Here’s a look at the top six specialist/returner prospects in the NFL draft:
1. Cordarrelle Patterson, KR, 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, Tennessee (projection; first round): The team that drafts Patterson may have to wait a while for him to become a consistent wide receiver because he’s still raw after playing only one season for the Volunteers. But Patterson could pay immediate dividends as a return man. Patterson set an SEC single-season record with a combined average of 27.6 yards on kickoff and punt returns. He scored one punt-return touchdown and another on a kickoff return in addition to five receiving scores and three rushing touchdowns.
2. Giovani Bernard, KR, 5-8, 200, North Carolina (third): The stocky running back proved his worth as a redshirt dual-purpose threat in the offense, so those skills have him high on draft boards. But Bernard also averaged 16.4 yards on 16 punt returns with two touchdowns last season. There are concerns about his durability after he suffered a torn ACL before his first season and experienced knee pain in later seasons.
3. Tyrann Mathieu, KR, 5-9, 185, LSU (third): Mathieu’s size hurts his draft stock as a cornerback, but does nothing to diminish his potential as a dangerous return man. As a sophomore Mathieu averaged 17.2 yards per punt return, ranked fourth in the nation, with two touchdowns. The bigger issue is Mathieu’s checkered past: He was kicked off LSU’s team before the 2012 season after multiple failed drug tests.
4. Dustin Hopkins, K, 6-2, 185, Florida State (fifth): Hopkins was an All-American kicker in high school and made an immediate impression with the Seminoles by making a 52-yard kick on his first try. During four seasons at FSU, Hopkins made 88 of 112 field-goal attempts and missed one of 202 extra-point attempts. He also was good on kickoffs, with 137 touchbacks on 347 kicks.
5. Chad Bumphis, KR, 5-10, 200, Mississippi State (fifth): Bumphis blossomed as a wide receiver during his senior season and adds value as a returner on punts and kickoffs. He ran back punts for four years and averaged 10.1 yards on 35 attempts with a touchdown. Bumphis handled kickoffs for his first two seasons with the Bulldogs and averaged 21.9 yards with a long of 50.
6. Jeff Locke, P, 6-1, 210, UCLA (sixth): Locke, who punts kicks with his left foot, averaged 44.2 yards on 275 punts during his four seasons at UCLA. NFL.com analyst Gil Brandt rates Locke as highly as Bryan Anger, who was selected by Jacksonville in the third round of the 2012 draft.