2012 NFL Season Predictions – Top 5 Return Specialists in the NFL: Special teams is without question the most-overlooked of the three phases of the game. However, a big play on special teams can provide the momentum swing the starts a big comeback or the final blow that seals a victory. Having an excellent return man is one of the best ways to make a consistent impact on special teams, and there is nothing like a kickoff or punt-return touchdown to pump up a home crowd or suck the wind out of the sails of a hostile road environment. Although the NFL has made rule changes in recent years that have made it harder for return specialists to score, there are still a few players that bring a dynamic ability to the position. Here is a look at the top return men in the NFL for the upcoming season.

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2012 NFL Predictions: Top 5 Return Specialists

1.      Devin Hester, Chicago Bears

He added two more punt-return touchdowns to his career total last season, giving him an NFL-record 12. Hester also led the NFL with a 16.2 punt return average, and he added his fifth kickoff-return score. The fact that he managed three return scores despite most teams designing their return coverage around him and often avoiding him all together is incredible. Hester remains one of the Bears top offensive weapons, and he can score six points whenever he touches the ball. He is already the most-accomplished lick returner in league history, and with plenty of years left to play, it is time to start asking whether he is a Hall of Famer. After all, shouldn’t the best player that has ever played a particular position be considered?

2.      Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals

As a rookie last season, Peterson exploded on the scene with an NFL-high four punt-return touchdowns. His 15.9 punt return average was the second best in the NFL, and his 699 punt-return yards led the league. Peterson has ridiculous speed and athleticism, and he showcased his ability on his repeated trips to the end zone. The only question for Peterson is whether or not he will get to continue to use his gift for returning punts on a regular basis. He is also expected to be an elite cornerback, and the Cardinals might not want their future shutdown corner returning kicks much longer.

3.      Ted Ginn Jr., San Francisco 49ers

Ginn might not be the best at punt returns or kickoff returns, but he is pretty darn good at both. His ability to impact field position in multiple ways makes him a valuable asset for a San Francisco offense that isn’t exactly explosive. Last year, he returned both a punt and a kickoff for a score, giving him six career return touchdowns. Ginn also ranked second in kickoff return average (27.6) in the NFC last year and third in punt return average (12.3). He is a steady source of yards in the return game, and he is always one touch away from a big play.

4.      Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers

Cobb stepped in and provided an immediate boost to the Green Bay return game in his rookie season. He returned both a kickoff and a punt for a score and finished in the top five in terms of average return yardage for both punts and kickoffs. In fact, Cobb led the NFC and ranked second in the NFL by averaging 27.7 yards per kickoff return. It is easy to overlook Cobb with all the other weapons the Packers have an offense, but the young player is clearly going to provide another element to the team’s attack.

5.      Josh Cribbs, Cleveland Browns

Cleveland has been so miserable on offense lately that Cribbs’ skills in the return game have actually been the team’s best source of offense at times. Unfortunately for Cribbs, most opponents simply avoid kicking him the ball, even it means kicking the ball out of bounds. As a result, his total yardage has been down in recent years, but Cribbs did rank in the top five in the AFC in average return yards for both punts and kickoffs. He also returned a punt for a score in 2011, giving him 11 return touchdowns for his career. If the Browns can ever get their offense going, Cribbs will become even more dangerous.

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