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Branching Deeper Into Return Specialists

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Branching Deeper Into Return Specialists

Almost three years ago, a promising future on the field was cut short when Packers running back Jonathan Franklin suffered a neck injury on an opening kick return against the visiting Minnesota Vikings. He never played another snap or ran back another kickoff in the NFL. Franklin was tacked onto the list of players in Green Bay to suffer career-ending injuries - a list with prominent players such as Sterling Sharpe, Jermichael Finley, Nick Collins and unfortunately, many more.

This goes to show that kickoff returns are indeed dangerous. A player running head-on into opposing special teams coverage and weaving his way through blocks like a Spartan charging into the Battle of Thermopylae. It's dangerous. That's also why college organizations have recently begun looking into removing that aspect of their game completely.

With the aforementioned dangers in running back kicks, how sparingly should the Packers control who they put on return coverage? 

In recent memory, Jeff Janis, Micah Hyde and Jared Abbrederis have been the primary return men. Janis has the sizing and the speedster capability to prove useful in that respect. Better yet, he currently doesn't have as expanded of a role in the team's offense whereas Ty Montgomery has shown he can be a gifted playmaker when the ball is in his hands. 

Montgomery, who hasn't been seen on Lambeau's hallowed turf for a regular season game since suffering what was originally thought to be a minor ankle injury that eventually required surgery, holds far more value in the Packers' offensive scheme than he does running back a measly kick.

Whether it be out of the backfield taking a hand-off or running a wheel, playing the slot or even possessing the physical giftedness to play the sideline, Montgomery is an obvious choice to keep away from the return game. His main priority is returning healthy and continuing off his admirable start to 2015.

Meanwhile, a fifth-round draft pick by the name of Trevor Davis gives the Packers a bit more comfortable leverage to fall back on when making the special teams decision. Davis transferred from Hawaii to California for the final two years of his college career, and his stellar junior year helps make his case. Of his 13 returns in nine games, Davis brought back two for touchdowns and averaged 32.6 yards per run-back.

It's a matter of figuring out who fits better where, who can become more of an asset in their positionary field and who has the edge over the opposing contender on the depth chart. At this point, given the snake-bitten injury luck (or lack thereof) the Packers' organization has endured, being conservative with player safety is a given. With the window closing on Aaron Rodgers, who turns 33 in December, it's time to accept the fact that despite his elite status, he can't do it all on his own. Supplying the offense with a useful skill position player such as Montgomery to compensate for an extra 10-or-so yards on a kick return just might be a good call.

No matter who gets the call on kick returns, there is one thing that's for certain: the Packers have a lot of mix-and-matching options with the roulette of return men that will likely be deciphered through the duration of training camp. Having options, of course, is definitely a good thing. 


Zachary Jacobson is a staff writer/reporter for Cheesehead TV and a contributor/analyst for the Pack-A-Day Podcast. He can be found on Twitter via @ZachAJacobson or contacted through email at [email protected].

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (16) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

Tarynfor12's picture

What are the percentages of kickoffs being returned pass the 25 yard line and how many are brought to the house of those which is the bigger hope for a kick returner.
I cannot help but sense a very strict rule being put in place.....1-3 yards deep are the only ones allowed a return attempt based on the odds of anything deeper not making it to the 25 or more.
Field position is a benefit not to be dismissed easily and we always here about the return penalty or a bad return negating a possession before it starts.
The two man wedge creates more one on one blocking and with that the likely rise in penalty negating returns.

Nick Perry's picture

I have to disagree about Montgomery Dan, we don't have a clue of what Montgomery brings or what his role COULD be offensively. By week 2 last year against Seattle he was pretty vital piece in the Packers offense when the struggled in the second half. He may not have had big numbers, but he caught some balls, made some first downs, and made some excellent blocks on plays for his teammates. There's also the Packers offense fell off a cliff the moment Montgomery was injured. You can say it would have, but it didn't, not until the injury. I thought MM was just starting to scratch the surface on how he played on using Montgomery.

Would the Packers have struggled like they did with a healthy Montgomery? I think the answer might have been yes, but not nearly as bad. I think he's a player who can beat man to man and also the player who would literally thrive in the role Cobb plays in the backfield, so much so he'd replace Cobb on those plays. He's just "Built" for it. I don't know about you but I hold my breath every time Cobb is used like a RB.

Spock's picture

DPF I have to disagree (strongly) with your assessment on Ty and I agree with Nick Perry's post. IMHO Ty's injury was the nail in the coffin for the Packer's offense last year. I really thought he was coming on strong before the injury and he looked like another great TT pick. I hardly think he qualifies as someone who "isn't that valuable to the Packers offensive scheme. He's a #4 or #5 WR, #2 or 3 slot WR, who Might occasionally line up in the backfield instead of Cobb. Again a perfect fit, because he's a backup and role player on offense." I would argue that, if healthy, he is VERY valuable to the Packer's offense. Just my two cents.

