Through 12 weeks of the 2019 season, the Green Bay Packers were headed for historic ineptitude in one specific area. The team had amassed negative-eight yards on punt returns over the first three-quarters of the year, putting them on pace to be the first NFL team to finish with negative yardage in that area in a full season.
Then, an inspired waiver claim by general manager Brian Gutekunst turned the team’s special teams fortunes. The Packers claimed Tyler Ervin off waivers from the Jacksonville Jaguars, immediately inserting him as their primary return man in place of Tremon Smith. On his first punt return, Ervin pushed the team’s total back into positive yardage, and by the time his first game was complete he had four returns for 51 yards.
All told, Ervin would return 11 punts for 106 yards and six kickoffs for 160 yards in the final four regular season games, then was dangerous enough that teams began kicking away from him in the postseason.
Ervin, who just completed his fourth NFL season, had an expiring contract this March, and has been an unrestricted free agent since the start of the league year last Wednesday. However, the Packers are reportedly bringing him back for 2020. According to ESPN’s Field Yates, the two sides are “expected” to come to an agreement on a one-year contract for the upcoming season.
For a Packers team that floundered in the return game after trading away former draft pick Trevor Davis, this should be a great decision. It will provide some continuity on special teams, while also providing a bit of explosive athletic ability on offense as well.
Late in the season, Matt LaFleur began to dial up some plays for Ervin. His offensive workload peaked in week 17, when he was on the field for 17 offensive snaps. That game saw him receive three pass targets, two on wheel routes downfield that Aaron Rodgers overthrew, and one rushing attempt on an end-around that went for 10 yards. Ervin then added a pair of rushes for 25 yards two weeks later in the Packers’ Divisional Playoff win over the Seattle Seahawks.
With a full offseason, LaFleur and his coaches can surely find a bigger role for Ervin on offense, and he may find himself able to contribute as more of a conventional tailback instead of primarily as a gadget player. But his main calling card will likely remain on special teams, an area that he single-handedly saved from historic futility a few months ago.
UPDATE: Ervin’s deal is reportedly for a total of $1.047 million, with about $137,000 guaranteed as a signing bonus. However, thanks to the veteran exception, Ervin will only count for $887,500 against the salary cap in 2020, according to Tom Silverstein.