With the 2022 NFL regular season now in the books, the Next Gen Stats analytics team is excited to launch the new Expected Return Yards model, created in tandem with the AWS ML Solutions Lab. Expanding into the oft-overlooked, but important third phase of the game, Next Gen Stats is now equipped to evaluate the return specialists who deliver some of the most exciting moments on the field. The best returners not only put points directly on the scoreboard, but add hidden value by setting up their offenses with great field position. Now, we can spotlight them with two separately trained models -- one for kick returns and another for punt returns.
A whole new toolbox of metrics can be derived from these models, including:
- Return Yards Over Expected (RYOE): How many yards did a returner gain relative to the space around them when they established possession?
- Return Success Rate: How often did a returner gain more yards than the model expected them to?
- TD Probability: Based on the distribution of possible outcomes, what were the chances that the player would score a touchdown on their return?
Similar to the previous Position Power Rankings that we have run all season long, we combined these metrics into a single composite score -- represented as a percentile -- that measures how a player performed relative to his peers. Without further ado, here are the best return specialists of the 2022 season.
NOTE: To qualify for the overall return specialist score, the returner must have fielded at least five punt returns and at least five kick returns. So you won't see guys who excelled in only one type, such as punt return mavens Kalif Raymond and Donovan Peoples-Jones and kick return specialists Dallis Flowers, Justin Jackson, Kene Nwangwu, Cordarrelle Patterson.
OVERALL RETURNER SCORE: 95
- Punt Returns: 11 returns, 140 yards (+31 PRYOE), 0 TD, (63.6% success rate)
- Kick Returns: 35 returns, 1,009 yards (+214 KRYOE), 1 TD (45.7% success rate)
Amazingly, the top player on this list didn’t even become the Packers’ first-string returner until midway through the season. Nixon, who followed special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia from Vegas to Green Bay this offseason (the two spent three seasons together with the Raiders), had just six total returns entering the campaign. But after lead returner Amari Rodgers struggled with ball security issues, the Packers turned to the fourth-year pro. Nixon didn't look back. Starting in Week 10, the undrafted nickel back gained at least 100 kick return yards in six of Green Bay's final eight games, playing a pivotal role in the Packers' late-season turnaround and consistently setting up the offense with favorable field position. Snoop Dogg’s nephew gained +214 kick returns yards over expected, the most in a season since Andre Roberts gained +324 in 2018. On punt returns, Nixon wasn't one to pass up an opportunity -- he had the second-most punt returns (11) in a season since 2018 without calling for a fair catch.
OVERALL RETURNER SCORE: 93
- Punt Returns: 27 returns, 264 yards (+18 PRYOE), 0 TD (44.4% success rate)
- Kick Returns: 19 returns, 554 yards (+138 KRYOE), 2 TD (47.4% success rate)
In a what felt like a scene lifted straight out of a sports movie, Hines took the opening kickoff in Week 18 back for a 96-yard touchdown in the Bills’ emotional first game after Damar Hamlin’s frightening injury. The remarkable play faced long odds: Hines had just a 0.6% chance of scoring a touchdown when he received the kick, making it the third-most improbable kick return score since 2018. The fifth-year pro, whom the Bills acquired at midseason, would then go on to score again in the third quarter, this time on a 101-yard return. There have only been 11 players in NFL history to score two kick return touchdowns in a game, and none in the last decade. Hines also is the most recent player to score multiple punt return touchdowns in the same game, doing so in Week 16 of the 2019 season.
OVERALL RETURNER SCORE: 92
- Punt Returns: 29 punt returns, 362 yards, (+119 PRYOE), 1 TD (48.3% success rate)
- Kick Returns: 27 kick returns, 645 yards (+15 KRYOE), 0 TD (40.7% success rate)
The 2022 third-round pick has been a revelation for New England, making explosive plays in all three phases of the game. The NGS Draft Model identified Jones as a Day 3 sleeper, and the rookie turned out to be a diamond in the rough. Jones gained a league-high +119 punt return yards over expected, including his walk-off 84-yard punt return touchdown in a Week 10 divisional win against the Jets. The rookie cornerback made plays whenever given the opportunity, scoring a touchdown on his first career offensive snap and adding a pick-six to boot. To put that in perspective, he was the first player in 45 years to score a touchdown on offense, defense and special teams in the same season.
OVERALL RETURNER SCORE: 92
- Punt Returns: 33 returns, 356 yards (+62 PRYOE), 0 TD (54.5% success rate)
- Kick Returns: 26 returns, 599 yards (+18 KRYOE), 0 TD (46.2% success rate)
McCloud has bounced around the league in his short career, with San Francisco representing the fourth team he has played for since being drafted out of Clemson in 2018. But one thing that hasn’t changed, is his explosiveness on special teams. With 356 punt return yards, McCloud finished a mere six yards shy of Marcus Jones’ 362 for the league lead this season. Similarly to Jones, McCloud showed prowess on both punts and kickoffs, as the two playmakers were the only players to finish top-10 in the NFL in both punt return yards and kick return yards in 2022. With the 49ers boasting an embarrassment of riches at the skill positions, McCloud has been able to carve out a role as a dominant special teams ace.
