Hughes, Lewis, Bush top list of best return men in Saints history
The focus of attention in football is virtually always on offense and those who make plays and build substantive statistics.
The secondary focus is clearly on defense and the notable, glamorous numbers pertaining to sacks and interceptions.
The least amount of focus and attention applies to the kicking game.
Later this week, we will feature those who have excelled in New Orleans Saints history as special teams stars in the category of covering kicks and making plays before we spotlight the best kickers and punters in franchise history.
Today, the focus is on the return game, where big plays have and can turn games in favor of the Saints, historically.
In the return game, three players stand above the rest, with two earning All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors and leading the NFL in at least one return category. Both were born and raised in New Orleans and both were inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame, appropriately, together, in 2015.
The third was a first-round draft pick, better known for his running back skills, who was inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame in 2019.
Tyrone Hughes played four seasons for his hometown team from 1993-1996. Hughes returned 116 punts for a 9.1 average with two touchdowns. Hughes returned 229 kickoffs for a 25 yard average and three scores.
Michael Lewis played six seasons for his hometown team from 2001-2006. Lewis returned 142 punts for a franchise-best average of 10.4 yards per return with a touchdown. Lewis returned 243 kickoffs for a 24.3 yard average with three touchdowns.
Reggie Bush was the second overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft. He went on to play five seasons (2006-2010) for New Orleans.
While Bush was a good running back and very good receiver out of the backfield, he was also a dynamic punt return artist, the best in franchise history.
Bush returned just one kickoff and it went for 32 yards but he returned 92 punts for a 7.8 average with a franchise-best four touchdowns. The average would have been greater but Bush was known for giving ground to try to gain ground and those gambles sometimes lost yards but paid huge dividends as well.
There were others who stood out as well.
Eric Guliford had a pair of outstanding seasons returning kicks in 1997 and 1998, averaging 25.6 yards per return on 61 returns.
Darren Sproles was special from 2011-2013, returning 81 punts for an 8.3 yard average and a touchdown. Sproles also returned 70 kickoffs for a 26.1 yard average.
Wes Chandler could have been special, had he stayed in New Orleans. The first-round draft pick played four seasons (1978-1981) in New Orleans and earned Pro Bowl honors at wide receiver in 1979 before Bum Phillips traded him to San Diego.
While in New Orleans, Chandler returned 45 punts for a 6.2 yard per return average and returned 39 kickoffs for a 23-yard average.
Rich Mauti returned 75 punts for an average of 8.1 yards and returned 124 kickoffs for 22.9 yards per return.
Walter “Flea” Roberts was fun to watch in just one season in New Orleans, the first in franchise history in 1967.
Roberts returned 11 punts for 50 yards and returned 28 kickoffs for a 26.3 yard average, including a 91-yard return for a touchdown.
John Gilliam made history in New Orleans, returning the opening kickoff in franchise history 94 yards for a touchdown against the Los Angeles Rams on September 17, 1967 at Tulane Stadium.
Overall, Gilliam played three seasons in two different stints with the Saints (1967-1968, 1977). Gilliam returned 31 kickoffs for a 26.1 yard per return average and he returned 22 punts for an outstanding average of 12.4 yards per return.
Mel Gray possessed great speed. Gray played three seasons (1986-1988) with New Orleans, returning 49 punts for a franchise-best 13.4 yard per return average and he returned 93 kickoffs for a 23.4 yard per return average with a touchdown.
Courtney Roby did not return punts but he was outstanding returning kickoffs. Roby played five seasons for New Orleans (2008-2012) and returned 94 kicks for a 25.6 yard average and a 97-yard touchdown.
Alvin Kamara is one of the best all-around running backs in the NFL but when used in the kick return game, he is elite as well.
In five seasons thus far (2017-2021), Kamara has returned 20 punts for a 7.1 yard average and he has 17 kickoff returns for a franchise-best 30.4 yard average with a franchise-best 106-yard return for a touchdown.
Currently, the Saints have one of the best return men in the NFL in Deonte Harty.
In his three seasons thus far (2019-2021), Harty has returned 74 punts for a 10.1 yard average and a touchdown. Harty has returned 69 kickoffs for an average of 25.7 yards and he is a threat to go the distance any time he touches the ball.
In franchise history, the Saints have just 16 kickoff returns for touchdowns.
Clarence Chapman (1), Aaron Craver (1), Gilliam (1), Gray (1), Guliford (1), Hughes (3), Kamara (1), Lewis (3), Bobby Morse (1), Roberts (1), Roby (1) and Aaron Stecker (1) complete the list of those kicks taken back all the way.
In franchise history, the Saints have just 13 punt returns for touchdowns.
Charlie Brown (1), Bush (4), Gray (1), Harty (1), Hughes (2), Lewis (1), Marcus Murphy (1), Derrick Shepard (1) and Sproles (1) have taken it to the house.
When you have an elite return man, you have a chance to steal points, steal a possession and steal a game.
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Born and raised in the New Orleans area, CCSE CEO Ken Trahan has been a sports media fixture in the community for nearly four decades. Ken started NewOrleans.com/Sports with Bill Hammack and Don Jones in 2008. In 2011, the site became SportsNOLA.com. On August 1, 2017, Ken helped launch CrescentCitySports.com. Having accumulated national awards/recognition (National Sports Media Association, National Football…