Top votes split, but Rams’ Cooper rolls as No. 1 AP returner
DALLAS (AP) — Pharoh Cooper of the Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill split 10 of the 11 first-place votes in The Associated Press kick returner rankings. The overall tally wasn’t nearly that close.
Cooper finished with 102 points, 43 ahead of the Chiefs’ speedy multipurpose man because Hill was left off two ballots and barely made three others on the voting panel that includes Hall of Fame receiver James Lofton and 10 AP pro football writers.
Hill’s diminished role — he is no longer returning kickoffs and isn’t in the top 10 in average yards on punt returns — was the difference. The second-year player finished fourth with 59 points, also behind a pair of rookies in runner-up Jamal Agnew of Detroit and Dallas’ Ryan Switzer.
“For sheer excitement, he’d be No. 1,” wrote AP lead NFL writer Barry Wilner, who is based in New York. “But the Chiefs hardly use him on returns the way they once did. He has only an 8.8-yard average on punt runbacks.”
The surprising Rams could be part of the reason Cooper was one of just two returners named on all 11 ballots (Switzer was the other). LA leads the NFC West and at 9-4 has clinched its first winning season since 2003.
Cooper, also a second-year man, had one of just three kickoff returns for touchdowns in the NFL going into Week 15, a 103-yarder in a 27-17 win at AFC South-leading Jacksonville. His 28.3-yard average on kickoff returns leads the league, and he has a solid 11.9-yard average on punt returns.
“Cooper has been a dynamic presence on special teams for the Rams, returning both kickoffs and punts, and establishing himself as a threat in both cases,” New York-based AP writer Dennis Waszak wrote.
“Big plays and a difference-maker,” wrote Lofton. Cooper was first or second on 10 of the 11 ballots.
Hill figures to get a few nominations for NFL play of the year — but it wasn’t on special teams. The 5-foot-10 dynamo stunned the Cowboys with a touchdown on the final play of the first half in a game Kansas City lost.
The Chiefs were on their 44 with 2 seconds left before halftime when Hill caught a short pass from Alex Smith with most of the Dallas defense playing near the goal line. With three blockers in front, Hill motored around Orlando Scandrick at the 25, cut behind two blocks from Demarcus Robinson inside the 10 and sidestepped linebacker Anthony Hitchens to finish the stunning TD.
“He’s as special a guy as I’ve ever seen in person,” said Jets special teams coordinator Brant Boyer, who worked out Hill before last year’s draft. “There is not a guy with more juice than that guy. He’s a special, special athlete and his burst, his acceleration, his patience, he has it all.”
Agnew, a fifth-round pick, is the only player with two returns for touchdowns this season — both on punts. He got the other first-place vote and had 68 points to Switzer’s 60.
“The rookie from San Diego leads the league in punt return average (16.8 yards), longest runback (88 yards) and touchdowns (two), so he’s an easy pick,” Wilner wrote of Agnew. “Besides, with the lack of kickoff returns, guys who field punts should get priority.”
Switzer finished a somewhat surprising third considering he hadn’t done much before returning a punt 83 yards for a touchdown two weeks ago. It was a pivotal moment in a win over NFC East rival Washington because it gave quarterback Dak Prescott enough time to get the swelling down on a hand injury and not miss any snaps.
Tarik Cohen of Chicago finished fifth with 57 points, and Seattle’s Tyler Lockett was sixth.
“Cohen handles both kicks and punts and deserves to make this list on the 61-yard punt return for a TD against San Francisco, much less everything he’s done,” wrote San Francisco-based AP writer Josh Dubow.
Lockett was named on the second-most ballots — 10.
“He hasn’t scored since his rookie year in 2015, but his ability to handle both punts and kickoffs among the league’s best is a rare skill,” AP’s Minnesota-based Dave Campbell wrote.
Oakland’s Cordarrelle Patterson was seventh, followed by New England’s Dion Lewis, Tennessee’s Adoree’ Jackson and Baltimore’s Michael Campanaro to round out the top 10.
EDITOR’S NOTE — The Associated Press is ranking the top 10 players at a different position every week of the NFL season, based on votes by Pro Football Hall of Famer James Lofton and AP football writers Simmi Buttar, Dave Campbell, Schuyler Dixon, Josh Dubow, Howard Fendrich, Rob Maaddi, Arnie Stapleton, Teresa M. Walker, Dennis Waszak Jr. and Barry Wilner. This feature is sent on Fridays.