Rules changes aimed at safety have made kickoff returns almost a rarity in the NFL. Punters have gotten better each year at placing their kicks in spots that make it harder and harder to run back.
Despite all that’s stacked up against them, there are still a few returners who can turn the sometimes mundane kicking plays into breathtaking ones.
Miami’s Jakeem Grant beat out Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill as the NFL’s top returner in 2018 in voting released Friday by a panel of 10 football writers for The Associated Press.
Grant received the honor the same week he was placed on season-ending injured reserve with a leg injury.
“Grant has a touchdown on a punt return and a kickoff return. Such a distinction is almost extinct thanks to the rule changes,” said Dallas-based Schuyler Dixon.
Grant has excelled as an all-around returner, ranking fourth in kick return average (29.7 yards) and first on punts (16.3) before his injury. Only six players have enough returns to qualify for the league leaders in both categories.
The return game is growing less important by the year. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of all kickoffs have resulted in touchbacks, the most in NFL history, and there have been fewer punt returns through 12 weeks than at any point since the merger. Grant has two of the league’s seven return touchdowns so far this season, the fewest through 12 weeks in a non-strike year and down from a high of 31 at this point just 11 years ago.
Hill, who returned a punt for a score in Week 1, received five first-place votes to the four for Grant, even though he is not used on kicks and has just 17 punt returns as he plays a bigger role on offense.
“Punts against the Chiefs are the wrong time for a bathroom break, with Hill and his five career return touchdowns in three NFL seasons waiting to catch them,” Minneapolis-based Dave Campbell said. “Wait until the commercial.”
In all, 21 players received at least one vote, with only Grant, Hill, Andre Roberts of the Jets and New England’s Cordarrelle Patterson appearing on all 10 ballots.
Like Grant, Roberts is one of the handful of players to excel at both kicks and punts and finished third, one spot ahead of Patterson.
“Roberts has been one of the few bright spots this season for a struggling Jets team,” New York-based Dennis Waszak said. “He has re-established himself as a dangerous dual threat in the return game, highlighted by a 78-yard punt return for a TD. Roberts also leads the NFL with three punt returns of 40 or more yards.”
The other first-place vote went to Tennessee’s kick return specialist Darius Jennings, who ranked fifth overall and also has a return for a score.
“Who? Yes, someone who came into the NFL as a rookie free agent out of Virginia and now is with his fourth different team is leading the league, averaging 34.8 yards per kickoff return,” said Nashville-based Teresa Walker, who voted Jennings first.
Rounding out the top 10 were Chicago’s Tarik Cohen, Desmond King of the Chargers, Cincinnati’s Alex Erickson, Kansas City’s kick returner Tremon Smith, and JoJo Natson of the Rams.
“Almost as exciting a player as Tyreek Hill, Cohen will get more touches on offense as his career moves along,” New York-based Barry Wilner said of Cohen, who was named on nine ballots. “That’s kind of disappointing because it means fewer opportunities to show his stuff on returns.”
1. Jakeem Grant, Dolphins
2. Tyreek Hill, Chiefs
3. Andre Roberts, Jets
4. Cordarrelle Patterson, Patriots
5. Darius Jennings, Titans
6. Tarik Cohen, Bears
7. Desmond King, Chargers
8. Alex Erickson, Bengals
9. Tremon Smith, Chiefs
10. JoJo Natson, Rams
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