Win. Your. League.

Receive 3 Free Downloads More Details

Fantasy Significant Returners and Your Draft

Handling 2015's crop of fantasy significant returners

Last season Dolphins rookie Jarvis Landry emerged on the fantasy scene at wide receiver. Catching 84 passes for 748 yards and 5 touchdowns made Landry a legitimate low-end starting receiver in most formats, but in leagues that give fantasy points for return yards Landry was more than that. Returns pushed Landry's all-purpose yards over 1900, good enough for fourth most in the NFL. A scoring system that modestly incorporated returns could move Landry a dozen places up the wide receiver rankings, while one that had return yards on par with receiving yards could move him all the way into the top ten receivers.

Newer fantasy owners will sometimes overlook the contribution from return yards, particularly in leagues where return scoring is modest. Those who do consider it may hit other pitfalls in dealing with the uncertainty that is so much higher in predicting returns than in predicting offensive production. But those who find the right mix in prepping for their draft may find steals that can be the difference between making the playoffs and watching from the bubble outside. Let us take a look at some simple advice for handling the uncertainty in return projections in our draft preparation, and then discuss this year's small crop of fantasy significant players with the best chances for returns.

Second Class Citizens

To handle returners we have to first accept that they are not viewed by their team like other offensive players. For many coaches, team needs on offense and defense come first. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that returners are nearly second class citizens on an NFL roster. It is rare to go through a season without seeing some starting returner cut so his team can carry a backup at some other position who may never even see the field.

Additional uncertainty comes into play when the returner is an important starter on offense or defense. Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy's view of risking receiver Randall Cobb on returns once went a full 360 degrees just over the course of two weeks in preseason. Even when a coach is willing to risk a starter to handling returns, it may only take a single injury to sour the coach for the rest of his career. This looks to have happened with Bruce Arians, who pulled Patrick Peterson from returns after another defensive back was injured on a punt return.

Predicting offensive player production has pitfalls such as the player being injured or the team not doing as well as expected. These also impact returners. But the unique set of extra issues for returners increases the uncertainty in their projections. We need to account for how returners differ from other players when we go from our projection to a ranking that we use in a draft.

The adjustment is simple and hopefully not surprising.  We give the return numbers a lower weight and reduce the fantasy points that come from it. We can do this by making the scoring system a little worse than our fantasy league uses, or by reducing the projections, or taking the resulting points and reducing them so they contribute less.

The projections at Footballguys already take this into account. The results from Draft Dominator and our other applications will give you an appropriate result. If handling it on your own, there is no single best answer on how much to discount the return points. A primary returner like Devin Hester who lacks other duties that could cause his returns to be limited, I might reduce his returns by around 15-20%. A primary returner that is important to his team on offense like Antonio Brown, I might bump that to 20-25% or more depending on the coach's mindset. Legitimate competition for the position I tend to already have handled through allocating the team's returns across multiple players vying for the position, in amounts that reflect my beliefs on what portion of a time-share they may get and their odds of outright winning and holding the job.

While it is probably best to use such a discounted prediction in most of your decision-making, when considering the player's ceiling do not forget what you left on the table. This is especially true for bench players, where you are often focused on what their ceiling might be rather than on their most likely production.

Fantasy Significant Returners

When discussing players in an article it is difficult to account for all the variations in league setups and scoring systems. But using Footballguys tools such as Draft Dominator, the Mobile Apps or MyFBG, you can generate rankings specific for your league setup which take returns into account. So my focus here will be more general, trying to provide some context on the group of players this season who have offensive significance and also handle returns.

For leagues that score return yards on par with receiving or rushing yards, most returners may have fantasy impact. But for leagues closer to 1 point per 30 return yards, this is looking like a lean year for impactful returners in fantasy. I have listed the players below. (Update: The former top option, Jarvis Landry, looks like he may have lost returns to LaMichael James.)  Though both of the top two listed has a major wart, I still believe they have some combination of offensive significance, return production, and risk of losing returns, that makes them stand above the rest of the field.

Most of the players after those top two I am covering mostly to make you aware of their upside and so you can keep an eye out for news on their status as a returner. But I expect few of them will both play a significant fantasy role and see enough of a bump from returns to give them too much extra consideration in your draft. They are listed in an order that takes the three listed factors into account. As an example, though Randall Cobb has great value as a wide receiver he is last in the list primarily because of how unlikely he is to see returns this year.

WR Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh

WR production:  Elite.  Return production: Low. Risk: Low.

Jarvis Landry was first on our list as a marginal fantasy starter who gets a large bump from returns, but has some uncertainty in his role as a returner. Our second player is a polar opposite. Antonio Brown was the number one fantasy receiver in many league formats but as a punt returner sees a smaller chunk of return yards than does Landry who also handles kickoffs. Furthering the contrast, Brown seems to remain firmly entrenched as the punt returner. Asked about finding a new punt returner to spare Brown the injury risk, Coach Mike Tomlin said of Brown, "he doesn't get hit very often to be honest with you, so I don't view it as highly risky".

