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Packers Help Wanted: Special Teams

Each NFL season, many young rookies fight an uphill battle to make an NFL roster at their respective positions.  As these battles escalate through the summer and into the preseason, NFL GM's are often faced with the tough task of assembling their final 53-man roster heading into the regular season.  As the final rosters are pieced together, player by player, the final slots on a team can come down to the players that can contribute the most on special teams for the squad.

For the Packers, this mindset will be no different for Brian Gutekunst and his decisions on the final roster for the coming season.  But on the Packers special teams units, the team enters the 2018 season with some holes to fill at key positions where the GM may want to keep an eye open for talent that can contribute on those units in the upcoming draft.

To begin, a dynamic kick returner could be just what the doctor ordered for the 2018 Packers.  During the 2017 campaign, Trevor Davis fielded a majority of the team’s kickoff returns but didn’t flash any brilliance there like he did at times as a punt returner.  At the end of the season, he finished with an average return of 22.8 yards on 31 attempts with a long return of 34 yards.  At one point, the kickoff return hopes were high for the dearly departed Jeff Janis.  He only contributed with three total kickoff returns for an average of 14.3 yards.  It has been a long time since Green Bay has had a true threat in the end zone on kickoff returns.  Barring any potential future rule changes to kickoff returns, the Packers should welcome a dynamic kickoff returner to the team.

At punt returner, incumbent Trevor Davis truly is a curious case moving forward at the position.  He has definitely shown moments of greatness that included the dynamic 65-yard return in the closing minutes of regulation against Cleveland last year, which set up the game-tying touchdown to force overtime.  His preseason return for a touchdown against the Eagles also showed his ability to change direction and avoid tacklers.  But with the flashes of brilliance have come some completely boneheaded fair catches inside the 10-yard line that put the offense in a hole to start drives.  For now, the job is probably Davis’ to lose but competition during camp couldn’t hurt to help him get his head to where it needs to be to become a true home run threat as a punt returner.

Last, the loss of Jeff Janis in free agency will hurt no place other than as a gunner on the punt coverage units.  What the receiver lacked in positional skills, he made up for in his punt coverage abilities.  Quality gunners have a combination of top end speed, quickness/power off the line to shed defenders and tackling ability to finish the play once in position.  Great gunners come from multiple positions but are more often than not defensive backs or wide receivers that are young in their careers.  While the Packers can look to the draft for potential returners, gunners will need to emerge throughout camp by winning the job with the coaching staff.

With the importance of special teams units in the battle for field position and game-changing plays, Gutekunst may keep his eye on a few key players in the upcoming draft that could be both contributors to their positions and on special teams.  Wide receivers DJ Chark from LSU and Dante Pettis from Washington are both dynamic punt returners.  Pettis leaves Washington as the NCAA record holder with nine career punt returns for touchdowns.  University of Central Florida cornerback Mike Hughes also has great kick returning abilities that could double his appeal to a team needing help at both positions.  Other candidates also exist that could help the Packers bolster their return game for the coming season.  Whether Gutekunst opts to take a look at prospects that can enhance the Packers special teams units with difference makers remains to be seen, but I hope that the thought is in his mind as he progresses through the upcoming draft.


Ryan Brunner is an avid Packers fan hailing from Chippewa Falls, WI.  He is a firm believer that punters are NFL players too!  Follow him on Twitter @brunwardo

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (31) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

Nick Perry's picture

I'm wondering what kind of gunner DeAngelo Yancy might make. He's bigger like Janis was at 6'1" 220 Lbs so he should be able to fight through some blocks. He's not 4.4 fast like Janis but he's fast enough I would imagine, especially with the hang time Vogel gets on his punts.

Pretty crazy the Packers have drafted 6 WR since 2014 and we STILL don't have a PR/KR. Throw in the fact 5 or the 6 taken have been in the 5th round or later you'd at least think one of them would have been a return specialist but no.

The ONE they did take who was a good returner in College was Montgomery but he was only used on KO returns (No punt returns as a Pro) and none since 2016.

