Kick and punt returners who are flying under the radar, but could explode this season. Profiled players include LaMichael James, Chris Rainey, David Wilson, Joe Adams, and Trindon Holliday.
Projecting any stats in the NFL is a tricky business, but projecting kick and punt return stats and predicting which players will succeed in those efforts can be especially difficult for fantasy owners. Often, unproven rookies are used at these positions; once they prove themselves at another skill position, they are sometimes taken off return duties as a new rookie or backup player on the depth chart takes over. With all of that in mind, an attempt has been made to identify a few key sleepers who could really excel in a returner role this season, beyond the household names of Sproles, Cribbs, and Hester. Extra emphasis has also been given to those players who have a good shot at amassing other offensive stats, as those players taken late in a draft can be key to a championship season.
James was an uber explosive all-purpose player at Oregon, and the Niners clearly liked what they saw in him, selecting him early in the 2012 draft. While some might point to the Niners backfield as too crowded for James to really emerge as a threat in his rookie year, consider the recently-injured Brandon Jacobs, the aging Frank Gore, and the underachieving Anthony Dixon; really the only other players James needs to hold off for a change-of-pace role is second year player Kendall Hunter. James has looked dangerous on both kick and punt returns so far in camp and in preseason games, and has also logged impressive touches as a RB. It should be noted that Hunter has also seen some return work, so depending on who impresses the coaches most, both could have good value this season in return-yardage leagues.
Drafted in the 5th round of the 2012 draft by the Steelers, Rainey is looking like a solid bet for heavy work as a returner this season. The team probably cannot afford to risk injury to Antonio Brown in the return game anymore, which opens the door for both Rainey and rookie WR Marquis Maze. A bit undersized for an NFL back, Rainey should nonetheless get some touches at RB this season as a change-of-pace guy, since he is by far the most explosive RB on the Steelers roster. Often split out wide as a reciever at the University of Florida, Rainey has already logged several catches in the preseason. The Steelers would be foolish not to find creative ways to use this playmaker in 2012, and if the injury big continues to take its toll on the Steelers' murky backfield situation, Rainey could be primed for a huge rookie year in terms of all-purpose yards.
Wilson is on many sleeper lists as an RB this season, and rightfully so. He was an exceptional talent at Virginia Tech, and there is a reason the Giants took him in the first round in the draft. With Brandon Jacobs gone and Ahmad Bradshaw a constant injury waiting to happen, Wilson only needs to hold off DaRell Scott to be entrenched as the RB2 in this offense. In camp and preseason games, Wilson has regularly lined up as the primary kick returner, and this should continue to be the case as long as he does not become the RB1 in the event of a major injury to Bradshaw. Return-yardage league owners should be hoping for Wilson to retain his kick return and RB2 roles, as that is most likely his most impactful scenario in such formats. Also an excellent receiver, Wilson should get ample looks from Eli Manning out of the backfield, making him an even better pick in PPR leagues. Wilson is creeping up drafts steadily; his ADP increases each day, so be prepared to reach for him in drafts a bit if you want him. Could well be worth it.
So far in the preseason, the 4th round rookie out of Arkansas has only seen work as a punt returner. However, that should be enough to get him on the stat sheet often, as he was the 3rd ranked punt returner in SEC history, averaging 15.8 yards per punt return (which is stellar). Adams is not just a one-trick pony, however, as he was also the 2nd ranked receiver in Arkansas history, and figures to see regular looks as the slot receiver in the explosive Newton-led offense in Carolina. He may have punt return competition early on in the season from 2011 returners such as Kealoha Pilares, but eventually Adams' superior talent should win out.
Holliday has really been making his presence felt in the return game on both kicks and punts in the 2012 preseason so far, amassing over 300 combined yards and scoring both a punt return TD and a kick return TD in just two games. The third year player out of LSU (where he was also an NCAA champion sprinter) has also been seeing work as a receiver, which only adds to his value. The Texans are looking for another WR to step up, and the explosive Holliday might just be that guy (although his small frame will most likely keep him from seeing regular duty at that position). However, once this guy gets in space, lookout. He's primed for a huge year, with league-leading potential as both a kick and a punt returner.