intercepted 25 passes in his career, and scored twice.
He also recovered 17 fumbles, averaged 36.7 yards on 39 punts, completed six passes for three touchdowns, gained 3,044 yards rushing and receiving with 32 touchdowns, and averaged 27.1 yards on 18 kick returns with two touchdowns.
McAfee also scored two touchdowns on punt returns.
His 12.78 yards per punt return in a career, on 112 returns, is the best punt return average in NFL history.