The Buffalo Bills and kick returner Andre Roberts formed a pairing like peanut butter and jelly—two seasons, two Pro Bowl selections, and one year with the top kick return average in the league. Now, though, Roberts is 33 years old, entering the 12th season of his career, and a free agent. If the Bills were thinking about parting ways, what does the marketplace look like? Here are the top free agent returners available in 2021.
Patterson turns 30 this year, but the special teams dynamo hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. He scored his eighth career kickoff return touchdown this year, and ranked second in kick return average. It added up to the fourth All-Pro selection of his career. Patterson also had 364 yards from scrimmage and a rushing touchdown as a part-time offensive weapon for the Chicago Bears this year.
The drawbacks? The first is his cost. He’s coming off a two-year, $10 million deal—a substantial raise compared to the two-year, $4.6 million contract Roberts signed with the Bills. Patterson also doesn’t return punts—he’s strictly a kick returner.
The former fifth-round pick of the Detroit Lions is set to be an unrestricted free agent for the first time. He’s flexed between wide receiver and defensive back in his career (though he only played offense in 2020), and he hasn’t distinguished himself in any way on either side of the ball.
On special teams, though, he’s lightning in a bottle. The 5’10” 190-lb dynamo has four punt return touchdowns and a kick return touchdown in his first four seasons. With 12.7 yards per punt return and 28.0 yards per kick return, he just had arguably the best season of his career. The only downside: seven career fumbles, including two this year.
Erickson is entering his sixth NFL season, having spent the previous five with the Cincinnati Bengals. The reserve receiver spent his first three seasons as both the punt returner and the kick returner, then the Bengals took him off kick return duty for the past two years.
Erickson has never hit paydirt in his career, but he’s had a handful of big returns—including a 77-yarder and an 84-yarder on kickoffs. His career averages of 8.0 yards per punt return and 24.7 yards per kick return are both good numbers that place him roughly in the top ten or top 15 of the league. He’s also had a decent career as a backup receiver, peaking with 43 catches for 529 yards in 2019. The fumbles and muffed punts, though: woof. Erickson’s allowed the ball to hit the dirt 13 times in his career as a returner, plus three more as a receiver/runner. Someone teach this guy how to catch punts.
He’s coming off a two-year, $4.7 million contract extension that started in 2019.
The player who replaced Erickson as kick returner is Wilson, a cornerback and former sixth round pick by the Bengals. Since taking over the duties, Wilson’s resume is impressive: 45 kickoff returns for an average of 27.8 yards, and two touchdowns. He’s only fumbled the ball once.
Wilson has played sparingly outside of special teams in his career, topping out at 17 percent of defensive snaps in 2019. He hasn’t returned punts to this point in his career. He played on a $2.1 million restricted free-agent tender last year, and now he’s an unrestricted free agent.
The veteran running back will be 31 this year, and he’s coming off a one-year, $1.5 million contract he signed with the New York Giants last season. In the peak of his career, Lewis was an electric triple threat of a runner, receiver, and returner. The versatility and veteran knowledge is still there, but the danger is dialed back more than a few notches.
Lewis, who doesn’t return punts, returned to kick return duties in 2020 after two years without that role. He had 24 returns for an average of 22.4 yards—with a long of 48 yards.
Ray-Ray McCloud III
This choice comes with an asterisk—McCloud is a restricted free agent for the Pittsburgh Steelers this year. If they don’t offer him a tender, then he’d be available for any team to negotiate. Since he was originally a sixth-round pick by the Bills, it would be a weird turn of events if they decided to match a potential RFA tender and give another sixth-round pick to the Steelers, but sometimes stranger things happen.
McCloud came into his own as a dangerous returner this year, but he still needs to be better taking care of the football. He’s fumbled seven times in three years. Still, he offered impressive results on both punt and kick returns, and it’s nice to only need a single roster spot for both jobs.
Who would you want returning kicks for the Bills next year?
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- Analysis: What does Andre Roberts bring to the roster?
- Contract projection for free-agent returner Andre Roberts
- Bills have very limited roster experience returning kickoffs, punts
- Free-agent returners the Bills could target this offseason
- Returners are available in the 2021 NFL Draft
- Opinion: Bills should find a way to re-sign Andre Roberts