The Cheat Code for IDP Best Ball Drafts
In punt and kick return leagues, scarcely used defensive backs can be MVPs for your team. In this guest post, Mitchell Blatt looks at "cheat code" DBs from 2022.
My name is Mitchell Blatt. I write about the NFL, betting, and fantasy on Substack at Mitch's Picks, and I wrote the IDP waiver wire column for RotoBaller in 2022. During the regular season, I publish data-driven IDP projections for my subscribers.
I’m excited to be competing in some of The IDP Show’s best ball leagues. In the course of researching for my draft, I had an idea for this article. Amongst the top 10 scoring defensive backs in The IDP Show’s best ball leagues are a few guys you might not have considered: players who earn points as kick and punt returners.
Kick returns are only so significant in terms of statistical production. (Kickoff returns more than punt returns.) Most of the all-purpose yardage leaders did not return any kicks or punts. And most kick returners are running backs or receivers.
But that means the few DBs who return kicks have that much of an advantage over DBs who don't return kicks. They could add 40-100 extra points doing things no other defensive player can do. Playing Marcus Jones at DB when he also plays kick returner, punt returner, and sometimes WR is like playing Taysom Hill at TE. Speaking of Jones, let’s look at a few of the DBs who were “cheat codes” in 2022.
Marcus Jones, Patriots
A backup CB for the Patriots, Jones was the 4th-highest-scoring defensive back in 2022. I knew Jones was an athletic dynamo who scored TDs on offense, defense, and special teams. I led off my Week 15 IDP waiver wire column with Jones, but I didn't think he'd finish that high. He only played 370 defensive snaps all season!
Jones returned at least 1 punt from Week 4 through Week 15, and he returned at least 1 kickoff in 10 games, so he had a base of about 4 fantasy points per game, but he boomed to over 10 when he busted out some big returns, and then jumped to 16 when he returned a punt for a TD against the Jets.
When he started getting playing time on defense in Week 13 and maintained his kick return duties, he averaged 28.7 points per game in his final 5 games. Jones returned 27 kickoffs for 645 yards and 29 punts for 362 yards and 1 TD. On kicks alone, he gained 1,007 yards and scored 106.7 fantasy points. Add in his production as a receiver and on his interception return, and Jones had more all-purpose yards than Amari Cooper, Christian Kirk, Mike Evans, and Justin Fields.
Desmond King, Texans
Texans backup CB Desmond King was the DB7 in 2022. He made 89 tackles and 2 INTs in 918 defensive snaps, good for around DB20 in most leagues. Along with Jones, King had over 100 snaps on special teams as a punt and kick returner.
King consistently played 32% to 74% of the Texans’ defensive snaps for the first half of the season and handled punt returns. After starting CB Derek Stingley Jr. injured his hamstring in Week 10, King played almost all the defensive snaps the rest of the season. He picked off 2 passes, recovered 2 fumbles during the season, and averaged 19.9 points per game in games where he made an impact play.
Keisean Nixon, Packers
The leading kickoff returner in 2022, Green Bay CB Keisean Nixon, amassed 1,009 yards. Nine kickoff returners gained over 600 yards. Three of them were cornerbacks, including Nixon, Jones, and Indianapolis CB Dallis Flowers. Overall, two of the top ten players for all-purpose yards were kickoff returners (Raheem Mostert and Isiah Pacheco), and they both gained about a third of their yardage from special teams.
Nixon, who just re-signed with Green Bay, represents a different kind of player. He is a kickoff return specialist with very few opportunities on defense. In fact, he played 2 or fewer defensive snaps in 10 games. But he returned a kickoff in 11 games and 4 or more in 6 games. Averaging 28.8 yards per return, he had six 100-yard games and set a high of 172 yards in Week 12. He also returned punts in 5 games.
Ideal Targets for Best Ball
Is punt and kick-returning production predictable from year to year? Of the 13 players to gain over 500 yards on kickoff returns in 2021, only 3 repeated in 2022. Four more gained between 300 and 500 yards, but 2 stopped returning kicks altogether. So, in weekly managed leagues, betting on a kick return TD might be a losing proposition, but in best ball, you don't have to predict when a kick returner will break free.
There are some players who have carved out roles for themselves as returners who coaches frequently return to. Roles as kick returners are like insurance for backup DBs like Jones and King. They might start a couple of games this season, but even if they don't, they have the ability to score points. Kick returners tend to be athletic and good at breaking away—skills that help these guys on interception returns, too.
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Potential Cheat Codes for 2023
Besides Jones, King, and Nixon, who else should you keep an eye on? I mentioned Dallis Flowers earlier. He returned 23 kicks for 715 yards last season. His Colts teammate, CB Isaiah Rodgers, has gained over 400 yards on kick returns in each of the past 3 seasons. While King returned punts in Houston, CB Tremon Smith returned kickoffs and gained 954 total yards over the past 2 seasons. Smith is a free agent, and Houston has a new coaching staff, so Smith and King’s could be subject to change.
Thanks for checking out this article. If you enjoyed my work, consider subscribing to my Substack at Mitch's Picks. I’ll see you in the next best ball draft from The IDP Show!
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