Turophile's picture

I'm interested in seeing if the Packers interest in Dane Cruikshank (Safety, 6'1 1/4", 209 lb) amounts to anything in the late 6th or 7th round. He managed a group best 25 reps with the 225 lb bar, so he is strong. Future gunner maybe, ST guy certainly.

Savage57's picture

The league-designed death of the kickoff is making ST players for that play kind of an anachronism.

I'd concentrate on punt returners and coverage guys, and then let them trot down the field on kickoffs out of the end zone.

worztik's picture

You got my attention with “anachronism”!!!

Tundraboy's picture

Discussing ST has reached the Statute of Limitations. The only way it gets better will be by sure luck or perhaps a Pettine jolt. Tired of yet another year of talking about it.

sheppercheeser's picture

Why don't the Packers pursue that gunner Janis guy on the Browns? Oh that's right, we did have him.....

cuervo's picture

There is zero reason to draft anyone with the expectation of using them for kickoffs. The kickoff return play has essentially been eliminated by the NFL, and drafting anyone with this purpose would be idiotic.

Punt returns is a different story, and the writer has maybe missed the fact that fair catches inside the 10 yard line have become very normal in the NFL for the last couple years.

I would love the Packers to draft WI. linebacker Leon Jacobs in the 4th-6th round. He'd be an immediate contributor on special teams and has the potential to be a much better pro than college player.

carlos's picture

Fair catches inside the 10 are being done, but it doesn’t mean it’s smart football.

Royalty Free GM's picture

We should consider getting CB Mike Hughes with our 2nd pick.

“His value as a return specialist is a bonus, but Hughes’ ability to lock down an opponent’s top receiver is what will have NFL teams clamoring for his services.”

stockholder's picture

I remember Desmond Howard. I remember Cobb returning punts. I remember Monty returning Kickoffs. I even remember Travis Williams returning kick-offs. And yes, Jarod Bush at Gunner. Somebody always found a way to help the team. I'm sure that guy is already on the team.

worztik's picture

Hyde should STILL be a Packer!!!

LAS VEGAS-TOM's picture

stockholder, "Travis Williams", Never Got Any Better. If we could only get him back again. What A Thrill!!

carlos's picture

Travis, I think, became a homeless man in LA if I remember the story correctly. The “Roadrunner” was so fast and exciting to watch. If my memory serves me correctly he had two returns forTD’s in one game.

WKUPackFan's picture

Your memory serves you well. In fact, those two TD returns were in the same quarter against the Browns (assuming the accuracy of Wikipedia).

Travis Williams did live on the streets for several years, but his story involves much more than homelessness. He suffered from severe depression, at a time when mental health issues were, unfortunately, misunderstood. An excellent March 11, 1991, Sports Illustrated article, The Last Return, describes the tragedies in Williams' life after the NFL.

RIP Roadrunner.

carlos's picture

WKUP. Good work. My memory is better for football than most other things. Can walk in a room now and wonder why I went in there, but remember Packer stuff from years ago. Travis Williams was exciting to watch, but such a sad story in the end. Life can be hard to people in so many ways.

4thand1's picture

Teams find ways to f with kickoffs. Now the trend is to kick it high inside the 10 and cover. The returner has to play it and rarely gets back to the 25. Guys on special teams are crazy, young and willing to do anything to make a team. We will find more than enough to fill out a roster. We have 2 pretty good guys that can kick a ball, least of our worries for this year.

carlos's picture

The old suicide squads as they were called. They were fearless and hit like they wanted to knock you out every play.

Bearmeat's picture

KR is already almost useless. So I don't think someone with blazing straight line speed is what we need.

(Side Note: I wonder if that is the league minds trying to show plausible deniability about concussions - "hey, we eliminated KR's to keep concussions down!")

PR's: If we ever have a defense that does this thing called force punts, then that becomes very useful. This is another area where IMO TT failed: why not draft a great return specialist in the 5th round? How many 5th round or later prospects actually make a significant and consistent contribution to an NFL roster before their time is up, anyway? I'm guessing less than 1/2 of them. So, once every 4 years, why not take a fantastic/game changing PR who won't ever be more than WR5/CB5/RB4?