OVERALL RETURNER SCORE: 92
- Punt Returns: 29 returns, 303 yards (+67 PRYOE), 0 TD (51.7% success rate)
- Kick Returns: 21 returns, 508 yards (+25 KRYOE), 0 TD (47.6% success rate)
After taking a circuitous route to the NFL, Turpin has made an immediate impact for the Cowboys in his first season. The speedster has averaged a top speed of 17.27 mph on his kick returns this season, the second-fastest among players with at least 10 kick returns. Turpin’s most impressive punt return this season came in the Cowboys' Week 7 victory against the Lions, when he fielded the ball inside the 10-yard line with an unblocked defender closing in and still picked up 52 yards. He gained +47 return yards over expected on the play, the most on a non-touchdown punt return this season.
OVERALL RETURNER SCORE: 92
- Punt Returns: 25 returns, 205 yards (+26 PRYOE), 0 TD (60.0% success rate)
- Kick Returns: 21 returns, 547 yards (+42 KRYOE), 0 TD (47.6% success rate)
No matter what form it comes in, Agnew showed he's dangerous with the ball in his hands. On offense, three of Agnew’s 23 receptions this season went for touchdowns -- his most offensive scores in a season in his career. As a kick returner, Agnew’s average of 26 yards per return ranked 10th among all players with at least 10 attempts in 2022. And as a punt returner, Agnew secured more yards than expected on 60 percent of his attempts, the fifth-highest rate among players with at least 10 returns. When all was said and done, Agnew finished as one of three players (Devin Duvernay and Keisean Nixon) with at least +40 KRYOE and at least +25 PRYOE. His value in the return game, and beyond, has undoubtedly played a part in Jacksonville's worst-to-first leap.
OVERALL RETURNER SCORE: 91
- Punt Returns: 21 returns, 240 yards (+25 PRYOE), 0 TD (61.9% success rate)
- Kick Returns: 26 returns, 600 yards (+16 KRYOE), 0 TD (50.0% success rate)
Although Berrios lacked a consistent role on a Jets offense that struggled to throw the ball all season, the fourth-year wideout was able to find a groove on special teams, where he excelled from start to finish. Berrios finished as one of nine players to have at least 600 kick return yards this season, and of those nine, only Berrios and Marcus Jones also had at least 200 punt return yards. Berrios had positive yards over expected on nearly 62 percent of his punt returns, a mark that trailed only DeAndre Carter and Keisean Nixon among players with at least 10 such attempts. Even if Berrios failed to match his production from his 2021 All-Pro season, when he averaged 30.4 yards per kick return (second in NFL, min. 10 attempts), he was still a solid contributor yet again.
OVERALL RETURNER SCORE: 88
- Punt Returns: 16 returns, 190 yards (+26 PRYOE), 0 TD (43.8% success rate)
- Kick Returns: 15 returns, 383 yards (+40 KRYOE), 1 TD (26.7% success rate)
Duvernay, one of five players to have a kick return TD this season, took the opening kickoff to the house during a Week 2 thriller against the Miami Dolphins. He reached a top speed of 21.60 MPH during his return, the fastest by any ball-carrier on special teams this season. While that 103-yard score was certainly the highlight of his 2022 campaign, Duvernay was a threat on every special teams play for the Ravens before a broken foot ended his season with three games remaining. Despite the missed time, the third-year pro finished as one of three players (Jamal Agnew and Keisean Nixon) with at least +25 PRYOE and at least +40 KRYOE. The Ravens will surely miss Duvernay's speed -- both on offense and special teams -- when they face the Bengals on Sunday night.
OVERALL RETURNER SCORE: 88
- Punt Returns: 18 returns, 292 yards (+83 PRYOE), 0 TD (61.1% success rate)
- Kick Returns: 16 returns, 313 yards (-12 KRYOE), 0 TD (43.8% success rate)
After Williams thrived as a kick returner during his rookie season, it was his punt return ability in Year 2 that earned the DB/LB/RB/football player a spot on this list. Williams averaged a staggering, league-leading 16.2 yards per punt return this season, and his 4.6 PRYOE per attempt also led the NFL (min. 10 returns). The former fifth-rounder is known for being a do-it-all player -- also contributing 22 rushes, 13 receptions and 15 tackles in his two seasons -- but returning punts is undoubtedly where he shined most in 2022.
OVERALL RETURNER SCORE: 85
- Punt Returns: 29 returns, 339 yards (+59 PRYOE), 0 TD (69.0% success rate)
- Kick Returns: 26 returns, 497 yards (-57 KRYOE), 0 TD (26.9% success rate)
Like Williams, Carter ranks below average in several of our kick return metrics, but it’s his prowess as a punt returner that earned the former substitute teacher the final spot on our top-10 list. Carter's 339 yards on punt returns were the fifth-most in the NFL, and his +59 punt return yards over expected ranked sixth. Carter may not have the flashy special-teams plays, but it's his consistency that stands out relative to his peers. On punt returns, Carter's success rate -- the proportion of returns with positive yards over expected -- was 69 percent, the highest in the league among all players with at least five attempts. Carter's ability to execute plays on both offense and special teams has led to his transformation from undrafted free agent to key contributor on a playoff team.