Why Johnnie Lee Higgins and Justin Miller Are the Most Underrated NFL Returners

Gil BecerraCorrespondent IJuly 15, 2009

Friday I caught some NFL Total Access and noticed they were going to list the top five returners in the NFL on Monday.  I am thinking that, "Johnnie Lee Higgins got snubbed from the Pro-Bowl; the guys over at the Network will notice his skills.”  That was not the case.

Jamie Dukes, a former offensive lineman, was the one given the task to put a list together.  Here are his top five return men...

(pr = punt return; kr = kick return)

5. Devin Hester: 32 pr/198 yds= 6.2avg yds 0 TDs; 31 kr/ 679 yds = 8.8 avg yds 0 TDs

4. DeSean Jackson: 50 pr/440 yds= 8.8avg yds 1 TDs; 1 kr/ 12 yds = 12 avg yds 0 TDs

3. Darren Sproles: 22 pr/249 yds= 11.3avg yds 0 TDs; 53 kr/ 1376 yds = 26 avg yds 1 TD

2. Leon Washington: 29 pr/303 yds= 10.4avg yds 0 TDs; 48 kr/ 1243 yds = 25.6 avg yds 1 TD

1. Josh Cribbs: 28 pr/228 yds= 8.1avg yds 0 TDs; 44 kr/ 1110 yds = 25.2 avg yds 1 TD

When you hear those names, you know these guys can return.  Look at those stats.  That is five "stud" returners and COMBINED they had four touchdowns via return last year.

What about Johnnie Lee Higgins?

JLH: 44 pr/570 yds= 12.9 avg yds 3 TDs; 36 kr/ 842 yds= 23.4 avg yds 0 TDs

He could have had some more yards/TDs but due to our receiver issue, this past year the Raiders added Justin Miller halfway through the year to contribute, and he did.

What about Justin Miller?

Justin Miller:  0 pr/0 yds= 0 avg yds 0 TDs; 32kr/ 794 yds= 24.8 avg yds 2 TDs

Both Darren Sproles and Leon Washington are mainly two running backs in their offense (to LT and Thomas Jones, respectively) yet maintain solid return averages.  With all those hits, they take carrying the football; an injury is bound to handcuff these guys from doing both consistently.

DeSean Jackson was a solid returner in college and that leaked over to the NFL some.  The Eagles kept him from returning kickoffs so he can concentrate on punts.  I am sure they will keep him in that role since his receiving role should slowly expand.

Both Devin Hester and Josh Cribbs were pushed to play more at RECEIVER this past year, more than asked in 2007.

Hester went from a low-impact 2007 line as a receiver (20rec/229yds and 2 TDs) to an even better one in 2008 (51rec/665yds and three TDs).  His average per catch dropped from 15.0 to 13.0, and had ZERO returns for TDs. Were those extra 31 catches and one receiving touchdown worth giving up awesome field position with an occasional TD?  I do not think so.

Josh Cribbs has played very little on offense in both 2007 (3rec/37yds and zero TDs) and 2008 (2rec/18yards and one TD).  That is one catch in two games all year...ouch; and he wants wide receiver money?  Right … his return production went from 2,204 combined yards and 3 touchdowns in 2007 to 1,338 combined yards with one score.

We have seen what will happen when teams ask return specialists to concentrate more on receiving than returning.  The outcome is not good.  Their specialty is handicapped due to a lack of attention to detail.

Having Higgins and Miller returning kicks for the Raiders is HUGE.  Getting the ball on the 40-50-yard line on kickoffs is awesome, getting the ball on your opponent’s side of the field off a punt is awesome, and the occasional touchdowns are even better.

When you have an offense like the Raiders that will feature Darren McFadden and Michael Bush, the field position game is huge.  We are asking them to get 20-25 yards to get into Sebastian Janikowski's kicking range.

I want to keep JLH as a returner and occasional receiver.  Look at Hester; he had a higher receiving average when he would carry over the momentum from returns to his route running to returning.  He showed the explosiveness last year doing both.  His 84-yard slant to the house vs. Buffalo was a preview of what he had.

Having the taller guys out there in Darrius Heyward-Bey, Chaz Schilens, Javon Walker, and Louis Murphy with the occasional sprinkle of Johnnie "home run" Higgins will keep-up defensive coordinators late.

Justin Miller will hold on as our dime cornerback.  His speed is very valuable.  I hope that working alongside Nnamdi Asomugha and late bloomer Chris Johnson will help Miller improve his skills at the position.

Those players fitting in and contributing at those positions would be a plus, but, regardless, they are VERY valuable as returners and easily make up the best duo in the NFL.  The numbers do not lie.  They deserve some credit that they will receive as soon as the Raiders win; we all know winning solves everything.