2011 NFL Draft: Top Five Return Specialists in the NFL Draft

Return specialists might be one of the most overlooked positions in the draft. They shouldn't be but it seems NFL teams are always reluctant to use a pick on a player unless he can play another position as well. 

Then teams get burned by the likes of Devin Hester, Joshua Cribbs and Dante Hall (a throwback) and promise to invest in one. 

Draft time comes around and the team's gaping hole at guard forces them to again abandon the search for a dynamic playmaker instead selecting the safer position.

Even if a team does gamble on a return specialist another problem often emerges. Most of the time return specialists play another 'skill' position leaving teams unwilling to risk injury on kick returns and punt returns.

Watching Desean Jackson single handedly take down the Giants last year might finally change that. 

 

 

Or maybe not.

1. Patrick Peterson - Cornerback LSU

It's hard to put Peterson on this list because the risk factor of him returning punts and kickoffs may be too high for most teams, especially teams drafting 1-5. 

But leaving him off would be an injustice to the player many people are tabbing as the best corner prospect since Derelle Revis. Peterson might even be better. 

The reason Peterson tops the list of return specialists is because he was able to score touchdowns three different ways during his three year career as a Bayou Tiger. Peterson had two punt return touchdowns. an interception and returned a blocked field goal for another score. 

Peterson has the rare combination of explosiveness, height and speed that will make him an elite shut-down corner at the next level.

(More to come under cornerbacks later) 

2. Leon Berry - Wide receiver/ Return Specialist Mississippi State 

After a standout career in Junior College Berry made an immediate impact during his first year at Mississippi St. setting a school record for 1,015 kickoff return yards on the year. While only earning 3 starts at wide receiver his Junior year, his kickoff return yards marked the second-highest single-season total in SEC history helping Berry to finish 21st nationally and 4th in the SEC. 

Unfortunately for Berry, his second season in Starksville was cut short by injury after he dislocated his ankle in a week 6 game against the University of Houston. Earlier in the season Berry had returned his second touchdown for the Bulldogs taking a kick back 97 yards and was averaging 26.8 per return. 

Strengths: 

Berry is the ultimate athletic specimen. Explosive, fast and elusive he has all the tools necessary to excel at the next level as a return specialist. In Junior College he was named to the second-team junior college squad and was primed for a stand out senior season Miss. St. 

Weaknesses:

Berry missed most of the year after dislocating his ankle early in the season so health is obviously a huge red flag. While it is likely that Berry will fully recover and be ready in time for NFL Training Camp, Berry is not an elite prospect at receiver. During his short stint at Mississippi State, Berry was plagued by inconsistent route running never developing as a true starting receiver.

Combine:

Nfldraftscout.com has him rated as the 130th best receiver prospect of 329 eligible receivers. He has good size 6 ft 205 lbs and ran a solid 4.52 40 time, but it is highly unlikely that Berry will get drafted. 

3. Ricardo Lockette - Wide Receiver Fort Valley State

The guy has blazing speed. No questions about that. On an interview with ESPN's First Take, Lockette seemed genuinely upset with his 4.34 40 time. The NFL's fastest recorded time was 4.24 - a speed that Lockette missed by .02 seconds for his low time (combine times are the average of two runs).

Lockette can flat out fly. The question is, can he do much else? 

Lockette won a D-II national championship in the 200 meters in 2008 but its his inexperience that is worrisome for NFL scouts. Lockette has gone through multiple transfers trying find a more permanent home on the football field and has never shown steady hands.

Strengths:

The guy is an athletic freak. He is 6'2 and 211 and can still run a 4.34 (For comparison's sake, I'm 6'1 205 and would probably run somewhere in the 9.8 range)  

Weaknesses:

Lockette came off as incredibly intelligent, considerate, thoughtful and quietly confident in his interview on First Take.Those are all good signs and show he has matured. Still he has a past that will certainly raise eyebrows. Originally Lockette signed with Auburn but didn't make the grade so he transferred to Fort Valley State. Then deciding he wanted to focus solely on track, he left for Bethel College in Tennessee before changing his mind and returning to FVS. 

What's worse, are his hands. While he impressed at the combine, Lockette has to been known to have 'lineman hand syndrome." If Lockette is going to make it in the NFL he will need to develop as a receiver as well.

