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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.