One of the best things about Twitter (yes, I’m on there) is that you can follow people whose stream-of-consciousness thoughts you would never hear otherwise. One of the people I’m currently following is agent Alvin Keels, who reps Jets RB Leon Washington. He’s trying to get Leon a new deal, and as part of his Tweet-aganda, he compared Washington to other players in the NFL who are dangerous three ways: as runners, returners, and receivers. He came up with a list of seven, and I added a few more names of my own based on research. That’s enough to do a relativity comparison of these triple threats. So that’s what we’re going to do, with 10 being the most dangerous all the way across the board, and 1 being the least impactful of this group of players.
The criteria for making this list is scoring at least one return touchdown in ’08 or ’07, either as a punt or kickoff returner, and also having at least 10 receptions and 5 carries in ’08. That criteria included Keels’ list of Washington, Devin Hester, Darren Sproles, Maurice Jones-Drew, Reggie Bush, and DeSean Jackson. Keels also suggested Percy Harvin, but we’ll omit him until we see what he does in his rookie year. I then added Joshua Cribbs and Roscoe Parrish via editor’s decision, because they fit the spirit of this comparison. And please remember that this comparison is as triple threats, not as players as a whole. So Maurice Jones-Drew, while a huge impact player on offense, falls down the list as his return role diminishes.
10 – Reggie Bush, Saints – Bush is still the class of the triple threats because he’s so dangerous in all three areas. His best attribute of the three is probably as a receiver; he’s had at least 50 catches in all three of his seasons (he had 52 last year despite missing six games). Plus, he’s a dynamic punt returner who had three touchdowns on returns last year and has three in his career. While Bush isn’t an every-down, carry-the-mail back, and his yards-per-carry average has never been 4.0 yards in any of his seasons, 19 percent of his carries go for first downs and he has 12 career rushing touchdowns. The only thing missing from his resume as a triple threat is kickoff returns; he has none in his career. But when he does get the ball, he’s always a huge threat.
9 – Darren Sproles, Chargers – Sproles, who had been a dangerous return man since entering the NFL, exploded as a running back last year, stepping in for LaDanian Tomlinson at times and even supplanting him in the Chargers’ playoff win over the Colts. Sproles had 328 all-purpose yards, including 105 on the ground, in that breakout performance. In the regular season, he averaged 5.4 yards per carry, and more than 24 percent of his totes resulted in first downs. He also caught 29 balls and averaged nearly 12 yards per reception, which is a really high number out of the backfield. That’s why the Chargers staked $6.6 million in keeping Sproles as a franchise player. But he doesn’t quite compare with Bush because he has one year of that kind of production vs. Bush’s three-year resume. He also has one fewer return TD than Bush (4 vs. 3), although Sproles does return both kickoffs and punts. We may see Sproles take another step forward this season now that he has defined his role as Tomlinson’s complement, but we could also see Sproles fall out as teams see more of him and get to take more shots at his diminutive 5-foot-6 frame.
8 – Leon Washington, Jets – Washington has been a triple threat for three seasons, but last year was his best as his yards-per-carry (5.9) and yards-per-catch (7.6) averages both increased, and as he scored 8 offensive touchdowns, more than doubling his career total of such scores. He proved his impact as a returner with three kickoff returns for TDs in 2007, and he added a fourth to his career total last year. Washington is a great change of pace to Jets starter Thomas Jones, and he can fill the same role if rookie Shonn Greene replaces Jones. Washington isn’t yet the threat that Bush is on offense, nor has he shown he can control a game like Sproles did in the playoffs. But he’s a definite weapon no matter how you get him the ball.
8 (con’t) – DeSean Jackson, Eagles – Jackson is the best wide receiver on this list, as he showed by starting 15 games and catching 65 balls for 912 yards and two scores as a rookie. He also had 17 carries with a 5.6-yard average and a score along with one punt return in 50 attempts. It’ll be interesting to see what the Eagles do with Jackson moving forward. He should remain a starting receiver, and the pattern with such guys usually is to wean them off of returns. (Carolina’s Steve Smith would be the ultimate example of this.) Also, Jackson only had one kickoff return last year, and rookie Jeremy Maclin figures to get most of those attempts in ’09. So while Jackson is an emerging player, this may be the highest he ever ranks on the triple-threat list because his return role figures to diminish as he establishes himself as a receiver in the future.