Combine Stats:

Below are Lockette's combine stats thanks to nfldraftscout.com who also rated Lockette the 130th best receiver in the class and projected him to fall somewhere in the 6th or 7th rounds. 

Combine Invite: Yes
Height: 6021
Weight: 211
40 Yrd Dash: 4.34
20 Yrd Dash: 2.48
10 Yrd Dash: 1.52
225 Lb. Bench Reps: 
Vertical Jump: 35 1/2
Broad Jump: 10'07"
20 Yrd Shuttle: 4.19
3-Cone Drill: 7.15
4.26/4.35/4.48 40 range before Combine

Dates: 03/10/11 
Height: 6021
Weight: 211
40 Yrd Dash: 
20 Yrd Dash: 
10 Yrd Dash: 
225 Lb. Bench Reps: 22
Vertical Jump: 39
Broad Jump: 
20 Yrd Shuttle: 4.37
3-Cone Drill: 6.76


4. Jeremy Kerley - Wide Receiver TCU

Kerley is a guy the Colts should target. In fact he is just the type of player the Colts need. After being used almost solely as a return specialist, Kerley blossomed into a legitimate receiver this year catching 56 passes for 575 yards and 10 touchdowns.

As a Junior, Kerley was Mountain West Conference Special Teams Player of the Year and received All-American honors from Rivals.com and CollegeFootballNews.com He also returned two long punts for touchdowns and lead the Mountain West in punt return yards (14.4) and kickoff return yards (26.6) ranking seventh and 22nd respectively in the nation.

Strengths:

Everyone knew Kerley was fast but this past year as a Senior not only did he win his second straight Player of the Year Award for the Mountain West, he also worked hard to develop his game and position himself as a legitimate receiver. He has quick feet and shows great balance. According to many accounts he was the best receiver on the field for the South team during the Senior Bowl

Weaknesses:

Playing in TCU's spread offense there are questions whether Kerley's stats are inflated. There are further concerns about his route running ability and his tendency to look lost in games. 

Combine Stats:

Below are his combine stats and pro day stats  courtesy of Nfldraftscout.com which ranked Kerley the 18th best receiver in the draft. Kerley is projected somewhere in the 4th round - an ideal spot for the Colts to grab him.

 

Combine Invite: Yes
Height: 5094
Weight: 189
40 Yrd Dash: 4.56
20 Yrd Dash: 2.63
10 Yrd Dash: 1.58
225 Lb. Bench Reps: 16
Vertical Jump: 34 1/2
Broad Jump: 10'00"
20 Yrd Shuttle: 
3-Cone Drill: 
4.45/4.55/4.64 40 range before Combine

Dates: 03/11/11 
Height: 5094
Weight: 189
40 Yrd Dash: 4.56
20 Yrd Dash: 2.64
10 Yrd Dash: 1.54
225 Lb. Bench Reps: 
Vertical Jump: 37 1/2
Broad Jump: 10'02"
20 Yrd Shuttle: 3.99
3-Cone Drill: 6.70


 5. Shaky Smithson, WR Utah

By all accounts, Shaky is supposed to be as elusive as his name might suggest. Smithson whose real name is Antonie was a Walter Camp first-team All-American punt returner after leading the nation with a punt return average of 19.1 yards and accumulating over 572 punt return yards total. His 572 yards set a single season MWC record as well as Utah's own record. Smithson was also the only player in the country with four-100-yard punt return games. He also had four of the nation's top 11 punt return yardage games as well.

While electric on the field, Shaky is an even better person off it taking full custody of his younger brother in order to help him get out of their tough inner-city neighborhood in Baltimore, Maryland.

Strengths:

His electric with the ball in his hand as a returner. Once Shaky gets momentum he is usually going to break a big gain. He is also a high character leader off the field.

Weaknesses:

Smithson is almost purely a special teams ace and will have trouble finding a home in the NFL. A team will have to be willing to use a pick solely on a special teams guy.

Combine Stats:

5'11 and 202 lbs, Smithson has a decent build. His 4.54 was good but not great, especially since he is going for such a niche position based on speed. It is unlikely he will be drafted. 


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