2016 NFL Draft: Ranking This Year's Top Return Specialists

Eric Galko@OptimumScoutingFeatured ColumnistFebruary 18, 2016

2016 NFL Draft: Ranking This Year's Top Return Specialists

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    Associated Press

    At most, 64 returner positions are up for grabs at the NFL level, a position that doesn’t covet backups or turnover. Reliability is key for NFL teams in-season from their returners, but big-play potential is what gets prospects drafted solely based on their return skills.

    Due to so many college prospects (generally just running backs, receivers and defensive backs) having experience as returners, there’s a wealth of talent for NFL teams to choose from and ample competition for the few returner spots that are open each year.

    The eight prospects discussed are the best returners in the 2016 NFL draft, but the seven below could earn a draft grade bump thanks to their return ability alone:

    • Jakeem Grant, Texas Tech
    • DeAndre Reaves, Marshall
    • Bralon Addison, Oregon
    • Chris Moore, Cincinnati
    • Tyler Boyd, Pittsburgh
    • Paul McRoberts, Southeast Missouri State
    • Morgan Burns, Kansas State

1. Cyrus Jones, Alabama

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    While Cyrus Jones was also Alabama's starting cornerback, his main impact on the team was as a punt returner. He finished with four punt-return touchdowns, most in the country, en route to a 12.6 yards-per-return average despite teams frequently trying to avoid him.

    For Jones, it’s his burst of acceleration and decisive cuts upfield that give him the most success. He can be elusive, but his ability to plant when he sees an opening and reach his top speed quickly in open space is the biggest attraction. He’s a better return prospect than a cornerback and may still go in the top five rounds because of it.

2. Kenyan Drake, Alabama

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    Associated Press

    Alabama has a spoil of riches across the roster, including returners. While Jones was the dominant punt returner in the country, Kenyan Drake ripped off a 26.6-yard kick-return average. Most importantly, he gave Alabama the lead in the College Football Playoff championship game with a 95-yard return.

    With a taller build (6'1") not common to the position, Drake has proved to be a naturally balanced and explosive athlete in the open field at running back and as a returner. His ability to evade, work through or around arm tackles and keep his balance as he re-accelerates is what makes him one of the 2016 NFL draft’s best kick returner prospects.

3. Jalin Marshall, Ohio State

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    While he doesn’t have a return touchdown on his final college season resume, Jalin Marshall still added value to the Ohio State offense. Averaging 13.5 yards per punt return, third-best at the FBS level, Marshall rarely received room to work, and his stop-start and sudden elusiveness allowed him success.

    It’s also notable that Marshall won the punt return job despite Ohio State having plenty of options. On one of the most loaded offensive skill position rosters in recent memory, Marshall remained the clear-cut returner for the Buckeyes the last two seasons. He has plus-value as a slot receiver, but he’ll likely get drafted thanks to his effectiveness as a returner.

4. Braxton Miller, Ohio State

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    The only prospect on this list who hasn’t been a returner at the college level , Braxton Miller’s unique and explosive skill set not only warrants his inclusion on this list but one of the top spots. As a playmaker with potent 4.3 speed in the 40-yard dash who’s proved highly elusive at quarterback and receiver, Miller’s ability to make defenders miss and work laterally while keeping his top speed is exactly what NFL teams covet in a returner.

    At the 2016 Senior Bowl, Miller received ample practice work catching punts and kick returns. He didn’t look out of place with other experienced returners and has seemingly picked up another new role (along with receiver).

5. Tyler Ervin, San Jose State

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The do-it-all playmaker for the San Jose State offense, Tyler Ervin even had to be the team’s featured kick returner. Posting a 23.9 kick-return average, Ervin’s upside as a kick returner stems more from his dynamic ability as an open-field running back.

    Combining his reliable, big-play running style with his kick-return experience should quickly make him a reliable option for a team in need of a kick returner in training camp. After he received work at the Senior Bowl as a returner, NFL teams can perceive his value as well. He’s a running back first, as he’s among the 2016 draft’s best third-down backs, but adding returner upside won’t hurt his draft stock.

6. Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina

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    Jonathan Bachman/Associated Press

    Besides Braxton Miller, Pharoh Cooper may have the most lackluster return resume of any prospect on this list. But Cooper, like Tyler Ervin, has been not only the focal point of the South Carolina offense but the catalyst for the team's success each week. 

    Underappreciated in the draft process thus far, Cooper has a real chance of being a top-50 pick with a great NFL combine thanks to his naturally smooth running style, top-end speed and ability to make defenders miss as a running back, receiver and returner. He may not be perceived as a top returner on most scouting reports, but it’s a position that NFL teams will consider for the rookie before he slides into a starting role at receiver.

7. Demarcus Ayers, Houston

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    A somewhat surprising early entry into the 2016 NFL draft, Demarcus Ayers offers plus-slot receiver upside and vertical speed that rivals any receiver in the class. While entering the draft early was a bold decision, as he’s likely looking at a Day 3 draft choice unless he thoroughly impresses at the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine, Ayers' value as a returner certainly helps.

    He finished with 25 punt returns last year for an average of 10.4 yards and a touchdown in his third season as the punt and/or kick returner, and he can offer value for either spot for NFL teams. His timed speed at the combine will go a long way in determining if a team will draft him early, but his return upside could help solidify his draftable value either way.

8. Ed Eagan, Northwestern State

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    One of two small-schoolers on this list, Ed Eagan owns all the Northwestern State and most of the conference records as a returner in his four-year career as a receiver and kick returner for the Demons. He's generated NFL interest thanks to his return ability, as well as his explosive, versatile receiver talent. A combination of both skill sets has guided him into the draftable discussion despite being a slightly undersized small-school receiver (5'10", 193 lbs).

    Eagan was a late Senior Bowl invite but immediately got work as a punt returner in team drills and in the game. While his college return talent stemmed from positioning to set up running lanes, Eagan surprisingly showcased his explosive upside and proved that, despite hailing from an FCS school, his athleticism can match up well enough.

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