The Green Bay Packers still have a number of position battles to settle over their final two preseason games, but one of those spots up in the air is the primary punt returner job. With the current “first-stringer” (according to the depth chart on the team’s website) on the shelf with an injury, several other candidates have emerged for those duties, with a pair of rookies appearing to be solid candidates.
Here’s a look at the primary players fighting for the rights to return punts in Green Bay this fall, and we should see a handful of them get chances Friday evening in Oakland.
The incumbent: Trevor Davis
What little Davis has contributed to the Packers in his two years with the team has come almost exclusively on punt returns. He has a grand total of eight catches for 94 yards and one touchdown in the NFL. However, he has averaged 12.2 yards on 33 punt returns, and has multiple returns of 50-plus yards while finishing last year as Pro Football Focus’ top-graded player on punt returns. He’s less impressive as a kick returner, but the Packers appear to have several other options there, including fifth-round pick Marquez Valdes-Scantling.
The problem this offseason is that Davis has been sidelined for most of training camp with a hamstring injury and has been unable to demonstrate whether he deserves a spot on the team. He’s likely out once again on Friday night, so a lack of reps this summer plus a lack of contribution as anything other than a return man could get him the axe in a stacked Packers wideout group, even despite his status as a fifth-round draft pick.
The veteran: Quinten Rollins
The Packers have lined Rollins up at every position imaginable this summer, trying to find a place where the former second-round pick can stick on the roster. So far, that has been to no avail, as Rollins is consistently being beaten whether he’s playing outside cornerback, in the slot, or safety.
There’s a corollary here with Davis. Rollins provides no significant value on defense, much as Davis has done nothing on offense. Although he did have a couple of decent returns last week against the Steelers (two returns for 18 and 17 yards), that shouldn’t be nearly enough to earn him a roster spot.
The expected rookie contributor: Jaire Alexander
Listed second on the depth chart behind Davis and ahead of Rollins, Alexander’s return ability was a quality that scouts and coaches have talked about since draft day. It’s easy to see why, as he held those duties for two years at Louisville and tape of him with the ball in his hands shows his comfort level.
However, he has yet to take any punts in game action, as he was inactive for the opener and received limited playing time a week ago. This week should be his pro debut as a return man, however, and a solid performance over the final two preseason games could easily make Davis and Rollins entirely unnecessary.
The surprising rookie: Josh Jackson
Lost in Jackson’s marvelous junior season at Iowa — during which he recorded eight interceptions including two pick-sixes — is the fact that he pitched in as a punt returner a few times. He had five returns for 36 yards for the Hawkeyes, but this was not seen as a way that he would likely contribute in the NFL. However, his field vision was on display last week. Jackson was back deep for two punts, fair-catching one but taking the other 41 yards thanks to solid blocking and excellent moves in the open field.
This probably should not be as big a surprise as it was; after all, Jackson came to Iowa as a wide receiver before moving to cornerback. That background on offense can help explain both his excellent ball skills and how smooth he looks running with the ball in his hands. Although it was a small sample, Jackson’s one return last week should earn him some more opportunities moving forward.
Tramon Williams has taken some returns in camp, and he is currently listed as the fourth-string punt returner behind Davis, Alexander, and Rollins. Williams was an excellent return man for the Packers early in his career, averaging nearly ten yards per return on 60 opportunities from 2007 to 2010. Ty Montgomery has been primarily used as a kickoff returner, but he did return punts as a senior at Stanford, scoring twice and averaging nearly 20 yards per return on 12 attempts. Randall Cobb’s time as a return man appears to be over, but if the Packers need sure hands for fair catches, he’s the guy — and he did return four punts two years ago with a good average.