DEVIN HESTER YOU ARE RIDICULOUS! Imagine having the power as a returner to have punters and kickers scared of you. So scared that they would rather kick it out of bounds than give you a chance to return the ball. These players have that power. This list is based on the best kick returners and best punt returners of all time in combination. With no surprise, most of these guys are also some of the fastest players in NFL history. These are the top 10 best returners in NFL history.
#10 – Darren Sproles
Short kings unite. Darren Sproles sat at a modest 5 foot 6 inches and still got the job done. This may be biased as a fellow under 6-foot delegation member, but I loved the way he ran. Being short has plenty of disadvantages, but for Sproles, he made it an advantage. He was lightning quick and had the balance to bounce off would-be tacklers.
A lot of names would come to mind when asking who is the all-time leader in all-purpose yards over a season. I doubt Darren Sproles is the first you think of. That being said, Darren Sproles holds the record for most all-purpose yards in a season with 2,696 in 2011 with the New Orleans Saints.
Crazy enough, when he joined the Eagles at 31 years old was when he was at his best as a returner. Over his first two seasons with the team, he returned four punt returns for touchdowns while averaging an astounding 12.4 yards per return.
Because of this late success, he currently sits at 7th all-time in kick & punt return yards with 11,313.
#9 – Desmond Howard
Heisman winner Desmond Howard holds the record for most punt return yards in a season with 875. The next closest is Patrick Peterson with 699. Nice.
He also sits 4th all-time in career punt return touchdowns with 8 and 12th in all-time punt return yards with 2,895. But he wasn’t just a punt return specialist.
Desmond Howard has 7,959 career kick return yards, but never returned a single kick return for a touchdown over his 12 NFL seasons. He instead saved his only career kick return touchdown for the biggest stage possible. During Super Bowl XXXI he scored a 99-yard kick return touchdown which secured the Packer’s victory over the Patriots. When the momentum was shifting after a Patriots touchdown, he stepped up when the Packers needed him most.
#8 – Mel Gray
It’s telling when a player is efficient entering their thirties. It’s especially telling when a player is efficient entering his mid-thirties.
In 1993 when Mel Gray was 33 years old, he recorded 1276 kickoff return yards and a league-leading three touchdowns averaging 28.4 yards per return. Father time is undefeated, but Mel Gray gave him a run for his money.
He was also effective as a punt returner retiring with three punt return touchdowns while averaging 10.9 yards per return.
Mel Gray is currently 4th all-time in kickoff return yards and 16th all-time in punt return yards.
Because of the USFL merge, Mel Gray didn’t enter the NFL until he was 25 years old. Yet, he still managed to become one of the best returners ever.
#7 – Deion Sanders
We all know Deion Sanders as the lockdown cornerback, but I’m here to remind you how dominant he was with the ball in his hands. This man was a pure athlete who could do it all on the football field.
You’d think someone who is regarded as the best cornerback in NFL history wouldn’t have time to master another position. Yet Deion found himself retiring with six punt returns for touchdowns and three kick returns for touchdowns, something any full-time returner would dream of.
When you’re one of the fastest players in NFL history, it only makes sense to find ways to get you the football. For Deion Sanders when he wasn’t intercepting passes, he found himself as a Wide Receiver and as a returner high stepping his way into the endzone.
If he was a returner full-time, there is no telling the damage he could have done. I do not doubt in my mind that he would have become the best returner in NFL history. But we all know Cornerback is more important and he instead became the best cornerback in NFL history.
Honorable Mention – Tyreek Hill
Add Tyreek Hill to the list of players that could have been all-time greats if they only returned kicks. When he first entered the NFL, he was an extremely raw talent. He didn’t yet have the intangibles to be a go-to Wide Receiver so the Chiefs put his speed to use on special teams.
He immediately became one of the most electrifying players in the NFL with the ball in his hands. Hill was a burner and it showed on every single return. In his first season, he recorded 15.2 yards per punt return and 27.4 yards per kick return finishing the season with a total of three return touchdowns. This led to him becoming a first-team all-pro returner.
Then he became an all-pro Wide Receiver. For that reason, the Chiefs stopped using him in the return game to avoid him being injured. There is no doubt in my mind he would have become a top 5 returner of all time if he stuck to it, but I can’t justify the ranking because of the lack of longevity at the position.
I’ve heard rumblings that he will once again start returning kicks and punts for the Dolphins. For our viewing pleasure, I hope that is the case.
#6 – Dante Hall
They called him “the Human Joystick” and with good reason. This man wasn’t just playing Madden, he was playing Madden on rookie mode. It wasn’t just common for him to make defenders miss. He frequently embarrassed defenders for jaw-dropping highlight runs.
His twelve return touchdowns rank 3rd all-time. It’s also worth mentioning that he finished his career with six kickoff return touchdowns and six punt return touchdowns. This led to him being the first-team all-pro returner and second-team all-pro returner for the 1990s all-decade team.
