The best return men in NFL history

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Brian Mitchell

With the changing of NFL rules in regard to kickoffs and covering kicks, it won’t be long before the players of the past who electrified the crowds with exciting kick and punt returns will be a just something to imagine or watch in old videos.

It’s a virtual lock the most of the current return records will never be broken with the evolution of the game and its focus on player safety and long-term health.

Here are a few memorable players who found a place in NFL history, many of whom earned a spot on a roster strictly by their special teams contribution. These were the special team dynamos who made their living returning kicks or covering them.

I did not include place kickers or punters since may always be a spot on NFL rosters for them (at least we think there will be). This list is strictly return specialists (nest time, we’ll list the best cover guys).

Brian Mitchell, a native of Plaquemine who shinned as a quarterback in college at UL Lafayette (called USL at the time), played in the NFL 1990-2003. Although he was a solid third down back, the Louisiana Sports Hall of Famer made his name in the pros on special teams. He is the NFL’s all-time leader in return yardage.

During Mitchell’s 14 seasons, he accumulated 23,316 combined yards, second only to Jerry Rice’s 23,330 in league history. Mitchell returned nine punts and four kickoffs for touchdowns, averaging 10.8 yards per punt return and 23.1 yards per kick run-back for his career.

Devin Hester is considered by many to be the best return specialist of all time. It’s with good reason. He changed many games with his electrifying returns. Hester ran back 14 punts and five kickoffs for touchdowns and added one missed field goal try for a score.

Drafted 57th overall out of Miami in the 2006 draft by the Bears, Hester also played wide receiver and cornerback. But he was a monster as a rookie and set the tone for his career by running back three punts and two kickoffs for touchdowns in the regular season. Hester helped a Chicago team built on defense and field position reach the Super Bowl that season, and then he ran back the opening kickoff the to house to open the big game.

Dante Hall, called the “Human Joystick” and the “X factor” is not a big guy at just 5-foot-8, but he ran a 4.29 forty at his peak. For the Chiefs and Rams, he was considered the league’s most dangerous return threat before Hester’s arrival.

In 2003, Hall had two punt and two kickoff returns touchdowns. With 12 career returns for touchdowns, he totaled 12,397 return yards (3,453 punt returns, 5,813 kick returns).

Eric Metcalf, the son of ex-NFL standout Terry Metcalf (who is also on this list), ran a 10.54 hundred meters and long jumped 27’7″ as a Texas Longhorns two-sport star. During his 13 seasons, he returned 10 punts and two kickoffs for touchdowns.

Ollie Matson, a seven-time All Pro during his 15 NFL seasons, is a member of Pro Football Hall of Fame. A super all around talent, he ran for 40 touchdowns from scrimmage and returned nine kicks for scores. Matson also won an Olympic bronxe medal in the 400 meters at the 1952 Helsinki games. He averaged 9.2 yards per punt return and 26.2 per kick return for his career.

Gayle Sayers ran a 9.7 hundred yards. Some still say he is the greatest runner the NFL has ever seen.

The Kansas Comet is still the league’s all-time career leader with a 30.56 yard kick return average. During his seven seasons cut all-too-short due to injury, he made the All-Pro team five times.

Sayers returned eight punts and six kicks for scores but he was not a specialist. He added 39 Ttouchdowns as a running back. During his rookie campaign with the Bears, he scored 22 touchdowns with 2,272 all purpose yards in just 14 games. That season, Sayers also averaged 31.4 per kick return and 14.9 yards each punt return. He is listed among the top 100 players in NFL history.

Like Sayers, Deion Sanders was not just a return man. He made a name as the best shutdown cornerback in football and also excelled as a return man extraordinaire with six punts and three kickoffs returned for touchdowns.

Neon Deion’s 4.2 forty speed was breath taking. The tremendous athlete also played Major League Baseball. He famously played in a MLB game and a NFL game within a 24-hour period, hitting a home run and scoring a touchdown that week.

High-stepping all the way to Canton, Sanders also returned nine interceptions for scores. He is the only player to have played in a Super Bowl and a World Series. He scored a touchdown six different ways — kickoff return, punt return, interception, fumble recovery, runner (on a reverse) and receiver.

Rick Upchurch returned eight punt returns for touchdowns in a career that included five All Pro selections. He is in Denver’s Ring of Honor and a member of the Broncos 50th anniversary team.

At the time of his retirement, Upchurch was the league’s career leader in total punt return yardage (3,008) with a healthy 12.1 yards per return. Fan Fact: he was once engaged to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Mel Gray is a member of the NFL’s team of the 1990’s. He played from 1986-’97 as a difference-making return specialist. When he was about to turn 34 years old, Gray returned a kickoff for touchdown with Lions to become the oldest player to ever achieve that feat.

