Since Randall Cobb emerged as Green Bay's top target on offense last season, the perception has formed that it's only a matter of time before the team relieves him of his special teams duties. Cobb, who led the team in 2012 with 80 catches for 954 yards, is in line for an increased role on offense with Greg Jennings now playing in Minnesota. Taking Cobb off of special teams would reduce his exposure to injury, but whether the coaching staff makes the move is apparently out of his hands.
While Packers coach Mike McCarthy believes Cobb is an integral piece of the offense, he won't remove the receiver from special teams unless someone can earn his trust at returner.
"Randall Cobb will definitely be playing receiver. We look for him to be a part of our primary focus as far as our approach to game planning, particularly in the passing game. Really, his special teams responsibility is really up to his teammates. There's opportunity there for others to compete and perform. And we won't know that until training camp. And hopefully (someone will) take Randall's place."
It's clear that the staff favors using Cobb only on offense. Accordingly, identifying a replacement will be one of the key developments heading into the regular season. Because the Packers are only in the minicamp phase of the offseason, there's still plenty of time for someone to emerge as a reliable returner.
Of the several names that have been identified as potential successors, the most promising candidate is Jeremy Ross. Ross first displayed his return ability late in 2012 when Cobb suffered an ankle injury while fielding a punt. In his short stint as the Packers' return man, Ross averaged 25.8 yards per punt return and 28.7 per kickoff return, both superior numbers to Cobb's. It appeared Ross had solidified himself as the team's new returner until a lapse in focus resulting in a costly muffed punt at San Francisco in the playoffs. While that playoff game has soured many on Ross' future as a returner, McCarthy has publicly backed the returner.
The Packers have also explored using rookie running back Johnathan Franklin on returns. McCarthy has described Franklin's return abilities as "very natural." While Franklin may have the chops for the job, he lacks any meaningful experience. In his four seasons at UCLA, Franklin was never used in the return game nor was there any indication that he might as an injury replacement. That said, the skills required for the return game aren't too different from those essential to running the football. Specifically, returners need vision to find their blockers and anticipate holes. Franklin has demonstrated such vision both in his runs and his work in the screen game.
The rest of the field is a motley crew of late rounders and low profile free agents. Much like Franklin, first year cornerback Loyce Means has never returned kicks since entering college. 7th round pick Charles Johnson practiced as a returner at Grand Valley State, but only played there in emergency situations. The most promising of the group is James Nixon, a cornerback signed to the practice squad in 2012. Nixon, a former running back who made a late conversion to defense, could follow the path blazed by Sam Shields. At California University of Pennsylvania, Nixon averaged 25.4 yards per kickoff and returned two kicks for touchdowns. Like Shields, he'll have to provide more than just special teams acumen to stick with the team. Nixon may have to earn the coaches' trust on punt team as well.
The possibility also exists that Cobb could remain on punt return while someone else handles kickoffs. Despite his own bouts with fumblitis, the coaching staff views Cobb as the most sure-handed of the returners. Under McCarthy, the Packers have generally put their best-handed returner on punts regardless of his non-special teams importance. In 2010, the staff rolled the dice by using Tramon Williams, their best cover corner, on punt returns. Williams consistently handled punts all year but failed to provide much in the way of return yardage. While the Packers ultimately won the Lombardi Trophy that season, losing Williams to an injury on special teams would have derailed their miracle Super Bowl run before it even began. Cobb is similarly important to the 2013 Packers success on offense. If anyone proves to be even a pedestrian returner, the staff will likely take the opportunity to make Cobb an offense only player.
Jason Hirschhorn covers the Green Bay Packers for Acme Packing Co. He has previously written for Lombardi Ave, College Hoops Net, LiveBall Sports, and the List Universe. He is also currently a senior writer for Beats Per Minute, an indie-music webzine. Follow him on Twitter: @JBHirschhorn