2014 NFL Draft: Highlighting the Most Explosive Options in the Return Game
If the NFL will allow these young draft prospects to continue their profession beyond 2014 without any additional rule changes to the kicking game, we might be able to enjoy some really explosive kick returners in the years to come.
After all, people do say special teams should be valued equally to both offense and defense in determining a game's outcome, and the guys populating this list are a large reason why.
To rank these talented return options, I graded them each in three critical categories.
The ultimate goal with this scoring system is to bring together as many factors as possible that might correlate with a prospect’s career success.
This metric also allows for unique intra-positional comparisons to be made across numerous layers of data.
The returners are listed based on the average of these three grades.
Measurables Grade: This is the combined score of everything that prospect brings to the table with regard to physical tools. This consists only of measurable data generated at the combine or pro days.
To do this, every available element of data is normalized into numeric values and then weighted into an overall grade. The value in applying this formula is that it allows for the data to be organized and incorporated into macro-level analysis.
Production Grade: To generate a production grade, every prospects' kick return stats were taken throughout their collegiate career and combined in a formula to determine the most productive return prospect over the course of their career.
Film Study: This category speaks for itself. It's the part where all the juicy subjectivity comes into play. But this is a very critical part nonetheless. For kick returners, I personally want to see a guy who really knows how to make guys miss using as many tools and strategies as possible.
6. Jalen Saunders, WR, Oklahoma
Weight: 165 lbs
40 time: 4.44
For a guy who weighs 165 pounds you can't have a 4.34 short shuttle and a 7.29 three-cone. Those numbers just don't seem to match with the player who shows up on film. Another concern regarding measurables, Saunders' 8.87-inch hands are among the smallest in this draft class.
The average career punt returns among the guys who have made this list is roughly nine yards per carry. Saunders averaged 15 yards per return throughout his career where he also took three of those returns to the house.
Film Review: 8
Jalen Saunders has impressive start/stop abilities and is one of the more elusive return guys available.
Total Ranking: 6.7
Saunders is a guy who plays the game of football much better than his physical tools would suggest. He is likely near the limits of his potential and is not even a lock to make an NFL roster at this point.
5. Marqise Lee, WR, USC
Weight: 192 lbs
40 time: 4.52
Lee is pretty explosive which he shows with a 38-inch vertical jump. His size should help him compete at the next level but he doesn't possess any elite qualities in terms of his physical tools.
Marqise Lee's production in the return game came almost exclusively as a kick returner. Punts were not something he had much experience with.
Of the 12 return specialists I analyzed, six of which did not make this list, Lee finished third in the group with his 26.1-yard career kick return average.
Film Review: 8.2
Lee might be the most creative ball-carrier of the group. His ability to make guys miss with the ball in his hand is unique and shows a combination of smooth body control with the instincts to improvise on the fly.
Total Ranking: 6.92
Marqise Lee is a potential first-round pick who has a future beyond special teams. He can be a dynamic playmaker whenever you put a ball in his hands. His limited physical tools could prevent the adjective "great" from ever describing his NFL career but "solid" is well within the expectation.
4. Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
Weight: 202 lbs
40 time: 4.37
With elite size and speed for a cornerback and return man, Justin Gilbert has everything he needs to excel in the NFL. He is a tough physical athlete who sees the field well. He also has the straight ahead burst to hit holes and take a kick to the house.
Of all the prospects on this list, Gilbert has scored the most career touchdowns in the kicking game with six in 51 collegiate games. He also finished second out of the 12 prospects analyzed in return yards per game over his career.
Film Review: 7
Gilbert was not flashy with his return abilities but he is highly effective. His straight ahead speed is insane and he also has the strength to run through arm tackles.
Total Ranking: 7.4
Although Gilbert is obviously a very skilled return man, his value as a cornerback at the next level could limit his opportunities to show off what he can do here. Gilbert is a lock to be a first-round selection and should start for the team that takes him right away. Special teams might not be a big part of his future.
3. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU
Weight: 198 lbs
40 time: 4.43
Of all the prospects considered for this list, Odell Beckham has the highest measurables. He ran a good 40-yard dash and had one of the best three-cone times in his class with a 6.69. His short shuttle of 3.94 was also impressive.
Beckham also has long arms and a solid frame.
In 2012 Beckham had his only two kick return touchdowns while at LSU and they came via punt return.
Film Review: 8.5
Beckham's explosiveness and playmaking ability outshine his production. He is a quick and fluid athlete who really brings the "wow" factor with some of the things he can do on the field physically.
Total Ranking: 7.61
Odell Beckham Jr. has similar playmaking potential to a Percy Harvin type. He may never materialize as a true No.1 receiver but he is almost certainly going to provide huge splash plays in a variety of ways.
2. Dri Archer, RB, Kent State
Weight: 173 lbs
40 time: 4.26
Having the fastest 40 time in the 2014 draft always helps with measurables. His speed in every direction is impressive but the straight ahead burst is rare.
Archer is one of the hardest guys to get your hands on and it's primarily the result of that speed we're talking about. Unlike some prospects, who tend to turn their speed on and off in odd moments, like Brandin Cooks, Archer really just shows one gear on a football field.
Film Review: 9
Archer doesn't have the best moves in this class and his change of direction elusiveness is surprisingly not as impressive as one might assume when they consider his diminutive stature. Nonetheless, big plays are a staple in this kid's DNA.
Total Ranking: 7.74
Dri Archer lacks the size to be a regular contributor on offense but he seems to have a promising career as a utility weapon and return man.
1. De'Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon
Weight: 174 lbs
40 time: 4.42*
De'Anthony Thomas underwhelmed at the combine in Indianapolis with a 4.6 40-yard dash. He made up for that by running a sub 4.4 time during Oregon's pro day. His 4.21 short shuttle time was oddly disappointing and has likely caused some teams to prefer Archer.
No player had more production in the return game than Thomas in this draft class. He led all prospects in return yards per game while taking five kicks to the house in 37 games.
Film Review: 9.2
On a football field, Thomas has both elite speed and quickness. His football instincts are incredibly impressive. His nickname is the Black Mamba but he should be called the Octopus for his ability to slip through any opening as long as it's at least the size of his head.
Total Ranking: 7.83
De'Anthony Thomas has playmaker written all over him, but as with Dri Archer, his size requires a certain role. The team that assumes ownership of this sports car will have to be careful with how many times they take it out of the garage.
Ryan Riddle is former NFL player and writes for Bleacher Report.
To discuss the NFL draft follow him on Twitter @Ryan_Riddle
*Average time between combine numbers and pro day.