Among the bevy of issues that the Green Bay Packers special teams unit had in 2021 was their return units.
Amari Rodgers was the punt return man for much of last season, where he averaged 8.0 yards per return. This would rank 23rd out of 36 eligible return men, which isn’t great but not bad either.
However, that figure was bolstered by a few decent returns at the end of the season. For the most part, we saw Rodgers struggle to field punts cleanly, and when he did, he was hesitant to get vertical–and that indecisiveness was costly.
The kick return unit had its own issues. Malik Taylor took over those duties after Kylin Hill was injured and averaged 19.4 yards per return, which ranked 33rd out of 42 players, according to PFF ($$).
As a team, the Packers’ 17.7 yards per kick return ranked 30th, per Statmuse. In addition to the returners struggling, blocking — or lack thereof — was a major contributor to these problems.
Ultimatley, we won’t know how much the Packers’ special teams unit has improved this season until they take the field in a regular season game, but they do appear to at least be heading in the right direction.
Rich Bisaccia brings a wealth of experience and accountability to the special teams room. We’ve also seen the Packers make several free agent signings whose primary duties will be on special teams. There were also several draft picks who could become core special teams players. And there seems to be more of an emphasis on this phase of the game in practice.
As part of their efforts to turn this special teams unit around, so far through the first week of practices, the Packers have had a revolving door at the return man positions.
On punt return duties, we have seen Rodgers, along with Romeo Doubs, Ishmael Hyman, Rico Gafford, and Randall Cobb.
Doubs was an experienced punt return man from his time at Nevada, averaging 12.4 yards per return on 37 career attempts with a touchdown. Rico Gafford doesn’t have any NFL experience returning punts, but he does possess 4.22 speed, which would provide some much-needed playmaking ability.
Hyman was signed just before camp began after spending the spring in the USFL, where he had 78 punt return yards on just seven attempts. Hyman went undrafted in 2018 after playing his college ball at James Madison, where he also had three kick return attempts early on in his career.
Meanwhile, Cobb may not bring the same explosive ability that he once did as a return man. However, with 94 career punt return attempts, he brings stability–which is very much needed.
For the most part, these same players are also getting looks as the kick returners, along with Aaron Jones, who was back fielding some attempts during last Friday’s practice. When asked, Matt LaFleur would quickly tell reporters that Jones is getting these reps for an “emergency situation.”
Another player Green Bay could explore using on kick returns is Christian Watson once he is fully healthy. At North Dakota State, he was an All-American kicker returner, averaging 26.4 yards per return on 26 career attempts.
So far, based on what we’ve heard, the results have been mixed, with no one really standing out at this point–or at least that’s the perception from the outside looking in.
But that’s not unusual either at this stage of the game. As LaFleur would say on Monday, when it comes to these position battles, they often work themselves out once the preseason games begin.