7 – Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars – Mo-Jo is another guy whose offensive role will knock him off this list eventually, but you could argue that over his first three years, he’s been even more productive than Bush. Jones-Drew has had between 160 and 200 carries each year, never averaging less than 4.2 yards per carry in a season, and he’s had at least 40 catches each year, including a career-high 62 last year. He had 36 offensive TDs in his first three years, which is far more than Bush. But Jones-Drew had just 20 total returns last year, down from 30-plus his first two seasons, and he failed to score on a kickoff return in ’08 after reaching the end zone in both of his first two years. Now that Fred Taylor is gone, Jones-Drew will become the Jaguars’ top running back, and they just won’t be able to risk him on kickoff returns except in desperate situations. So his days as a triple threat are probably over, but it was fun while it lasted.
6 – Devin Hester, Bears – Hester didn’t have a return touchdown last year after amassing 11 in his first two seasons (four on punts and seven on kickoffs). But he played a more significant role in the receiving game with 51 catches, 29 of which went for first downs. He’s still growing into his game as a receiver, but the Bears believe he can be a true No. 1 threat in the passing game. Hester only had six carries, but he’s dangerous getting the ball that way too. If he were solely a returner, Hester would probably be the best in the league at it, but the Bears want his dynamic playmaking ability available on offensive snaps too. That makes him more of a triple threat but lessens his impact on special teams a bit. If Hester continues to emerge as a receiver now that Jay Cutler is flinging the ball his way, he’ll move up this list.
5 – Joshua Cribbs, Browns – Cribbs has been one of the better returners in the league since his rookie season in ’05, and he has 6 career return touchdowns, with at least one each season. Over the last two years, he’s started to get more of an offensive role. He had 29 rushes and averaged 5.8 yards per carry last year, mostly out of the wildcat formation. He also had two catches, which isn’t surprising considering that he found his offensive role under center. Cribbs is a guy who needs a few more offensive touches to move up this list, but his returning prowess makes him a lot of fun to watch.
4 – Ted Ginn Jr., Dolphins – Ginn might never live up to his top-10 draft position, but he’s become a nice weapon in Miami. He had 87 returns in his rookie year and just 39 last year, but that’s still a significant role. His lone return touchdown came on a punt in ’07. While his return numbers decreased, his offensive role increased, as he notched 56 catches in ’08 after having 34 in ’07. His yards-per-catch average also went up from 12.4 to 14.1, which is a positive sign. He only has nine career carries, but he took two of his totes for scores last year, which speaks to his threat level in that role. The Dolphins don’t really have a No. 1 receiver, and Ginn can’t fill that role, but he can be a deep threat and a gamebreaker.
3 – J.J. Arrington, Broncos – It might surprise you to see Arrington’s name on this list, but after several disappointing seasons as a second-pick in Arizona, he finally proved his worth last year – just in time to leave for Denver as a free agent. He averaged six yards per carry as a complement, first to Edgerrin James and then to Tim Hightower, and also had 29 catches and averaged 8.8 yards per reception. Arrington also had his second kickoff return touchdown in his career. It’ll be interesting to see what role Arrington carves out among the glut of running backs in Denver, but his performance last year suggests that he can be a third-down back and returner who takes a little pressure off rookie Knowshon Moreno. The question will be whether Arrington can beat out Correll Buckhalter and others for the carries that role could provide.
2 – Harry Douglas, Falcons – This rookie also was a surprise to make this list, but he fit the category and actually scored as a runner, receiver, and returner last year. Of course, two of those three touchdowns plus a 69-yard catch came in a single game against the Panthers. But that game marked the start of Douglas’ emergence. He finished with 23 catches and a 20.0 yard-per-catch average, 12 carries for a 5.8-yard average, and an 11.9-yard average on 19 punt returns. He’s a guy to watch in the triple-threat category moving forward.
1 – Roscoe Parrish, Bills – Here’s the stat that shocked me when I was researching this piece: The NFL career leader in punt-return average is Parrish, who passed Hall of Famer George McAfee in that category last year. At 13.96, Parrish averages more than a yard more per punt return than anyone else in league history. (Thanks to the Hall of Fame’s site for the numbers.) That’s an impressive stat. He also has punt-return touchdowns for each of the last three seasons. Offensively, Parrish was a third receiver last year who had 24 catches for 232 yards and a score. He also had two rushes. So while he’s not much of a triple threat, he’s a huge threat on punt returns. He should focus on that role this year with Terrell Owens joining Buffalo’s receiving corps with the underrated Lee Evans as well as Josh Reed and James Hardy.