No Return Thrills Without Will

If Will Blackmon can't overcome a torn ACL, who will return punts and kickoffs for the Packers this season? There's nothing but question marks, from Jordy Nelson to Tramon Williams to three talented rookies.

The Green Bay Packers' special teams were horrid across the board last season.

Maybe they've got the answer at punter, with two strong-legged newcomers set to duke it out in training camp. Maybe Mason Crosby finally will kick to his ample potential, once he builds chemistry with a new holder. Maybe the blockers will open holes and avoid penalties, and the coverage units will eliminate the breakdowns.

That's a lot of "maybes," and "maybe" is the operative word with the Packers' kick returners.

Maybe Will Blackmon will be recovered fully from a torn ACL that saw his season end in a heap on the infamous Metrodome turf in Week 4. If not Blackmon, maybe Jordy Nelson will run with more explosiveness. If not Blackmon, maybe Al Harris will return to start at corner so Tramon Williams can return kicks. Or maybe one of the rookies — Sam Shields, James Starks or Quinn Porter — will come to the rescue.

Blackmon, a fourth-round pick in 2006, had a breakout season in 2008 after being healthy for only 13 games in his first two seasons. In 2008, Blackmon was one of only five players in the NFL to return two punts for touchdowns, and his 11.1-yard average ranked ninth in the NFL. Last year, he averaged only 3.7 yards on three punt returns but a career-high 23.3 yards on 10 kickoff returns.

"No question," Blackmon said when asked if he'd be ready for the start of training camp on July 31.

The Packers need him after ranking 23rd in the NFL in punt returns and 19th in kickoff returns last year.

While Nelson ranked a respectable 11th in the NFL with a 25.4-yard average on kickoff returns — a marvel of consistency with only two of his 25 returns going longer than 38 yards — he offered no threat as a punt returner with a measly 5.3-yard average.

Williams' return skills are probably on par with Blackmon's, with a 10.4-yard average on punts and a return of at least 12 yards in four of six games. But after Harris joined Blackmon on injured reserve, Williams was promoted to the startling lineup at cornerback and was deemed too important to be risked returning kicks.

"That's an element of risk-reward that we have to make as an organization," special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. "That's something that I'm sure Ted (Thompson) and Mike (McCarthy) and myself will continue to address. He's a viable option because of his talent but he plays on defense and is so important there. That's where we have to decide if it's worth the risk of him back there catching balls like we've done in the past with Charles (Woodson)."

During the offseason workouts, Shields, Porter and Nelson returned the bulk of the punts and Porter, Nelson, Starks and Shields returned the bulk of the kickoffs.

Punt returns were an adventure, but moreso when the ball was fired out of the JUGS machine than in live situations fielding balls from the punter.

"It makes me nervous as hell when guys are dropping the ball," Slocum said.

Tough decisions loom on punt returns if Blackmon isn't ready or he winds up being so shaky at his new position on defense, safety, that the front office decides to go in another direction.

While Nelson returned two punts for touchdowns in six opportunities at Kansas State, he showed none of that sizzle last season. Returning punts for the first time as a pro, he didn't have a return of longer than 14 yards and averaged more than 10 yards per return in only one of his eight games.

Shields' speed is practically the stuff of legend. He said he's run the 40 as fast as 4.19 seconds. But he wasn't even asked to return kicks in college and was moved to defense from offense before his senior season at Miami in part because of his suspect hands. Porter returned two kickoffs for touchdowns as a senior at Division II Stillman College but returned only one punt.

"I've seen explosiveness," Slocum said. "I think Quinn Porter does a good job of catching the ball, getting lateral and then getting vertical quickly. Sam Shields has got tremendous speed. We need to see more consistency from both of them in fielding the ball. A lot of times, that's a process that you have to go through. They're catching one rotation off of a right-footed punter (Tim Masthay) and turn around the next play and catch the rotation off a left-footed punter (Chris Bryan). That's a challenge for a returner."

If Blackmon is right, he'll be cleared for camp and ready to reclaim what he firmly believes is his position as the team's punt and kickoff returner.

"We're talking about a guy that's had very good production for us as a returner," Slocum said. "Taking that he's healthy, we'll move forward and I expect him to be a real factor there."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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