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The Value of the Return Game: Do the Cowboys Need a Return Specialist

The kick and punt return game may be one of the most under-appreciated aspects of football. An elite returner is a key weapon in the battle for field position as he is capable of getting the offense into a short field position with one play. Such is the game changing potential of an elite returner that some special teams coaches will avoid kicking to certain players altogether, more than happy to give up some hidden yardage in exchange for not risking a short field.

Our own Rafael Vela argued convincingly in his Dipping into the Special Teams Well Again? story that the Cowboys will continue looking for a kick returner.

Last season, the Cowboys' average kickoff return was 22 yards, which ranks a somewhat disappointing 20th in the NFL. The average punt return was 10.9 yards, good enough for an impressive 6th in the league.

Players like Josh Cribbs, Percy Harvin, DeSean Jackson and even the Cowboys' own Patrick Crayton produced electrifying, highlight-reel touchdown returns in the kicking game last year. But is a return man worth spending a draft pick on?

To answer that question, we need to understand the value that an elite returner brings to a team, and I'll use Expected Points Value (read up on the concept of EPV here) to do this. 

Kickoff Returns

To understand the value of an elite returner, I'll use the stats of the top 5 kick returners last year and compare them against the NFL average.

Last year, each team returned an average of 62 kicks for 22.6 yards each. To keep things simple, let's assume all kicks were were returned from the goal line, so the average starting field position would be 1st-and-10 on the return teams' own 23 yard line. The EPV for that down and distance is 0.51. The 62 kick returns would result in an average EPV for the kick return game of 31.6.

What I'll do now is take the average yards per kick return for the top five kick returners last year and multiply them with the NFL average 62 kick returns to see what the impact of an elite returner would be.

Top 5 Kick Returners 2009, min. 25 returns
Player Team
Yards per kick return Avg. starting field position
EPV/Play Returns Expected points
Clifton Smith TB 29.1 29 0.85 62 52.7
Johnny Knox CHI 29.0 29 0.85 62 52.7
Josh Cribbs CLE 27.5 28 0.78 62 48.4
Percy Harvin MIN 27.5 28 0.78 62 48.4
Courtney Robey NO 27.4 27 0.72 62 44.6
NFL Avg.
22.6 23 0.46 62 28.5

For those unfamiliar with EPV, think of it simply as the average Expected Points that a team would make from a given down-and-distance. In the table above, the six yard difference between Smith and Knox and the NFL average may not sound like a lot. However, if you think about it in more traditional terms, this could be one less first down required to score. In terms of EPV, those six extra yards per return translate into 24 extra points over the course of a season.

Just for perspective, the total EPV value of DeMarcus Ware's sacks last year was 22.1 and the total EPV value of Dallas' interceptions was 33.0. The return game with the same game-changing potential as sacks and interceptions? I've got to admit, even I was was surprised by the numbers.

Punt returns

Again, I'll use the top five punt returners from last year and compare them against the NFL average (37 punts, 8.5 yards per return) and I'll assume all punts are returned from the 20 yard line.

Top 5 Punt Returners 2009, min. 20 returns
Player Team
Yards per punt return Avg. starting field position
EPV/Play Returns Expected points
DeSean Jackson PHI 15.2 35 1.15 37 42.6
Wes Welker NE 12.5 32 1.05 37 38.9
Patrick Crayton DAL 12.1 32 1.0 37 37.0
Josh Cribbs CLE 11.9 32 1.0 37 37.0
Quan Cosby
CIN 11.9 32 1.0 37 37.0
NFL Avg.
8.5 29 0.85 37 28.2

An elite punt returner can add up the 10 Expected Points over the course of the season. Obviously, you won't see these exact numbers come true on the field, but as a means of determining the value of an elite return game, I believe they prove a point. If your kickoff and punt return game can result in an average of more than 30 extra points over the course of a season, the chances are good that you could win perhaps 2-3 more games than with an average return game.

Luckily for the Cowboys, Patrick Crayton came through and had an outstanding season as a punt returner last year. But as Raf pointed out, Crayton isn't getting any younger and isn't the fastest guy on the block.

The Cowboys already have an excellent kickoff and punting game. What they are still missing is The Return Man - an elusive speedster with exceptional quickness, great hands and cutback ability. In short, a game changer capable of scoring or creating short field positions every time he touches the ball. Is that guy already on the roster, or do we need to draft one?

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