Return Game Outlook: Hazy
Green Bay Packers training camp is pretty boring if you’re looking for real competition.
The biggest and closest competition is at punter and the only real positional battle, at least for a starting spot, looks to be between Brandon Chillar and Brad Jones for the left outside linebacker spot. Not terribly exciting stuff.
So, if you’re looking for something to keep tabs on, the return game might be the answer.
The Packers seemed content to hand the job of primary returner back to safety Will Blackmon, who tore his ACL last season, but came to training camp ready to go. That doesn’t seem to be a foregone conclusion anymore.
Blackmon has been experiencing pain in the knee. He missed practice on Friday and the Packers Family Night scrimmage on Saturday.
The Packers may have brought Blackmon back too soon and now, it’s likely he’s going to have to rest the knee for an extended period.
Blackmon has averaged 21.1 yards per kickoff return and 11 yards per punt return over his career. He’s scored three punt return touchdowns and is clearly the best return man on the Packers roster.
The Packers have turned to cornerback Tramon Williams as their second option in the past, and Williams has spent some time on returns during training camp, but doesn’t look to be a viable option this time around. Williams has career averages of 22.2 yards on kickoff returns and 13.3 yards on punt returns, along with one touchdown. However, he’s not nearly the threat Blackmon is and it’s doubtful the Packers will expose him on returns when he’s slated to be a starter at cornerback.
That brings us to receiver Jordy Nelson, who’s averaged as respectable 23.4 yards per kickoff return over his career and a woeful 5.3 yards on punt returns. Nelson may be a viable option on kickoffs, but he isn’t going to scare anyone on punt returns.
A lot of us thought undrafted rookie free agent Sam Shields might be the answer. Shields appears to be the fastest player on the team. Unfortunately, he hasn’t demonstrated the ability to field the ball thus far in training camp. Shields has worked extensively fielding punts from the Jugs machine in practice, but has had an inordinate number of drops, which doesn’t bode well for his chances.
The Packers have a wild card in running back Brandon Jackson, who returned a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown during the Family Night scrimmage. Jackson has an 18-yard average on only two career kickoff returns, but he doesn’t return punts.
The best-case scenario for the Packers is Blackmon’s knee holds up and he returns to handle both jobs. If that doesn’t happen, the Packers can plug in a serviceable kick returner like Nelson. Their punt return unit isn’t going to scare anyone, though.
It’s unlikely the Packers will expose Williams on punt returns and that means Nelson is next in line, unless they unearth some hidden gem. While Nelson is a threat on kickoff returns, he’s well below average on punts.
That could put the Packers on the losing end of the field position game once again. It looks like now is the time to start mining for that hidden gem.
Monty McMahon is one of the founders of Total Packers. He is probably the most famous graduate of UW-Oshkosh next to Jim Gantner.