What stats do you typically use to evaluate punt returners? Probably yards per return and total return touchdowns, right? Nothing that actually tells you anything about the value of the return specialist.
In an earlier article, I examined this same problem on the other side of the punt return: the statistical evaluation of NFL punters is typically quite shallow. I ended up using the Expected Points metric to quantify punting value. In this article, I’ll attempt to use the same methodology to evaluate punt returners.
The main idea here is that we can determine the number of points the offense is expected to score on any given drive based on their starting field position.
Let’s say a returner catches a punt at their own 20-yard-line (so 80 yards from the end zone). If the offense started their drive at that spot, their Expected Points would be right around 0.473. However, the returner managed to shake off a couple of defenders and gain ten yards on the play. Now, the offense would be expected to score approximately 1.29 points on average. The return specialist is therefore credited with adding 0.817 Expected Points.
Here’s a scatter plot for the total number of return yards and the corresponding Expected Points Added for punt returns over the past 21 years. That’s a lot of dots — 35,578 to be exact.
I color-coded the points so you can clearly discern the three types of returns. Everything here is exactly what you’d expect. Losing a fumble is always a negative play, but losing a fumble that’s returned for a touchdown is an extremely negative play. Gaining positive yards on a punt return is always a positive play (if you don’t fumble), while losing yards is always a negative play. Groundbreaking stuff, I know.
It’s not obvious from the scatter plot, but the most common event by far is a return for zero yards in which the returner doesn’t lose a fumble, which always equates to a gain of zero Expected Points. You also may notice that I said there were 35,578 dots on the scatter plot even though there have been less than 24,000 punt returns since 1999. Well, you probably didn’t notice that. But it’s true. It turns out the cause of this massive discrepancy is the fact that I’m using a data set which counts fair catches as returns. The NFL does not officially record fair catches as returns.
This raises an important question: should I include fair catches in this analysis?
The point of this article is to get an idea of how much value the punt returner position carries and which punt returners are the most and least valuable. I don’t think it makes sense to ignore fair catches when they do have an impact on the game. Let’s say a player lines up to return a punt on ten different plays. On nine of these occasions, the player raises their hand for a fair catch. On one occasion, they return the punt for a touchdown. I think it would be disingenuous to say that the player adds approximately seven points to his team per punt return. Those fair catches still happened, and ignoring them just arbitrarily inflates the value of punt returners. I think it would only serve to skew the results. I could be wrong, though. The NFL chooses to disregard fair catches, so I’m sure they have a good reason for it. If you’d like to reproduce the work here while excluding fair catches from the data, here is the data set I used.
Anyway, let’s get back on track. I could proceed by aggregating the EPA (Expected Points Added) and TPA (Total Points Added) for each punt returner based on the data shown in the scatter plot. However, this wouldn’t tell us much about the punt returners. Take a look at the distribution of the data:
Both the distribution curves for return yards and EPA are right-skewed. The average play in the data set is a 6.04 yard return adding 0.348 Expected Points. Now we can calculate the number of points each returner added above average in order to determine their true value.
Here are the full results:
The most valuable punt returner from 1999 to 2019 was Devin Hester, who is regarded by many as the greatest return specialist in NFL history. No surprise there. Among players with at least 100 returns, only Adam “Pacman” Jones has Hester beat in terms of efficiency (Average Expected Points Added, or aEPA). A few other players average more yards per return than Hester, but his remarkable touchdown rate gives him the edge in value.
Plotting the results clearly shows the strong correlation between yards per return and average EPA:
The coefficient of determination suggests that approximately 80.9% of the variance in aEPA can be predicted from the independent variable, yards per punt return. It’s not surprising that this is the most significant predictor of value. After all, the job of a punt returner is to give the offense the best possible field position.
Anyway, what do the results tell us about the value of a punt returner? I found that the best single-season by a punt returner came in 2007 when Hester gained 13.6 yards per return and ran back four touchdowns. In total, Hester added 26.7 total points above average over the course of the 16 game season. For reference, Peyton Manning added 160.6 expected points above average in 2013. In terms of EPA, Hester therefore carried 16.6% of Manning’s value. The highest paid quarterback in the NFL is currently being paid $35M/yr. Therefore, we may expect a returner of Hester’s caliber to be worth $5.8M/yr.
This is obviously a very rough estimate, but I think it demonstrates that a good return specialist is worth the money. Of course, finding a returner at the caliber of Devin Hester is virtually impossible. But if you can find somebody even close to that level, they’re worth holding onto.