WR Julian Edelman, New England 

WR production:  Middling starter.  Return production: Low Risk: Medium.

Another receiver who handles only punts, Julian Edelman has shown steady return production for the Patriots. Edelman has consistently produced around 300 punt return yards each of the last five seasons, and has a return touchdown in four of those years. Danny Amendola is likely to share some of the punt return duties with Edelman as he did in 2014, but sharing time at punt returner has not prevented Edelman's production so far. Like Antonio Brown there should be low risk of Edelman not gaining return yards, but punt return yards are not as plentiful as those from kick returns. Edelman's health is a concern going into the season, a separate risk to consider.

UPDATE: The Patriots traded for Jalen Saunders, who likely will be primarily a returner and could cut into Edelman's returns. Edelman and most of the Patriots returners are an unhealthy lot going into the season. It is possible Saunders could be a stopgap measure while the normal returners are out, or he could earn a continued spot at the table.

RB C.J. Spiller, New Orleans

RB production:  Backup.  Return production: High. Risk: Medium.

Although C.J. Spiller slots third on the New Orleans depth chart at running back, coach Sean Payton's offense makes good use of change of pace backs. While he has definite risks, Spiller has potential to see offensive yards plus is currently listed as the primary returner for both kickoffs and punts. The return jobs likewise have some uncertainty, with talented players like Brandin Cooks and rookie Marcus Murphy behind him. Murphy in particular has shown well in preseason as a returner and may be on the verge of playing himself into at least a share of the returns. Spiller rates below the top three in our list in large part because of uncertainty in not just his return yards, but in those from offense as well. Should Spiller keep the return job and get a significant share of the offense, he could be a draft day steal, particularly if he was obtained to be a fantasy backup.

RB Darren Sproles, Philadelphia

RB production:  Backup.  Return production: Medium. Risk: Medium.

Though his offensive use has declined since Sproles joined the Eagles, he remains one of the elite punt returners in the game. Sproles led the league last year with 506 punt return yards and 2 touchdowns, and ended the season with 1230 all-purpose yards. Slotted solely as a running back, Sproles is probably no more than a deep backup who may not be worth a roster spot in leagues with shorter benches. His main value could come in leagues that have scoring for return yards on par with that of receiving and rushing yards. With Sproles' history as a quality punt returner, it seemed going into the season unlikely he would lose too many to other players. But Kenjon Barner has two punt return touchdowns through two preseason games, which might make a case for cutting into Sproles' share of the returns.

WR Markus Wheaton, Pittsburgh

WR production: Backup. Return production: Medium.  Risk: Medium

The suspension of Martavis Bryant may help move Markus Wheaton's fantasy value into the realm of a primary backup or even flex player in some leagues. His value as a returner is a little more in flux. Wheaton saw more kickoff returns at the end of last season, but the team has given preseason returns to Dri Archer, who is probably the Steelers' preferred returner. While I still have Wheaton projected with more returns than Archer over the course of the season, the amount continues to shift towards Archer the closer we get to the season starting. If Wheaton does land the majority of the return duties though, it could provide him with a big boost, giving Wheaton sleeper potential in this regard in some scoring systems.

WR Brandin Cooks, New Orleans

WR production:  High.  Return production: Medium. Risk: High (not currently the returner).

The subtraction of Jimmy Graham from the New Orleans receiving game should give Brandin Cooks opportunities to produce on offense. As a returner his situation is less certain. Cooks is currently listed as the backup punt and kickoff returner to C.J. Spiller. Though Spiller's career is marked with difficulty staying healthy, Cooks also faces competition at returner from Marcus Murphy. Despite those negatives, Cooks has the potential to handle both kickoffs and punts, which could provide him with a sizeable boost if injuries and performance go his way this season. He has low odds of getting the return jobs, but the potential for many return yards if he does.

WR Percy Harvin, Buffalo

WR production:  Backup.  Return production: High. Risk: Medium.

As an elite kickoff returner Percy Harvin can bring in return yards in bunches. Unfortunately Harvin has larger questions about his ability to stay healthy and his role in Buffalo's offense as a wide receiver. Harvin is a boom or bust selection, and might be viewed as little more than a late round flyer in some leagues. However, if a league scores return yards on par with receiving yards, Harvin could move up into fantasy consideration.

WR Cordarrelle Patterson, Minnesota

WR production:  Backup.  Return production: High. Risk: Medium.

