While the bulk of plays in a football game involve offense and defense, special teams can serve as the great equalizer that ultimately determines the final outcome.
Recent rule changes have neutralized the value of return specialists, especially on kickoffs, as the vast majority end with the kick sailing out of the end zone for a touchback. But although they’ve become far more rare in the modern NFL, there’s still not a more exciting play that can alter a game in an instant quite like a kick or punt return for a touchdown.
Since becoming a franchise in 1976, the Seahawks have had several electrifying returners who have thrived as game-changing threats on special teams. Here’s my final rankings for the top five return specialists to play in Seattle.
5. Bobby Joe Edmonds
Seahawks Tenure: 1986-1988
Career Stats: 3,238 total return yards, one touchdown
Edmonds only lasted five years in the NFL and just three in the Pacific Northwest, but he made quite the initial splash after being selected by the Seahawks in the fifth round of the 1986 NFL Draft. The explosive 5-foot-11, 186-pound running back only ran the ball six times in his entire career, but he emerged as one of the league’s most feared returners upon his arrival in Seattle.
Installed as the Seahawks kickoff and punt returner during his rookie season, Edmonds quickly became a star on special teams. Along with posting 764 return yards on kickoffs, he led the league averaging 12.3 yards per punt return and took one punt back 75 yards for a touchdown, garnering First-Team All-Pro honors and making the Pro Bowl. He didn’t return another kickoff or punt for a score during his final last two seasons in Seattle, but he still ranks third on the franchise’s all-time list in punt return yardage and seventh for kick return yardage.
4. Joey Galloway
Seahawks Tenure: 1995-1999
Career Stats: 853 total return yards, four touchdowns
Easily the most decorated skill player to make this list, Galloway accumulated 283 receptions, 4,457 receiving yards, and 37 touchdowns in five seasons with the Seahawks. But aside from being an excellent weapon in the passing game, the former first-round pick out of Ohio State also shined as a punt returner.
After joining the Seahawks in 1995, Galloway was installed as the team’s punt return specialist and flourished, returning 76 punts for 769 yards over the next four seasons. Even without returning any punts during the 1997 season, he became one of Seattle’s most reliable sources for points, returning a franchise-record four punts for touchdowns during that span. He’d be higher on this ranking if he also returned kickoffs, but being the team’s top receiver, they chose not to utilize him in that capacity.
3. Tyler Lockett
Seahawks Tenure: 2015-Present
Career Stats: 3,902 total return yards, three touchdowns
Lockett came into his own as a legitimate No. 1 receiving option for Seattle in 2018, leading the team with 965 receiving yards and 12 touchdown receptions. But prior to his breakout season on offense, the ex-Kansas State star may have been the most consistent return weapon in the NFL during his first three seasons with the Seahawks.
As a rookie in 2015, Lockett returned a kickoff and a punt back to the house for touchdowns and amassed over 1,200 total yards on special teams, earning First-Team All-Pro accolades and making the Pro Bowl. Over the next two seasons, he remained one of the most respected specialists in football, leading the NFL in punt return yardage in 2017 and receiving Second-Team All-Pro honors both years. While his increasing importance on offense may lead to his removal from special teams moving forward, he currently ranks fourth overall in team history in the punt and kick return yardage categories.
2. Nate Burleson
Seahawks Tenure: 2006-2009
Career Stats: 2,253 total return yards, three touchdowns
Before becoming a popular analyst on NFL Network and CBS Sports, Burleson enjoyed a stellar 11-year NFL career, including four seasons with the Seahawks. In addition to catching 136 passes and scoring 15 touchdowns while playing in Seattle, he gave his team a jolt on special teams, contributing as both a kick and punt returner.
While Burleson didn’t play much of a role on offense during his first season with the Seahawks in 2006, he made an immediate impact on special teams by returning a punt 90 yards for a touchdown and also pitched in 643 yards as a kick returner. The following year, he led the entire league with 684 punt return yards, returned both a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown, and tacked on nine receiving touchdowns offensively to help Seattle make the playoffs for a fifth straight year. Despite playing just four seasons with the organization, he still ranks first in team history with over 1,200 punt return yards and earned a spot on the franchise’s 35th Anniversary Team as a returner in 2010.
1. Leon Washington
Seahawks Tenure: 2010-2012
Career Stats: 4,398 total return yards, four touchdowns
While Lockett, Burleson, and Galloway all enjoyed prolonged success as returners in Seattle, none of them posted numbers on par with Washington. Before joining the Seahawks via trade in 2010, he already had established himself as one of the league’s premier kick returners with the Jets, accumulating nearly 3,000 return yards and four touchdowns during his first four NFL seasons.
Overcoming a gruesome compound fracture that ended his final season in New York after just seven games, Washington quickly became a fan favorite in Seattle, returning a league-leading three kickoffs for touchdowns and garnering Second-Team All-NFL distinction. Two years later, he made his second and final Pro Bowl while averaging nearly 30 yards per kickoff return and taking another kick back for a score. Released by the Seahawks prior to the 2013 season, he concluded his brief tenure ranked second in franchise history for kick return yardage, first in kick return touchdowns, and second for punt return yardage. For his career, Washington and Josh Cribbs share the NFL record with eight kicks returned for touchdowns.
Honorable Mention: Steve Broussard
Seahawks Tenure: 1995-1998
Career Stats: 3,900 total return yards, one touchdown
Some may wonder why Broussard, who ranks first all-time in Seahawks history with 3,900 kick return yards, failed to make this top five ranking. The Washington State alum certainly would’ve been deserving given his entire body of work, but he never earned All-Pro or Pro Bowl recognition playing in Seattle and didn’t return punts. He also wasn’t quite the home run threat in comparison, returning one kickoff for a touchdown in a team-record 165 return attempts. Considering Washington and Lockett have starred for the Seahawks since Broussard was selected to the franchise’s 35th Anniversary Team, he narrowly misses out on making the cut.