Rashid Shaheed not only joined an exclusive club of NFL players this season when he was selected as the Pro Bowl returner for the NFC, and also as a first-team All-Pro at punt returner.
The smaller fraternity the receiver entered was becoming the fourth New Orleans Saint player since 1993 to earn the Pro Bowl/All-Pro double, joining Saints Hall of Famers Tyrone Hughes (1993) and Michael Lewis (2002), and Deonte Harty (2019) as representatives in the return department.
"I think he's done a hell of a job," Hughes said. "He's got the speed, he seems to be very confident back there."
"I think what he does overall is great, because it's not that they just use him as a return guy, but also as a wide receiver, and the threat that he brings overall once he steps onto the field," Lewis said.
Shaheed was second in the NFC and third in the NFL in punt return average (13.6), returning 25 punts for 339 yards and a 76-yard touchdown against Green Bay – the third longest punt return in franchise history – and 18 kickoffs for 384 yards. To highlight Lewis' point, the second-year pro caught 46 passes for 719 yards and five touchdowns and totaled 1,479 all-purpose yards, 10th most in the NFL.
But the return work is what earned Shaheed's trip to Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla., for the multi-day Pro Bowl festivities that will take place from Feb. 1-4. And, specifically, his ascension from one of the most prolific returners in college football history (seven touchdowns and 2,560 yards on 88 kick returns at Weber State, and 575 yards on 40 punt returns) to one of the best in the NFL in just two seasons.
"This is the best part about it: It's not even that he returned it 76 yards for a touchdown," said Lewis, who returned 44 punts for 625 yds and touchdown and 70 kicks for 1,807 yds and two touchdowns in 2002, when he earned his All-Pro/Pro Bowl double. Lewis remains the Saints' all-time leader in punt returns (142) and punt return yards (1,482).
"What about when those punters are back there and they really don't want to kick it to him, and they make a mistake and they shank the ball and it only goes 36 yards?" Lewis said. "So the threat that he has back there at any given time, even if they punt the ball and he gets it at the 15-yard line and he returns it to the 30-yard line, he gets you in the best field position that's possible. And that's one thing about having that threat."
The importance of punt returns perhaps has risen given the dip in kick returns. The kick return rate has decreased since the kicking line was moved to the 35-yard line in 2011; many kickoffs result in touchbacks, and offenses often begin at the 25-yard line.
"You don't have as many opportunities," said Hughes, who returned 37 punts for 503 yards and two touchdowns, and 30 kickoffs for 753 yards and a touchdown in 1993, his All-Pro/Pro Bowl season. Hughes, a Saint from 1993-96, led the NFL in kickoff return yardage from 1994-96 (63 kick returns for 1,556 yards and two touchdowns in '94, 66 for 1,617 yds in '95 and 70 for 1,791 yds in '96).
"Supposedly the studies showed that a lot of the concussions came on the guys doing the 'wall,'" Hughes said. "So they got rid of the wall, and then they said (the heightened threat of concussions) was on special teams return teams as a whole. So then, they moved the yardage up so kickers can put it in the end zone or kick it out of the end zone.
"So now, that has taken the returner really and truly out of the game, or the kickoff returns out of the game. Which I think could be, and can be, a big part of the game if given the opportunities."
Lewis agreed that less kickoff returns lessens the opportunities of potentially game-changing plays.
"But if you're always kicking out of the end zone, you're pretty much starting at the 25-yard line," Lewis said. "So it's not even giving those guys a chance to make plays, to fumble the ball or regardless of what it is. Taking the kickoff out of the equation, I think it hurts.
"I know it's all about safety, but now you're taking a big element out of the game that used to mean something. Like, when I played, it's like they kick off, they just scored and you return it for a touchdown, the momentum switches back over. But now it's like they score, they're going to kick the ball out of the end zone and you're pretty much starting at the 25-yard line."
There's another thread that binds the three-fourths of the decorated returners: Shaheed, Lewis and Harty all were undrafted. Hughes was a fifth-round pick. Lewis didn't play college football, while Harty (Assumption College) and Shaheed broke records at smaller schools.
"That shows that the organization knows how to pick people who aren't drafted," Lewis said. "Special teams was a big factor to the teams that I played on overall. You can actually make a difference in the game. One big play.
"And then to have three guys that went to the Pro Bowl, that hadn't been drafted? That shows you the confidence that the organization has in guys that haven't been drafted, and when you can find diamonds in the rough like that, that's just showing you what type of organization it is."
Check out photos of New Orleans Saints wide receiver/return specialist Rashid Shaheed in action throughout the 2023 NFL season.