Tuesday, June 25, 2024
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Every NFL team’s ideal kick returner with new safer kickoff rules: Lamar Jackson, Saquon Barkley wild options

With the NFL debuting new rules governing kickoffs this upcoming season, there’s at least one coach out there (Mike McDaniel of the Dolphins) who thinks we are going to see No. 1 wideouts and running backs campaigning to get in on the return game. That may or may not actually come to fruition, but the team here at CBS Sports thinks it would be really freaking cool if it did. 

So, we got to imagining things and decided we needed to put together a list of the most fun possible return man for each. We’re going to do is walk through, division by division, each of the 32 teams in the NFL and see what we come up. The only caveat here is that they can’t currently be the team’s return man. We’re looking, essentially, for novelty acts — even if they’re the kind that would never happen, such as some of the quarterbacks listed below.

Without further ado …

NFC East

Lamb returned punts in college and his first couple NFL seasons, but he’s obviously been too important to the Cowboys’ offense to use him as a kick returner. But he’s electric with the ball in his hands and can make guys miss, so he’d be really fun to watch back there. Nabers has game-breaking speed, as we often saw at LSU, and Robinson (who has returned some punts but not kicks) is one of the shiftiest players in the NFL. Either one of them would give the Giants a really interesting look. We’re looking at tackle-breaking more than speed here, and AJB and Saquon are two of the best in the business in that arena. Plus, the power with which they run would be a new look for kickoffs. And then Daniels is just a preposterous athlete who could potentially break some wild plays if given the opportunity.

NFC North

Swift actually has a perfect skill set for this sort of role. All the things that have frustrated coaches about his running style could actually be played up in the new-look return game. Gibbs and Watson are pretty self-explanatory. Those dudes are really freaking fast. And Gibbs, in particular, is also just explosive in short areas and excels at avoiding tackles. Jefferson isn’t necessarily a perfect fit for this exercise, but who wouldn’t want to see it anyway? And Jones has always had a knack for snapping off long runs and receptions, so he can do the same sort of thing as a returner. 

NFC South

Robinson was wildly under-utilized by Atlanta last season, so let’s let him also return kicks, just to be safe. And Moore returned kicks for the Cardinals as a rookie but not last season. Put him back in that role and see what happens. As far as the ability to break explosive plays goes, Brooks might be the only game in town in Carolina. He’s coming back from an ACL tear so this obviously wouldn’t happen, but it would be a lot cooler if it did! We’ve already seen Taysom Hill take on a role as a runner in crowded situations, so why not extent that to the kicking game? What’s the worst that could happen? And then Godwin is just a bowling ball who is used to creating with the ball in his hands, being that he’s a slot receiver.

NFC West

Murray is so elusive, it would be hard for any kick-return units to catch him. Perhaps he could avoid the big hits just by shaking everybody out of their cleats. Corum returned a few kicks his first couple years at Michigan, and he was pretty good at it! Why not give it another shot? Deebo and McCaffrey are pretty obvious inclusions. Nobody is better at creating yards out of nothing than are those two guys. And they do at least have return experience. And then how terrifying would it be to see a guy DK METCALF’s size running straight at you in the return game? We’d pay just to see it.

AFC East

Speaking of guys DK Metcalf’s size … Josh Allen! Obviously, we know he can create amazing plays in space. It’s different as a returner than a scrambler, but it would still be fun. The Dolphins have more fascinating guys to do this with than almost any team in the NFL. Hill and Achane have a lot of return experience in either college or the pros, while Waddle returned some punts at Alabama. Any one of them or Wright could break a huge play in an instant. Gibson was a hybrid running back/slot receiver and return man at Memphis, and we could easily slide him back into that role; and Douglas has the style of shiftiness we mentioned with Wan’Dale Robinson earlier. Hall has a knack for breaking big plays when given even a sliver of space, and there’s a reason that Corley drew comparisons to guys like Deebo, Golden Tate, and Randall Cobb. He’d be incredible in this role. 

AFC North

Remember when I said “almost” any team about the Dolphins? That’s because the Ravens exist, and their options are much more varied than are Miami’s. Lamar and Henry might be the two most interesting guys on this entire list, given their disparate skill sets and the way they can create in space. Mitchell has the electric speed, and Flowers has the joystick moves. Chase has already established himself as a top tackle-breaker and YAC guy. The same skill set would apply here. Moore has only returned three punts or kicks in his career. That’s a shame. We’re putting him back there and seeing what he can do. Fields and Warren could form a thunder-and-lightning kind of duo for Pittsburgh, except the thunder (Fields) would also come with like 1,000 mile-per-hour winds or something. 

AFC South

Dell returned 11 punts and two kicks last season; but he was a big-play machine in the passing game, and with his speed, he’d make for a lights-out return man if he could find a hole in the defense. Richardson is one of the best athletes in the history of the sport, and while there are obvious reasons why he’d never be involved in the return game, that doesn’t mean we can’t picture the potential awesomeness. Taylor and Etienne are on here for the same reason a number of other running backs are: they have the ability to make something out of nothing. They do it in different ways, but it’s there. We would have gone with Tyjae Spears for Tennessee but he did return a bunch of kicks last season. So, since the coaching staff recently said Burks needed to find a way to contribute on special teams, we found him one. 

AFC West

Did you see what McLaughlin could do in open space when given the opportunity last season? I’d like to see that more often. Worthy and Brown bring incredible speed to the table. Jones does as well, and he returned kicks in college. McConkey also has amazing speed, but he has an elusiveness element as well. He’d be great for this. It’s much harder to drop a kick than a pass, so Johnston could put his ridiculous athleticism to much more use than he did as a rookie.

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