The Returning Question: Who Will Be Kickoff and Punt Return Men for the Packers in 2014?

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Will Packers rookie Jared Abbrederis be the featured return man in 2014? (AP Photo/Andy Manis)
Will Packers rookie Jared Abbrederis be the featured return man in 2014? (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

When the Green Bay Packers drafted Randall Cobb in the second round of the 2011 draft, it appeared they had their kickoff and punt returner of the future. However, his recent emergence in the offense necessitated others to handle the return duties.

Rookie defensive back Micah Hyde filled in admirably last season, but with his apparent increased role in defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ new look defense, and head coach Mike McCarthy’s traditional reluctance to use integral starters as returners, we might be looking at someone other than Hyde returning kicks this season.

So, here we are again asking a question we’ve asked several times before: who will be returning kickoffs and punts for the Packers in 2014?

Let’s take a look at the options.

Kickoffs

While no team will refuse a 100-yard kickoff return taken to the house, that is not the primary responsibility of returning a kickoff. The return man is responsible for securing good field position for the offense to begin a drive.

Over the years, in the interest of player safety, the NFL has revised kickoff rules several times. The kickoff line has been moved up, to encourage touchbacks, and the number of blockers allowed to form the wedge has been lowered to reduce violent player collisions. Essentially, by design, the kickoff itself no longer has the same potential to flip the field like a punt return or an interception return.

In other words, the need for a 4.3-second, 40-yard dash track athlete is no longer the most desirable trait in a potential kickoff returner. Simply making a man or two miss and breaking a tackle or two will suffice as long as he can advance the ball beyond the 25 yard line. Many coaches simply just want to get out of the kickoff without any injuries. Then, let the $100 million quarterback do his thing.

Going into training camp, I see the kickoff return competition being a three man race.

Likely Contenders

  • Micah Hyde. He was the featured returner for most of 2013. It has yet to be determined if Hyde will see an increased playing load in 2014, let alone crack the starting lineup at free safety. If Ha Ha Clinton-Dix secures the starting free safety position, it’s likely we’ll see Hyde returning kicks again this season. If not, and Hyde starts on defense, it’s unlikely he will be the featured returner.
  • DuJuan Harris. Last season, Harris started training camp as the starting running back. However, after a season-ending injury and the emergence of Eddie Lacy, Harris will be the number two or three running back in the rotation. His body type and shiftiness are ideal for him to be a primary kickoff returner in today’s game. Plus, seeing him work as a kick returner during mini camps tells us he’s definitely on the radar.
  • Jared Abbrederis. When the Packers drafted Abbrederis in the fifth round, some immediately identified him as a slot receiver while others pegged him as the return man of the future. However, at Wisconsin, he was used more often as a punt returner and was their starter there from 2011-2013. His last time returning kickoffs was 2011, but he did average 24.6 yards per return.

Long Shots

  • Jeff Janis. He’s fast and strong, and did return a handful of kicks last season in college, but it’s yet to be seen if he’ll even make the 53-man roster. McCarthy mentioned at a presser he seemed to like Janis and noted an excellent kick return in practice, so if he does make the roster, he will give the coaching staff something to think about.
  • Demitri Goodson. The Packers have shown willingness to let young defensive backs return kickoffs as evidenced by Micah Hyde, Sam Shields, and Will Blackmon. Goodson was used sparingly as a kick returner at Baylor, but did average 29.8 yards per return.

Extremely Doubtful

  • Davante Adams. Similarly to their faith in young defensive backs, the Packers have a precedent of using rookie wide receivers to return kickoffs. Most recently, those included fellow second-round picks Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson. However, Adams has no kickoff return experience in college and there are safer bets already on the roster.

Special Circumstances

  • Randall Cobb. If the Packers make the playoffs, where there is no tomorrow after a loss, there is a chance they use Cobb in the return game to gain every last advantage they can. He returned four kickoffs against the Forty-Niners in last year’s Wild Card game.

Punts

The punt return game remains as a highly explosive opportunity for the receiving team to flip the field or score a quick touchdown. Therefore, speed and athleticism are at a premium, which is why not many running backs return punts, but many wide receiver and cornerbacks do.

Also, because of the trust issue when fielding the ball in a crowded area, the Packers have fewer options at their disposal. Remember the fear Jeremy Ross instilled in everyone?

I think the punt return job is essentially a two man race.

Likely Contenders

  • Micah Hyde. Same as above.
  • Jared Abbrederis. While he developed into an accomplished receiver at Wisconsin, he made a name for himself as a trusted and accomplished punt returner with sure hands. He may very well be the Packers’ starting punt returner in 2014. I’m sure this factored into Ted Thompson’s decision to draft him.

Extremely Doubtful

  • Jeff Janis. In addition to the reasons mentioned above, he might have an outside chance because he’s a wide receiver, so catching the ball in traffic shouldn’t be too much of an issue. He’s fast, which is another plus. But, he only has one punt return in his college career.
  • DuJuan Harris. He was both a kickoff and punt returner in college, but it’s highly unlikely he’ll ever be back deep in the punt return formation.

Special Circumstances

  • Randall Cobb. Same as above.

