Best Kick Returners of All Time – Who Are the Best Ever?

best kick returners nfl

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Last Updated: June 20, 2023

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Scoring on a kick return is one of the most exciting plays in football, but there are not many players in today’s game that will even try to achieve this feat.

However, the ones that did, such as Devin Hester, who is considered the best kick returner of all time, have made a name for themselves.

Let’s take a look at which other players make it to the top five best kick returners of all time.

5. Gale Sayers

best kick returners of all time

  • NFL teams: Chicago Bears (1965–1971)
  • Accolades: NFL Comeback Player of the Year, NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, 5x First-team All-Pro, 4x Pro Bowl, 2x NFL rushing yards leader, 1x NFL scoring leader
  • Records: Most touchdowns in a season by a rookie (22), Most all-purpose touchdowns in a single game (6 – tied with Ernie Nevers and Alvin Kamara)

Gale Sayers was a running back and a return specialist. He spent his entire 7-year NFL career with the Chicago Bears. Unfortunately for Gayers and football fans, his career was cut short due to injuries.

However, during his short stay in the NFL, he made a big impression. He retired with a kick-return average of 30.6 yards, a record that stands to this day.

In addition to this, his 6 kick-return touchdowns are second-most all-time (tied with four others) and his percentage of touchdowns per kick is also an NFL record (91 attempts).

Gale Sayers is considered by his teammates and opponents, to be one of the most difficult players to tackle in the history of the league.

As Dick Butkus once said: You could never get a clean shot on Gale. Never.”

Sayers made history in 1967 when his Bears played the San Francisco 49ers and the Hall of Famer scored two return touchdowns, one of them being returned 97 yards opening kickoff.

Only a handful of players in the history of the NFL have managed to score two return touchdowns.

In 1977, at the age of 34, Gale Sayers became the youngest person to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

4. Cordarrelle Patterson

best punt returners

Image courtesy of Yahoo Sports

  • NFL teams: Minnesota Vikings (2013–2016), Oakland Raiders (2017), New England Patriots (2018), Chicago Bears (2019–2020), Atlanta Falcons (2021–present)
  • Accolades: 4x First-team All-Pro, 3x Second-team All-Pro, 4x Pro Bowl, 2x NFL kickoff return yards leader, 1x Super Bowl champion
  • Records: 109-yard play (tied), Most career kickoff return touchdowns (9)

At number four of our best kick returners of all time is Cordarrelle Patterson. Patterson proved to be a lethal return specialist in his rookie season.

In his second NFL game ever, he scored his first NFL touchdown with a 105-yard return on the opening kick.

In the same season, he also ran a kickoff 109 yards into the end zone, the longest kick return in NFL history.

Up to this point in his career, the Flash has been averaging one kickoff return touchdown per season and with a 29.8 average yards per kick he is second only to Sayers.

In 2013 he became the first player to record a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown, a 75-yard touchdown catch, and a 50-yard rushing touchdown in the same season.

3. Brian Mitchell

best kickoff returns ever

  • NFL teams: Washington Redskins (1990–1999), Philadelphia Eagles (2000–2002), New York Giants (2003)
  • Accolades: 1x First-team All-Pro, 2x Second-team All-Pro, Pro Bowl, 1x Super Bowl champion
  • Records: Most career kickoff return yards (14,014), Most career punt return yards (4,999), Most career total return yards (19,013)

Brian Mitchell played as a quarterback in college, but after getting into the NFL, he became known as a return specialist. He became known in the NFL after he returned an opening kickoff for a touchdown in his rookie season.

He would go on to play in the NFL for 14 years setting numerous records along the way.

During his career, he had an average of  23.1 yards a return and a total of 14,014 return yards and he went on to score 4 touchdowns and 9 punt returns for touchdowns.

In addition to this, he holds NFL records for most career punt return yards with 4,999 and most career total return yards with 19,013.

2. Josh Cribbs

most return yards in nfl history

  • NFL teams: Cleveland Browns (2005–2012), Oakland Raiders (2013), New York Jets (2013), Indianapolis Colts (2014)
  • Accolades: 1x First-team All-Pro, 1x Second-team All-Pro, 3x Pro Bowl, 1x NFL kickoff return yards leader
  • Records: n/a

In the second place, we have another player that played as a quarterback during college, Josh Cribbs, and just like Mitchel, Cribbs made an immediate impact as soon as he got to the NFL.

During his rookie season with the Cleveland Browns, he averaged 24.5 yards per return and had a total of 1,094 return yards, setting a Browns record.

He would break his record twice before finally setting it in 2007 with 1,809 kickoff return yards.

The only player that has more return yards in a season is MarTay Jenkins with 2,186 yards. When Cribbs retired in 2014 he had 11,113 kick return yards which are third-most all-time behind Mitchel and Allen Rossum.

1. Devin Hester

best kickoff returns ever nfl

Image courtesy of ninersnation.com

  • NFL teams: Chicago Bears (2006–2013), Atlanta Falcons (2014–2015), Baltimore Ravens (2016), Seattle Seahawks (2016)
  • Accolades: 3x First-team All-Pro, 1x Second-team All-Pro, 4x Pro Bowl, 2x NFL kickoff return yards leader, 2x NFL punt return yards leader
  • Records: Career return touchdowns (20), Career punt return touchdowns (14), Career total return touchdowns (6)

The best kickoff returner to ever play in the NFL is Devin Hester. During his career, the 190-pound speedster was so feared that teams did their best to avoid him on the return.

However, this did not stop Hester from setting several return records including most career return touchdowns, most career punt return touchdowns, and most career total return touchdowns.

Although he was projected to play cornerback, he filled in on the return in his rookie season, and after 13 games he had three punt-return touchdowns including a record-tying 108-yard touchdown.

During the same season, the Bears played in the Super Bowl, and Hester made history one more time after becoming the first player to return the opening Super Bowl kickoff for a touchdown.

At the time this touchdown was also the fastest lead taken by a team in the NFL championship game.

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