As we approach the start of training camp across the league, it’s a good time to highlight the standout special teams players in the NFL.
Many of them got their first opportunities in training camp, competing for roles in punt and kickoff coverage to remain on the 53-man roster and eventually work their way up the depth charts. Some even make a living being reliable special teams contributors on a yearly basis.
With many roles on special teams, this latest top 10 list at The MMQB was tough to narrow down, but we got it done.
10Matthew Slater, special teamer, Patriots
We’re starting this list with one of the greatest special teams contributors of all time. Slater, 37, has been named to the Pro Bowl 10 times, an NFL record for a special teams player. Rumor has it that the term “ace” was created for Slater (not to be confused with A.C. Slater from Saved by the Bell). Slater’s gunner skills have made him a Patriots legend; he has played his entire 16-year career in New England, where he also won three Super Bowls. Slater, the son of Hall of Fame tackle Jackie Slater, has also been named to five All-Pro teams—twice to the first team and three times to the second team.
9Cordarrelle Patterson, returner, Falcons
Patterson, 32, is playing less special teams these days after reigniting his career in Atlanta as a running back, but he remains a dangerous kick returner. Last season, Patterson set an NFL record with his ninth career kick return touchdown, going 103 yards vs. the Bears. Patterson, who was drafted as a wide receiver by the Vikings in 2013, is a four-time Pro Bowler and first-team All-Pro. He was named to the league’s All-Decade team for the 2010s.
8Michael Thomas, special teamer, Bengals
Thomas, 33, has had a standout NFL career, contributing in many facets of special teams. He’s known for playing various roles on punt and kickoff coverage, and he rarely misses tackles while playing special teams. Thomas, a 2018 Pro Bowler, was also named to the league’s All-Decade Team for the ’10s. As a side note, Thomas and Slater were instrumental in getting the voices of special teams players heard as they spoke out against the NFL’s new kickoff rule.
7Tommy Townsend, punter, Chiefs
Townsend has been a productive punter since joining the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent in 2020, but he took his game to another level last season, earning his first career Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro selections. Townsend had a league-high 45.6 net yards per punt in ’22. There’s not much work as the punter for quarterback Patrick Mahomes, but Townsend made the most of his 53 punts last season, placing 22 inside the 20-yard line.
6Jeremy Reaves, special teamer, Commanders
Reaves was a vital “core four” special teams player for the Commanders last season, and he was recognized for it with his first career Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro selections. Oftentimes, the nonspecialists from special teams get forgotten, but the Commanders raved about Reaves last year. Star wideout Terry McLaurin called Reaves a “difference maker” after coach Ron Rivera announced the 26-year-old made the Pro Bowl.
5Daniel Carlson, kicker, Raiders
The Vikings pulled the plug early on Carlson, cutting him just two games into his rookie season and a few months after selecting him in the fifth round of the 2018 draft. But the kicker quickly found a new home with the Raiders and developed into one of the most reliable at the position. Carlson was the league’s scoring leader in both ’20 and ’21, and he was named a first-team All-Pro last season. Carlson has drilled 107 of his 115 field goal attempts the past three seasons.
4Keisean Nixon, returner, Packers
After three seasons of receiving seldom snaps as a cornerback with the Raiders, Nixon found his niche as a kick returner in 2022 under the guidance of Packers special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia. Nixon became the starting returner in Week 6 and went on to deliver a league-high five kickoff returns of 50-plus yards, en route to being named a first-team All-Pro. Overall, Nixon had 35 kickoff returns for a league-high 1,009 yards, with one memorable touchdown return that went 105 yards.
3Devin Duvernay, returner, Ravens
Duvernay is one of the few returners who can be productive at both punt and kick return. Duvernay, who has two career kickoff return touchdowns, has been named a Pro Bowler twice and was a first-team All-Pro in 2021. The Ravens’ dynamic gadget player also had a league-high 13.8 yards per punt in ’21. Last season, Duvernay recorded a career-high 37 receptions for 407 yards and three touchdowns.
2Marcus Jones, returner, Patriots
Coaches love to tell rookies that the path to seeing playing time is through special teams, but Jones took it a few steps further by contributing in all three phases of the game last season. Jones, a 2022 third-round pick, became the first player since Deion Sanders to score a touchdown on defense, offense and special teams in the same season. Jones, who was drafted as a cornerback, contributed as a gadget wideout and was named to the Pro Bowl as a punt returner. He led the league in punt return yards with 362 and took a punt return 84 yards for a game-winning touchdown versus the Jets.
1Justin Tucker, kicker, Ravens
For the past decade, the Ravens have had the comfort of knowing Tucker is available to make kicks in critical situations, a feeling not many teams are familiar with. Along with being one of the most clutch kickers the game has ever seen, Tucker has been named a six-time Pro Bowler and a five-team first-team All-Pro. He also won a Super Bowl with the Ravens in 2012—Tucker’s rookie season as an undrafted free agent from Texas. The kicker has a career field goal percentage of 90.5% (363 for 401) and 98.8% rate with extra-point attempts (413-for-418). With numbers like that, he’ll probably be one of the few kickers in the Hall of Fame after his decorated career concludes.