Cordarrelle Patterson's sophomore campaign was a step back both as a receiver and returner. After having led the league in kickoff return yards as a rookie, his yards per return dropped from 32.4 to 25.6 last season. Though Patterson still has a chance to emerge as a receiver, his potential contribution from returns may hold more value in return leagues. Unfortunately, even in returns Patterson is no longer the sure thing that he once was. The Vikings drafted a standout college returner in Stefon Diggs. It may have been unthinkable two years ago, but Patterson may have legitimate competition for the return job now.

WR Dwayne Harris, New York Giants

WR production:  Backup.  Return production: High. Risk: Medium.

The situation of Dwayne Harris is full of conflicting factors. Harris was a solid returner in Dallas. As a definite plus for fantasy he handles both kickoffs and punts. On the downside, the Giants brought in several capable returners last year but saw little boost from special teams. This suggests the problem might be as much about the blocking as it is about the returners themselves. Harris may see his return production fall off if the issues are not corrected.  Getting a read on what to expect for his offensive production can also be difficult. Harris received a sizeable contract that suggests the Giants plan on him contributing on offense far more than he did in Dallas, but Harris will still have Odell Beckham and Victor Cruz playing in front of him. Categorizing Harris's offensive production as fantasy backup caliber is likely being too generous, given what he produced in Dallas behind Dez Bryant and Jason Witten.

WR Tavon Austin, St Louis

WR production:  Backup.  Return production: Medium. Risk: Low.

Tavon Austin has yet to emerge as a significant offensive player in fantasy, with 569 total offensive yards as a rookie and 466 last season. When factoring in return yards, Austin reached 1247 all-purpose yards his rookie season, but only 876 last year. This season should again see Austin as the primary punt returner, but unlikely to see many of the kickoff returns that are more lucrative when it comes to return yards. Even in leagues with high returner scoring, unless Austin shows significant growth as a receiver he may be no better than a bench player.

RB Ameer Abdullah, Detroit

RB production:  Low end starter to Backup.  Return production: Medium. Risk: High (not currently the returner).

Like many players in a season short on fantasy significant returners, one can argue if Ameer Abdullah is even worth mentioning in this list. Early word from camp is that Abdullah is getting notice on offense and is under consideration on kick returns. Unfortunately he is also contending with one of the better returners the last few seasons in Jeremy Ross. Anyone drafting Abdullah in a return league should be doing so primarily for his offensive production, but the potential for return yards could help as a tiebreaker when considering Abdullah in your draft.

WR Jarvis Landry, Miami

WR production:  Low end starter. Return production: Elite. Risk: High.

The list of NFL returners who handle both kickoff and punt returns is a short one, and Jarvis Landry was one of the best. His 1158 total return yards was third most in the NFL last year. Landry emerged as a significant receiving threat in his rookie season and likely projects as at least a WR3 in 2015 before incorporating returns. Fantasy owners face the uncertainty that Landry might lose the return duties as his importance on offense grows. The Dolphins are trying out other players as returners this season, but according to special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi early in camp, Landry is the frontrunner because of the success he had the previous year. While Landry has a higher risk of losing returns than some other players, his status as a fantasy starter coupled with the potential of handling both kickoff and punt returns makes him worthy of the top spot.

UPDATE:  LaMichael James has been doing well on returns in preseason, enough so that ESPN believes he may have locked up the return job. James has had difficulty staying healthy during his stay in the NFL. Landry may still see some returns this season, but unless ESPN proves wrong this will relegate his return potential to unlikely upside.

WR Ty Montgomery, Green Bay

WR production: Backup. Return production: Medium. Risk: Medium

With Jordy Nelson injured, rookie Ty Montgomery should play a more active role in Green Bay's high powered offense as the third receiver. Even with that extra opportunity, Montgomery will have to outperform expectations to reach fantasy significance as a wide receiver. Many projections still have him as no more than a deep sleeper. The good news is that if Montgomery's ability does shine and he brings in enough receptions, he should still be an active part of the return game. Montgomery may split time with Micah Hyde on returns, but the coaching staff and general manager have been enamored with his ability as a returner. It is a good bet Montgomery will carve out enough returns to increase his fantasy value.

WR Randall Cobb, Green Bay

WR production:  High.  Return production: Very low. Risk: Very high. (not currently the returner, injuries at his position)

Randall Cobb is a legitimate fantasy WR1 whose days of significant bumps from return yards are drawing to an end. Last season Cobb had only 14 punt returns for 112 yards, and a single kick return that netted no yards. The addition of Packers rookie Ty Montgomery should further decrease the chances that Cobb nets significant return yards in 2015, as may the injury to Jordy Nelson that increases Cobb's importance as a receiver. One can argue against Cobb being included in this list at all.  He is mentioned primarily due to his offensive significance and the chance - albeit unlikely - that injuries could propel him into more productive return numbers.