The four-time Pro Bowler also had a 102-yard return for Detroit. He returned nine kicks for touchdowns with a 23.4 yard average. Gray played for the Saints from 1986-’88 and was one of those players coach Jim Mora regrets letting slip away during that era of overall success for the franchise.

Billy “White Shoes” Johnson was a steal in the 15th round out of tiny Widener College in 1974. He played in 143 games from 1974-’88, earning a spot on the NFL’s 75th anniversary team as specialist. Johnons made three Pro Bowls (two in Houston and one in Atlanta) and totaled 6.258 return yards.

Josh Cribbs is a recent return man of note, so we have to give credit where credit is due. Entering the league in 2005, undrafted out of Kent State. He has returned 8 kickoffs for scores and 3 punts. He is on the 2000 NFL team of the decade. He is called one of the greatest return specialists of all time. He returned 2 kickoffs for touchdowns in one game ( 2007) against Pittsburgh, both 100 yards.

Tyrone Hughes, the St. Augustine product, played six seasons in NFL and became a star with his hometown team. The ex-Nebraska standout averaged 24.7 yards per kick and 8.7 yards per punt return in the pros. He also was a member of the 1992 Big 8’s 4X100 second place relay team with the Cornhuskers.

As a rookie, Hughes led the NFL with 503 total punt return yards and an impressive 13.6 yard average.

With 8,410 return yards with five touchdowns in the NFL, Hughes was named to the 1993 Pro Bowl in the highlight of his career. But a game against the Rams on Oct. 23, 1994 was his best day in the league when he set an NFL record with 347 combined return yards at the Superdome. The Saints Hall of Fame inductee had 304 kickoff return yards in that game.

Michael Lewis, another New Orleans native who entered the Saints Hall of Fame with Hughes, is one of football’s special underdog story. Known as the “Beer Man” because he delivered beer as a driver before giving football a try, he ran a 4.3 forty. A guy who didn’t play football as an amateur gave semi-pro and indoor leagues a try before sticking with the Saints in 2001.

On the best day of his NFL life, Lewis returned both a kickoff and punt for touchdowns in the same game against the Redskins in 2002. He was named to Pro Bowl that season and set the NFL record for combined kick and punt return yards. For his career, the Grace King alum averaged 24.1 yards per kick return and 9.8 yards per punt return.

Terry Metcalf, Eric’s father, was a dynamic NFL running back from 1973-77, 1981). The three-time Pro Bowler returned two kicks and a punt for scores but was also a regular on offense for the then-St. Louis Cardinals, rushing for 24 touchdowns. In 1975 during a 14 game schedule, Metcalf set an NFL record with 2,462 combined yards. He averaged 25.6 career yards per kick return and and 11.1 per punt return.

Desmond Howard played 11 seasons. The Heisman winner out of Michigan was considered a bust as a wide receiver but the return man skills made him a successful pro. In 1996, Howard paced the NFL with 58 punts returned for 875 yards (15 yard average). His kickoff return for a touchdown for the Packers in Super Bowl XXXI in the Superdome earned him MVP honors.

Travis “Roadrunner” Williams from Arizona State played for Packers (1967-’70) and Rams (1971-’72). As a rookie, he set an NFL record by returning four kickoffs for touchdowns, two of those in one quarter against the Browns. Williams set a single season record with a 41.06 yards per return average. A member of the Packers Hall of Fame, Williams was part of the Super Bowl II championship team.

Alvin Haymond, the former L.B. Landry High and Southern Jaguars star, was the 18th round pick of the Colts. He played 10 seasons as a cornerback and return specialist with the Colts, Rams, Redskins and Oilers.. Haymond picked off nine passes, returning two for scores. He averaged 26.1 yards per kick return and 8.3 yards per punt runback.

In 1965, Haymond led the NFL with a 30.7 yard kick return average. In ’69, he paced the league one again with a 13.2 yard punt return average. While with Rams, the special teams unit was affectinonately called “Haymond’s Headhunters.”

Clarence Verdin out of South Terrebonne played at UL Lafayette in the early 1980’s and then joined the USFL with the Houston Gamblers (1984-’85). The wide receiver then played nine NFL seasons but the best six came with the Colts after he earned a Super Bowl ring with the 1987 Redskins.

In Indianapolis, Verdin led the NFL in yards per punt return in 1990 (12.8) to make his first Pro Bowl and was chosen again in 1992. He also led the NFL in total kickoff return yardage in 1993.

We added some really good return men to this rundown of the NFL’s best. Next time, we show you the best gunners, those unsung heroes as coverage standouts.

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