Since there is no clear winner at this point, and the decision is dependent upon several moving parts and roster battles during training camp, we may not know the answer to this question until the opening Thursday night when the Packers take on the Seahawks.

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Jay Hodgson is an independent sports blogger writing for AllGreenBayPackers.com and WIsports.com.

Follow Jay on twitter at @jys_h.

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  • marpag

    In short, the cupboard looks pretty bare, I’m afraid.

    I loved the draft of Jared Abbrederis, but I really doubt that he has the athleticism to be much more than “safe.” If making the roster depends on him being a clear-cut winner as the designated return man, he might have a hard time cracking the roster.

    Micah Hyde will make the roster, of course, but as a returner he seems about the same as Abbrederis – safe, and not much more than that.

    Janis, as mentioned above, is an intriguing specimen, but also a complete unknown. He and Goodson are probably both practice squad guys anyway.

    I do NOT want to see Cobb fielding kicks of any kind, except in case of dire emergency. It’s not like he’s a proven world-beater at the returner spot anyway.

    My wild, stab-in-the-dark guess…. Harris on kickoffs (assuming he can catch) and Hyde on punts, and pretty ho-hum on both.

  • Big T

    Concentrate on special teams blocking and it wont matter who you put in there…

  • Stroh

    I’m looking to see Harris on KR. KR and PR typically take slightly different abilities. KR it helps to be stronger and able to break tackles. In short being a KR is more like being a RB. You have to follow your blocking, sense a running lane and be able to break arm tackles and even run thru them to break long returns. KR is the more physical of the return jobs.

    On PR its almost all about open field running ability, so pure elusiveness is the best attribute. On PR you generally face a player at a time.

    If Harris could prove to be a viable KR it would help the return game. He had experience in college doing some KR. He might also be elusive enough to become the PR. He might be able to win both jobs.

    My best case scenario would be to have Harris on KR and Cobb on PR. Cobb is a proven commodity and just doing PR wouldn’t expose him to injury nearly as much as being on KR.

    • Slim11

      I look forward to seeing Harris at KR and hope he gets a shot as a PR.

      Abbrederis seems headed the same direction Jordy Nelson was earlier in his career. Nelson was used as a KR and PR. He was serviceable as a KR but largely ineffective as a PR.

      Stroh nailed it…a KR has a different requirement than a PR. The PR must be able to make tacklers miss. The body type is also important. Nelson and Abbrederis are bigger targets than a Cobb or a Harris. His size is what intrigues me about Harris as a PR candidate. We know he can run.

  • Tarynfor12

    I cannot understand how how or why,the homers think Abbrederis is a better option for a roster spot over Janis.I’m sure many teams would have the same feeling and if both were placed on the PS,Janis would be gone the next day while Abbre sits.
    Sure Abbre has experience at KR,but no way is he out playing or out muscle Janis for an actual receiver spot,whether its the 5th or 6th if they keep that many.

    • Stroh

      They are different type WR tho. Janis is the big strong fast outside WR who can win deep. Abbrederis is the smaller, quicker slot WR.

      The big strong and faster is the more valuable and difficult to find. Janis could develop into the lead WR that teams base their passing game around. Abbrederis is a complimentary player at best. He doesn’t have the ability to be a lead WR, but put into a role he might be successful.

      Abbrederis might have a little extra value as a returner, if you believe he can be successful at it. I don’t believe Abbrederis would be a very good option as a returner, so I don’t value him very highly. Simply put you can find capable slot WR almost anywhere. Janis would be more valuable due to his ability to develop into the true #1 WR.

    • Stroh

      Demovsky, like me classify them separately. As outside WR and slot WR… The true #1 WR has to be the ouside WR, who can also go inside, but seldom are slot WR ever #1 WR.

    • marpag

      One of those “homers who thinks Abbrederis is a better option for a roster spot over Janis” is Ted Thompson, as evidenced by their draft position. Personally, I agree with Ted.

      Abbrederis was quite possibly the best route runner in the draft. There is more to being a wide receiver than “measurables,” and playing at the University of Wisconsin is not the same as playing at Podunk Community College.

      • Stroh

        I think its mistake to assume that Abbrederis is more likely to make the team based strictly on draft position. How many times has an UDFA beat out a drafted player at the same position? Happens all the time. Plus Thompson knew Janis could be had later based simply on the fact he went to such a small school.

        Draft position doesn’t necessarily equal you get a roster spot over the lower drafted player.

        Its especially true when the lower pick has so much more natural ability. Abbrederis might have a hard time beating out Myles White for the backup slot receiver job. Abbrederis should go on the PS for a year IMO.

  • WKUPackFan

    I usually agree with marpag, but it wouldn’t bother me to have Cobb returning kicks. Cobb is the best returner GB has had since Rossum. In addition, Cobb is a play maker who needs the ball in his hands as much as possible. The injury situation is real, however, and Hyde was more than adequate last year on punt returns. It’s just a shame not to use your best player at the position.

  • Rymetyme

    Ladarius Perkins, UFA RB with extensive returnman experience in college, will have an opportunity to make the team if he outperforms the returners on the above list.

    He could just be another training camp body, but my understanding is he was brought in to compete at KR/PR and will be given a shot.