J0hn Denver's Gavel's picture

It's really hard to assess Montgomery's value, with him taking off near- ACL recovery time for his sprained ankle. Wouldn't shock me to never see him suit up again.

Mind you, I am rooting for him to finally play some Packers football again, the sooner the better!

Bearmeat's picture

Hey Zach. Thanks for the article. A few thoughts:

1. ARod's window is NOT closing. He has at LEAST another 5 great years. Probably more like 7-8. Just look at Brady, Favre, P Manning. All were really good at 39.

2. While Sharpe, Collins, Finley (and more) did suffer career ending neck injuries, none were not injured on kickoff returns. Just thought it was worth clarifying. Franklin is the only one I can remember to do so on that specific play.

3. Let's wait and see on Janis and Monty. One of them will IMO have a solid role on offense. Let's see how long it takes for Monty to get back on track and/or Janis to "get it." (which admittedly he may never do)

4. Davis (as I expected) all but disappeared during the contact portions of practice. He's not strong enough to beat press yet. IMHO the more impressive event was Abby (who supposedly has the same problem) doing really well in full contact practices. If he stays healthy, he might just be the KOR. (which would make me very nervous.)

marpag1's picture

"If he [Abby] stays healthy, he might just be the KOR."

And nevermind just KR, he might be the #3 WR.

dobber's picture

"ARod's window is NOT closing. He has at LEAST another 5 great years. Probably more like 7-8. Just look at Brady, Favre, P Manning. All were really good at 39."

Not to be a bovine-like sourpuss here, but we have absolutely no idea what ARod's window happens to be, even if he stays healthy. When a player starts to decline, you never know if it's going to be a gradual fall-off or a precipitous drop. To expect any NFL player to still be really good at 39 is more hope than anything else.

That said, the level at which ARod has played over most of his career is so high that even a significant decline might leave him as an average NFL starter.

dobber's picture

True that QB longevity is getting better in terms of the in-game punishment, but there's so much more to it at that age, as you well know. You have to WANT to get up in the morning and train every day a that higher level that it takes to keep a 35 or 37 or 40-year-old body capable of playing at that high level. Players lose interest in that eventually. Maybe he decides he has better things to do in his life. He has the commitment now...will he in 3 years? 5 years? This is completely outside of what his body is capable of at that time, but probably closely related.

Thegreatreynoldo's picture

I totally agree, Dobber, on AR & his window closing. How many elite yrs AR has remaining to him is a question of probabilities, not certainty.

As QBs age, completion rates tend to stay the roughly the same, but yds/att and TDs decline, and INTs increase. The gist of the links below (except for advanced football analytics) suggest that QBs' peak years are from age 27 to 31, with a decline at age 32, which is associated with a plateau of playing at that new level for another 3 seasons or so (ages 32, 33, 34), followed by another, steeper decline at age 35. So far, objectively speaking, AR seems to be following that trend-line: he was 32 for the 2015 season, and he had a noticeable decline in his stats as the data below predicted, and he seemed to miss quite a few more throws than we've seen in prior seasons. What to expect in the future?

I have no crystal ball. In my totally-unsupported-by-any-data opinion, pure passers age better than QBs like Newton and Wilson, whose passer ratings are augmented by the threat that they can gouge a defense with their running ability, and thus affect the type of defense they face even when they do pass rather than run. That boded well for QBs like Favre, Brees, Brady, and Marino. It bodes pretty well for AR as well, but his running ability is not negligible, and his ability to throw accurately and with power on the run is the best I can remember ever seeing. Will his running and throwing on the run ability be compromised over the next few years? IDK. If it is, will it matter? IDK.

J0hn Denver's Gavel's picture

Hopefully 12 can turn things around this year. Last year was UGLY. I would hate to see a repeat of last year's performance on and off the field, this year.

PETER MAIZ's picture

Besides, it's up to Aaron when he wants to leave. Even with the money he's got now, he's set for life. Aaron is pretty smart and he'll intuitively know when to quit playing.

J0hn Denver's Gavel's picture

2.) Terrance Murphy- ring a bell?

stockholder's picture

Everyone believes Franklin was hurt on the kick-off. I Can't believe that little tap on the head was the injury. He had to be injured in the run, when the fumble happen. Much like collins when he made a bone jarring tackle, before the actual injury. Needless to say it took TT to long to replace both. I'm for janis returning kickoffs. I still prefer Cobb to return punts.

John Galt III's picture

Too dangerous - try this strategy for an NFL team for one full year - not necessarily the Packers. See if there is any statistical difference.

Three things will happen for sure - 1) injuries reduced for returners 2) Fewer possible TD's but 3) virtually zero fumbles.

1) On Punts - rush the punter with everybody - except one on each gunner and one guy back 10 yards for fake but don' t catch the ball

2) Kick Offs - Kneel on all balls caught in the end zone. Only run out kicks that are from the goal line forward. Focus on onside kick prevention not return yardage.

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