As the Packers continue to watch injuries strip away their playmakers on offense, here is an option that they might want to consider to add some potential punch — giving rookie Sam Shields another chance at returning kickoffs.
By all accounts, Shields, an undrafted rookie free agent out of Miami, is not being seriously considered even with normal kick returner Pat Lee out this week with an ankle injury. Instead, coach Mike McCarthy indicated Wednesday he likely would go back to the tried and true — either Jordy Nelson, who lost the job earlier this season, or Tramon Williams, the team's main punt returner.
"They've been working back there since the beginning, training camp, throughout the spring and so forth," said McCarthy. "So, we're very comfortable with both of those guys. We're looking at other options too, but we're in good hands there."
The only other option, according to the team's depth chart, would be running back Dimitri Nance. But what Nance, and Nelson and Williams for that matter, lack is game-breaking ability, which is what the Packers need right now to at least present a threat to make up for an offense struggling to score points.
If given the chance, Shields could be that guy. Though he has blossomed into a surprisingly solid third cornerback in his first season, he has yet to contribute in the return game, which was said to be his calling card upon being acquired by the Packers just after the draft.
Shields started training camp as the default No. 1 returner with Will Blackmon battling injuries. While he never returned kicks at Miami — though he did take a reverse of the opening kickoff back for a touchdown against Wisconsin in Champs Sports Bowl — he at least appeared to be the most natural of anyone on the Packers' roster in such a role. The problem, however, was that he had trouble fielding the ball, and after a particularly poor outing at Seattle in the preseason, he was all but put on the back burner.
That gave way to the veteran Nelson, who had some decent returns early in the season but encountered bal-security issues of his own — two fumbles against the Lions in Week 4 — and thus, lost the job as well.
Since then, Lee has taken over. And over the past four weeks, the Packers have only gone down in the NFL rankings. Entering this weekend, they are sixth-worst in kickoff return average at just 20.4 yards per return. Individually, Nelson is averaging 22.5 yards per on 22 returns and Lee just 19.8 on 11.
As bad as the numbers have been, the eyeball test has been even worse. Nelson and Lee have looked slow and indecisive as returners, clearly lacking the straight-line speed and fearlessness that many great returners exhibit. If holes have been opened, the duo has found them infrequently.
Shields, on the other hand, is all straight-line speed. Possessor of 4.2 speed in the 40, he is probably the fastest player on the Packers' roster. Yet the Packers fail to fully utilize his ability. And if McCarthy would go back to Nelson after having ball security issues, why not Shields?
Shields said on Friday that he works on his own time fielding kicks and punts, but has not taken any reps with the special teams in such a role since training camp. (Slocum, however, said he did have Shields working on kickoff returns, though he intimated that was more of an in-case-of-emergency plan.) Instead, Shields has been focused on his trade at cornerback, only hoping that he will once again get a chance to return kicks in live action.
"I have to stay prepared, but I don't know (if I will get my chance)," he said. "Hopefully I will and if I do, I'll be ready."
The Packers have to bank on Shields' words, because at this stage, they have nothing to really lose.
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at email@example.com