It was announced that Tyler Ervin will be out for the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, but Matt LaFleur offered up three options to replace him.
Last season, Tyler Ervin took a miserable return game, especially in the punt category, and transformed it in the final four games of the season. Before he got to Green Bay, the Packers had negative punt yards on the season. It was a great find and he even got involved in the offense a bit down the stretch last year and at the beginning of this season. They will manage without him on offense, but there is the looming fear of a Green Bay Packers’ return game that could revert back to what it was last season.
The good news is that head coach Matt LaFleur gave us three names that he could see returning kicks and punts on Sunday against the Buccaneers. The bad news is that none of them have much return success or even experience in the NFL, so there is definitely cause for concern.
While Ervin has been handling the return duties in the punt and kick games this season, those responsibilities will probably be split between two guys this week, and don’t be surprised if it changes mid-game. Kick returning is more about straight-line speed and finding one lane to run through, while punt returning is much more about agility and making a few guys miss. So who does what well? Let’s look at the options.
Shepherd was a training camp darling last season, scoring two preseason touchdowns and winning himself a spot on the 53-man roster after being signed as an undrafted free agent. He was awarded punt return duties and took on the kick returning job for weeks four and five, but didn’t do much with either. His kick return average was a concerning 16.3 yards per return and his punt returning number was -4.5. Yes, negative. That was largely due to one return that went for negative nine yards. He also fumbled on a punt in 2019.
This season, with the Green Bay Packers short on receivers, they added him to the active roster prior to week three and now he might get a chance to do even more than just play offense. Still, it’s doubtful that the Packers’ coaching staff has completely forgotten his returning blunders from last season and they might look to give someone else a chance.
Shepherd is the only one that could take on the responsibility of both punts and kicks as the other two only have experience with one, but unless he’s been really special in practice, it’s not likely that he’ll do both after all of his struggles last season.
Josh Jackson hasn’t done much in a Green Bay Packers’ uniform after a stellar college career at Iowa where he had eight interceptions and eighteen passes defended in his senior season. This could finally be his big chance if he wins the job returning punts against the Buccaneers. While Jackson hasn’t shown to be a great defensive player in the NFL so far, he can be electric with the ball in his hands, evidenced by his two pick-sixes in college and his one against the Raiders in the 2019 preseason.
Jackson didn’t start returning punts at Iowa until his senior year but had a solid 7.2 yard average on five returns that season. Personally, I would love to see Jackson back deep this week because he’s a playmaker and his coverage skills just haven’t translated well to Mike Pettine’s system. So seeing him in the return game getting his chance to be dynamic would be exciting. This is a prove-it year for Jackson so why not give him a chance to show some hidden value?
The final possibility listed by Matt LaFleur for returner options is Malik Taylor. Trying to find college stats for Taylor is difficult because he played at Division II Ferris State, but he did return some kicks in his time there. To my knowledge, he did not return any punts, making him one dimensional and the opposite of Jackson. This is why the responsibilities might be split between the two men.
In Taylor’s sophomore season, he returned nine kicks and had a fantastic average of 31.7 yards with his longest return being 54 yards. Then, in his junior year, he had nine returns for only 154 yards, a pedestrian average of 19.3 yards per return. Even though Taylor managed to make the roster to start the year, he hasn’t done much on offense, but this could be what he needs to turn some heads.
There are lots of hard decisions made when the roster is cut to 53 and every player is kept for a reason. Taylor’s return experience was certainly a consideration when he was kept on the roster, so why not take advantage of the special skill that they kept?
While LaFleur only mentioned three guys, we could see some other players out there, especially if someone makes an error early on. Jaire Alexander is definitely an option as he returned four punts in his rookie year. He has the speed and quickness to be electric and take a punt back to the house, but once he started to show that he was a star defensive player, the Green Bay Packers stopped sending him back there to avoid injury as they did with Randall Cobb a few years prior.
Reserve cornerback Ka’dar Hollman registered a punt return while in college at Toledo, so he may be taking reps back there in practice this week. Parry Nickerson also returned a couple of punts in college at Tulane but had negative 11 yards in two returns. Slot corner Chandon Sullivan did a lot more than those guys, returning a total of eight kicks in college, averaging 20.5 yards per return, and had one 28-yard punt return too. All of these guys have a little experience and great speed, so you could see them back there and they all probably saw reps in practice at least as emergency options.
I’m hoping to see Josh Jackson back to return punts to see how dynamic he can be and Malik Taylor to return kicks because we haven’t gotten to see a lot of him yet this season after he beat ou Jake Kumerow and Reggie Begelton for the final receiver spot. In the end, Green Bay may go with the guy with NFL experience in Shepherd, but that experience has also come with some failure.
What do you think the Green Bay Packers will do with their vacant return spots this Sunday? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter @DairylandXpress.