In 2010, the Green Bay Packers finished 29th in Rick Gosselin’s annual special-teams rankings for the Dallas Morning News.
In the 2011 draft, general manager Ted Thompson used his pick at the end of the second round on Kentucky’s do-it-all star, Randall Cobb. With Cobb averaging 27.7 yards per kickoff return and 11.3 yards per punt return, with one touchdown in each phase, the Packers soared to a tie for 13th in the annual rankings.
After finishing 32nd in the 2014 rankings, the makeover was extreme. Shawn Slocum, the coordinator for the past six seasons, was fired. DuJuan Harris, Jamari Lattimore, Brad Jones and Brandon Bostick, key players on last year’s special-teams units, were not retained. Jarrett Bush, the unit’s longtime top player, remains unsigned. Ron Zook will run the show after assisting Slocum last year, but coach Mike McCarthy will spend more time on special teams after giving up play-calling duties. McCarthy has said his front-line players will play more on special teams than in the past.
The makeover culminated during Friday’s third round, with the selection of Stanford receiver Ty Montgomery.
For his career, Montgomery averaged 27.4 yards per kickoff return with three touchdowns. As a junior, his 30.3 average and two touchdowns both ranked second in the nation. Montgomery handled punt returns for the first time as a senior. All he did was average 19.8 yards per return with two touchdowns. He would have led the nation in average had he had enough opportunities, and he tied for third in the nation in touchdowns.
“When you look at him, he’s much bigger (and) I think he’s faster than the guy we had last year returning kicks,” West Coast scout Sam Seale said in reference to Harris on Friday. “I think he’s more explosive. When he touches the ball, he hits the hole. He’s explosive, he’s big. And I think it would give Randall a break. For me, personally, I think he’s a bigger Randall.”
With Micah Hyde and Cobb, the Packers’ punt return has been excellent the past four seasons. In fact, only Green Bay and New England have boasted 10-yard averages in each of the past four seasons. The kickoff-return unit, however, has put the team in a field-position black hole. Last year, of the 21 returners who averaged 1.25 runbacks per game, Harris ranked 20th with a 20.7-yard average. As a team, Green Bay ranked 31st in 2014 and 30th in 2013.
“Kickoff return is an opportunity for a big play,” McCarthy said on Saturday. “Big plays is what you need to win in the National Football League, so it’s definitely a variable – one of the top variables – for winning championships. We will be better on kickoff return, and Ty will definitely have the opportunity to help us improve.”
On the surface, bolstering the kickoff-return unit is something of a chicken-or-egg proposition. Is the returner successful because of his blockers, or are the blockers successful because of the returner?
When Cobb was making a major impact as a rookie, Slocum said a returner is more important than the blockers. A great returner can clean up the sins of his blockers by at least making one or two defenders miss. An elite returner puts the coverage unit on its heels and playing tentatively. On the other hand, even in a well-blocked return, one member of the coverage unit is bound to have a chance to make the tackle. A below-average returner probably will get tackled. A great returner will make that man miss and then turn on the jets.
“You can see with Randall, like in a punt return, you make the first guy miss, you make the second guy miss, you can get up the field,” Seale said. “And watching Devin Hester, you kick him the ball, he makes one guy miss and get people out of their lanes — he can take it all the way. I think it will really help us starting on the other side of the 40-yard line instead of starting on the 25.”
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