#5 – Cordarrelle Patterson
When the NFL changed the kickoff rules to encourage more touchbacks, I thought it was the death of kick returning. Cordarrelle Patterson then proved me wrong. Even with the new rules, he ended up becoming the best kick returner ever. Arguably.
Cordarrelle Patterson is tied for the most kickoff return touchdowns ever with 8 and sits 3rd all-time in return yards per kickoff with 29.4. He also became the first player to record a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown, a 75-yard touchdown catch, and a 50-yard rushing touchdown in the same season showing off his versatility.
So why isn’t he higher on the list? The problem with looking at Cordarrelle Patterson as a returner is his lack of punt return production. He has only returned a single punt over his career while every other player on this list was proficient at both.
#4 – Gale Sayers
For most casual fans, the biggest “what if” at the running back position belongs to Bo Jackson. Though it is one of the biggest misconceptions as Gale Sayers not only has the jaw-dropping highlights, but the production to back it up.
Gale Sayers was 1st team all-pro every season consecutively over his first five years in the NFL. I could go on and on about his production as a running back, but I’ll keep this strictly about his time as a returner.
With only five full seasons under his belt, Gale Sayers is still tied for 2nd all-time with six career kick return touchdowns. You heard me right, only five seasons and he is tied for 2nd all-time.
He is also the all-time leader in kick return average with 30.6 yards per return. In 1967, his freak status would be on full display as he averaged a seemingly impossible 37.7 yards per return.
Knee injuries would end up cutting his career short, but his impact is still felt today. Gale Sayers was the most dangerous player ever with a football in his hands.
Honorable Mention – Desean Jackson
If you haven’t seen the Miracle at Meadowlands yet, you might just be living under a rock Spongebob Square pants style. It is one of the most iconic returns ever. DeSean Jackson put his speed and quickness on display as he strolled in for the game-winning touchdown.
Add DeSean Jackson to the list of players who could have been one of the best returners ever if they weren’t a full-time receiver. I can’t put him in the top 10 considering he was only a punt returner for about three seasons and did not return kickoffs at all.
That being said I needed to include him as an honorable mention because over those three seasons he scored four punt returns for touchdowns. He also averaged an extremely impressive 15.2 yards per punt return in 2009 while also scoring two return touchdowns on the year.
#3 – Josh Cribbs
Josh Cribbs played with the Browns from 2005 to 2012 when they were frankly an embarrassment of an organization. Over that time, this undrafted Quarterback out of Kent State became the most dangerous kick returner in the NFL.
He recorded over 1000 kick return yards consecutively over his first five seasons. In 2007, he recorded 1874 kick return yards which is the 2nd most all-time while averaging 30.7 yards per return.
Injuries ended up derailing his career, but at that time his damage was already felt. He retired with the most kick return touchdowns ever with eight and unlike others on this list was also a very effective punt returner.
#2 – Brian Mitchell
Brian Mitchell is the most underrated returner of all time and this fan voting proves it. People love the flashy players. The ones that make multiple players miss on their way into the endzone. That wasn’t Brian Mitchell. He was Mr. Get the Job Done.
Do you know who the all-time leader in kick return yards is? Brian Mitchell. Do you know who the all-time leader in punt return yards is? Brian Mitchell. Hell, the only player in NFL history with more all-purpose yards than Brian Mitchell is the greatest receiver of all-time Jerry Rice. Yet nobody gives this man the respect he deserves.
His highlight reel is filled with simple yet effective plays. While going side to side can make for some jaw-dropping plays, you only gain yards by going up the field. What made Brian Mitchell so good is that he ran full tilt downfield and only made one or two cuts.
I’m a big believer in the eye test, and while Mitchell doesn’t pass that with flying colors, you cannot argue with his career-long efficiency and production.
#1 – Devin Hester
In sports debates, there are a lot of “subjective truths”. Certain arguments don’t have a right answer. Ones where you can make an argument for multiple players in the top spot.
When it comes to the best returner in NFL history, there is no argument. I respect everyone’s opinion, but if you believe the best returner ever is anyone other than Devin Hester, you are dead wrong and I’ll tell you why.
There has never been a returner as dominant as Devin Hester. In his rookie year, he recorded an astounding 3 punt returns for touchdowns and 2 kick returns for touchdowns. There are players like Cordarrelle Patterson who are just kick return specialists, but Hester was the best at both.
His record-breaking 14 punt return touchdowns shattered the previous record of 10. He also added 5 kickoff return touchdowns to bring his total return touchdowns to 19. That shattered the previous record of 13. This is also not including his missed field goal return for a touchdown as well as his iconic Super Bowl kickoff return touchdown.
What is even more telling is that teams stopped kicking in his direction. In his rookie year, he had a career-high 47 punt returns which progressively lowered as teams discovered it was better to just kick out of bounds than in the hands of Devin Hester.
Devin Hester is the GOAT and that is an objective truth.
For more NFL Top 10 lists click here.
For the most up-to-date content check out my Instagram @sogfootball here.
[…] For the updated 2022 version of this list of best kick returners and best punt returners, click here… […]