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Karl Marx Hates Return Specialists, So Let's Draft One

If you care about god, country, and apple pie, you should care about one thing in this year's NFL draft.

You better pray the Denver Broncos draft a return specialist.

You see, the NFL, just like any profession has evolved to the point of labor specialization.   While Karl Marx wasn't a big fan of specialization (he thought it turned workers into machines), it turns out that Vince Wilfork doesn't make a very good place kicker.  And Matt Prater isn't much of a strong safety.   Different guys have different skill sets and they specialize in specific situational football.  Of course, I'm telling you what you already know.

It seems, however, when it comes to kick and punt specialists, we tend to think anyone can do it.  We throw a 3rd string running back into the mix.  If that doesn't work, let's see what happens if we throw our fullback out there.  Or if that doesn't work, we can simply take a wide receiver and have them double as a return specialist.   We saw the Broncos try this with Eddie Royal last year, and the results were rather mixed.  While he did have some electrifying returns, his overall return numbers were average. Moreover, his receiving game suffered.  Concussions and touches aside, the wear and grind of returning did not help Eddie Royal the receiver.

We've seen similar things happen to Devin Hester.  When he was operating simply as a return specialist, he was lighting up the scoreboard and injecting his team with life and with excellent field position.  As soon as the Bears tried to translate this electricity (and ability in open space) to the starting lineup as a wide receiver, his play suffered, and he was neither an excellent receiver nor a 1st-class return man.   Hester himself acknowledge as much late last year:


"I would love to get back in that situation with the return game...I know what I'm best at.  The return game is my bread and butter, so if I had to cut back on receiving and go back to returns, that's something I would love to do."

While it's true that it's possible for a wide receiver to be a great return specialist, players like Tim Brown become rarer each year.  So why not bite the bullet and draft a guy who specializes in taking the rock to the house and maximizing field position?The cost of drafting such a specialist is generally a late-round pick, and the reward potential in Expected Points Value very high. 

Let's explore each of these issues.  And we'll use today's best return man, Josh Cribbs, as our example.  


I've written several times last year about the value of field position.  In the two years that I've been keeping field-position data, I've noticed that the team that won the field positions battle won about 70% of the time, or 7 out of 10 games.  In a sample size of 516 games, it's something I take seriously.  And it brings to light the need for a good return man.  Since football is always played with 11 players (don't act surprised, Oakland), one can never give all the credit to one guy.  Yet the return specialist still carries great importance.

To demonstrate this, I simply asked myself, how much more valuable is today's best return man, Josh Cribbs, than the league average? 

Josh Cribbs vs. Joe Sixpack

To answer this question, I utilized our old friend, Expected Points Value and a little thought experiment.  First, I looked at kickoffs.  The average number of kickoffs per team during 2009 was 62.  The league average return yards per kick was 22.6 yards.  Cribbs averaged 27.5 yards per kick.  If we assume that all 62 kicks were received at the goal line and run out, we can then generate an EPV value for both an average returner and for Cribbs for each kick.  This would help us at least get a general idea of how much more value a guy like Cribbs adds to a team as opposed to an average returner, or as I like to say, a Joe Sixpack specialist.   Here were the results:

Name Returns  Avg. Return/Kick  Start Yard Marker  Avg. Starting Field Position  EPV  Expected Points 
Josh Cribbs 62 27.5 0 28 0.336 20.83
Joe Sixpack 62 22.6 0 23 -0.014 -0.87


The EPV value of facing a 1st-and-10 from your 28 yard line (under our Josh Cribbs scenario) is .336 points per return.  Joe Sixpack doesn't fair so well.  The EPV value of each of his returns is -.014.  For those who aren't well-versed in the definition of EPV, think of it as the future expected points that your team would receive over the long term from the down-and-distance your team is facing.  In these two examples, we notice that starting at the 28-yard line is actually quite a lot more valuable (over the long term) than starting at the 23-yard line.  In fact, over the course of a season, I would contend it's about 3 touchdowns more valuable.  Given that the average margin-of-victory in the NFL is about 11, this could translate to 2 wins or losses a year.  

But we're not finished yet.  We still haven't accounted for punt returns.  Performing the same sort of thought experiment, we would take the average number of punt-return opportunities teams received in 2009 (36), and assume that each punt was fielded at the same yard line by both Cribbs and Joe Sixpack--let's say the 20-yard line (a reasonable assumption).  Here were the results:

Name Returns Average Return/Kick Start Yard Marker Avg. Starting Field Position EPV Expected Points
Josh Cribbs 36 11.9 20 32 0.625 22.50
Joe Sixpack 36 8.47 20 28 0.336 12.10


In 2009, Cribbs averaged 11.9 yard per punt.  Thus, in this scenario, his team would have started on the 32-yard line.  The EPV value of facing a 1st-and-10 from this yard line is .625 points.  Joe Sixpack (the NFL average) ended up getting his team to the 28-yard line.  The EPV of this starting field position is .336 points.  We can see that having a return specialist like Cribbs would have yielded a total of 10.40 points more expected points than the NFL average.

Although all NFL kicks and punts are not going to come out exactly the way this thought experiment did, it certainly should drive the point home.  A good return specialist has significant value.  As our simulation showed, when combining punts and kickoff returns together, having a guy like Cribbs could yield an extra 32 points per year, or the potential for 3 wins or losses. If you don't think this matters, then I think you've got a leather fetish and your favorite colors are silver and black.

Return Specialists of the Word, Unite!

This year's draft class of return specialists is quite good actually.  It includes the following players:

Player School  Projected Rounds   Height   Weight 
Trindon Holliday L.S.U 4-5-6 5-5 166
Brandon Banks Kansas State 4-5-6 5-7 150
Brandon James Florida 6-7 5-6 176


Notice that I did not include players like Jacoby Ford, Mardy Gilyard, Jordan Shipley, or C.J. Spiller on this list.  That's because teams will draft these players primarily as position players (specifically Spiller) and try to double them as return specialists--the exact thing I'm advocating against.  The other commonality is that all of these players will be gone by round 5.

If you are the Broncos (or any other team not named the Cleveland Browns or Chicago Bears) and you're sitting in the 6th or 7th round, and any of these 3 return specialists are still on the board, I'm hoping you are going to pull the trigger.   I'm not saying they will turn into Josh Cribbs (or the next human joystick), but the upside weighed against the tiny cost in contract terms absolutely beckons the pick.

Field position is just too critical.  It shouldn't remain an afterthought of the draft.  Nor should teams assume that the guy they drafted as their number 2 wide receiver is the next Tim Brown.  

I knew Karl Marx was probably a Raiders fan.