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Identifying the top 10 kickoff returners

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Posted Oct. 24, 2010 @ 11:28 a.m. ET
By Eli Kaberon

When Lions kickoff returner Stefan Logan turned on the burners in a Week Five game against the Rams, he not only earned six points for reaching the endzone, he earned a place in the NFL record book. Logan's return, the ninth kickoff brought back for a TD this season, marked the fifth consecutive week to start the season that a player has had a return score — the first time that has happened since at least 1950. Minnesota's Percy Harvin kept things rolling in Week Six with a 95-yard kickoff return.

Through six weeks this season, 12 NFL teams are gaining at least 25 yards per kickoff return. Only three teams gained at least 25 yards per kickoff return in 2009. Why have big returns been so prevalent this season?

One league source attributed it to teams not having as many good coverage players. The source also referred to the many great returners in the league in '10 but added that the trend will "level" off after teams fix problems. That source and another league source cited young coverage players as a reason for big returns.

PFW talked to multiple NFL insiders and came up with the 10 best kickoff returners in the league today.

1. Josh Cribbs / Browns — The stats might not be there this season, but Cribbs is generally considered the best kickoff returner in the game. One league source said one reason that teams are kicking away from Cribbs is because they know he is Cleveland's top weapon. The sixth-year veteran has eight career kick-return TDs.

2. Leon Washington / Seahawks — Few expected Washington to be a dynamic kickoff returner at this stage of his career after suffering a horrific knee injury midway through the 2009 season. Acquired on Draft Day, the Seahawks' ace has brought a pair of kicks back for TDs and is gaining 37 yards per return. One observer called Washington "a one-man wrecking crew. ... His ability to shift gears and stop and go is right up there with the best in the league."

3. Brandon Tate / Patriots — One of the reasons the Patriots were comfortable trading Randy Moss is their confidence in Tate, a second-year player out of North ­Carolina, being their deep threat of the future. He has shown his incredible speed, taking two kickoffs back for TDs this season, and he added another one in the preseason, all of this coming off an ACL injury that cost him much of his rookie season. One league source called Tate the "total package."

4. Danieal Manning / Bears — Lacking the shifty moves of teammate Devin Hester, Manning makes up for it with a straight-ahead style that makes him tough to bring down. A team insider said of him, "Not the flashiest returner but has to be one of the most powerful. He just gets it and goes."

5. Percy Harvin / Vikings — Does a little bit of everything for the Vikings and is always dangerous with the ball in his hands. Harvin didn't return a single kick in college, but he stepped right in as a rookie last season and brought two back for touchdowns, making the Pro Bowl in the process. One league source said a returner like Harvin, who had a 95-yard TD return in Week Six, needs little instruction because he's so gifted.

6. Stefan Logan / Lions — Logan is gaining 30.2 yards per return, doing his best to give a young Lions offense good field position. At 5-foot-6, Logan is one of the smaller players in the league, but as fellow undersized speedster Darren Sproles has shown in his career, sometimes that works out well for a returner, as Logan can be hard to find behind his blockers.

7. (tie) C.J. Spiller / Bills and Dexter ­McCluster / Chiefs — Two of the faster players taken in the 2010 draft both have made their mark already on special teams. Spiller dashed 95 yards for a TD in Week Three vs. the Patriots, showing the 4.28 40-speed that made him a top-10 pick. ­McCluster shares K.C.'s kickoff duties, but he has flashed examples of brilliance already for the league's surprise team.

9. LaRod Stephens-Howling / Cardinals — Standing only 5-foot-7, the second-year pro doesn't look like a typical game-breaking returner. But with the ball in his hands, Stephens-Howling is as dangerous as they come. He ranks fourth in the league with 579 return yards on the season after finishing seventh in that category a year ago.

10. Ted Ginn Jr. / 49ers — Ginn had moments of brilliance in Miami, but he was too inconsistent for the Dolphins' liking. He is gaining 28.3 yards per return so far this season with the 49ers.

 

Kevin Fishbain contributed to this article.

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