PS: Davis sucks. I'm ready to move on.

PatrickGB's picture

Dont forget Travis Jervey on ST! Made the Pro-Bowl I think.
Also, I would like to see Cobb back on punt returns.

Lare's picture

Agree with putting Cobb back there. He only had 653 receiving yards last season, he may as well do something else to earn the $13 million they're paying him this year.

carlos's picture

Jersey was a real character. Gave Holmgren fits.

carlos's picture

Meant Travis Jervey.

Oppy's picture

He had braces on for a few weeks, and couldn't stand them.

So he and his girlfriend went to a local Menard's and bought needle nose pliers, and they went back home and ripped the braces off.

Apparently, it never occurred to Travis that the team would have covered having a dentist do it for him until his team mates questioned why on earth he would have done that to himself.

Oppy's picture

As i just posted last night in a different article,

Trevor Davis' 22.8 average kick off return is better than 22 of 32 teams did last year, and ties with Minnesota as 8th best in 2017.

Trevor's punt return average was better than all but Houston's last year.

I'd say he's earned his keep as an all-around return man. Doesn't mean we can't improve, but I don't think you need to make it a priority to replace him by any means.

4thand1's picture

He needs stop fielding the ball inside the 5

Oppy's picture

That's easily correctable.

Spock's picture

"That's easily correctable.'

Is it? Davis has been doing it over and over again. I've got to believe the coaches have talked to him about it but he still does it. That drives me nuts (okay, it's not a long drive, more like a short putt, lol.).

Oppy's picture

Response to Spock, but open to all, about fielding punts inside the 10 yard line:

Spock, seeing as you are vulcan, and therefore prone to logic, I have to ask, have you ever really studied returns?

I'm guessing you're like me, and the answer is "no."

I'm also guessing you, like most, are just repeating a sports axiom that has been drilled into your head. We all do it.

I'm betting that NFL statisticians and coaches don't fall into that line of 'reasoning' too often.

So, with that in mind, let me appeal to your vulcan sensibilities.
I found this article written by some yahoo, and it's using data from 2015, but check it out none the less. I'm guessing the overall gist of his findings hasn't changed much on punt returns. I'm also guessing that we, as fans, who generally believe it is an affront to the football gods to field a punt inside the 10, much less call a fair catch, are not on the same page as NFL ST coaches who have most likely studied the data until they are green in the face, and teach their return men to make decisions accordingly.

Check it out, take it for what it's worth. I wouldn't call it gospel, but I think it should definitely arch an eyebrow and make us common fans rethink what we think we know, and perhaps be more open to the fact that perhaps we shouldn't be so quick to rule Trevor Davis as a guy who's making the most obvious mistakes imaginable.

Oppy's picture

I don't have the energy to go back to 2017 game logs and find out how many times he *really* fielded the ball inside the 5, but if someone else wants to, I'd be interested in knowing :) :)

Spock's picture

Oppy, Thanks for the link I will check it out. I'm getting old (even for a Vulcan, lol) and, sadly, set in my ways of thinking. Perhaps I'm too critical of Davis. I appreciate your taking the time to respond to my comment. Live long and prosper. (Funny thing is that reputedly there is a Chinese curse that goes something like, "May you live a long time" that is supposed to mean you will outlive all your friends and end up being lonely and unhappy!).

EDIT: I've read the article and found it logical, fascinating and interesting. The data certainly supports the idea that fielding punts inside the 10 (and even 5) may, in fact, be a good idea. You have not just caused my eyebrow to arch but caused me to have a 75.6352982% change in my thinking (at least the half human part of me!). Again, thanks for the link. Sometimes axioms can be wrong.

Oppy's picture

I'm glad you found it useful, it surprised me quite a bit.

I find that axioms are often wrong.
I try to be mindful of when I'm repeating things just because "everyone knows that". When I catch myself doing it, I sometimes decide to investigate. I'm shocked how often cultural knowledge (especially in sports, but in all areas) is just plain wrong.

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