How Much Can The Packers Expect From Their Rookies, Ty Montgomery Edition

While many fans have complained about poor inside linebacker play, in reality the special teams unit was by far worse and worse for a much longer period of time.  

I realized last week after writing my article I had made a terrible mistake; namely I had ignored special teams completely.  Does this mean I suddenly began to appreciate kickers and punters?  Nope, I still don’t have any interest in kicking or punting but one thing I had completely forgotten was kick returners, most notably rookie wide receiver and presumed starting kick/punt returner Ty Montgomery. 

As a quick recap I complied a list of every rookie who played between 2012-2014 and looked so see their average PFF scores; while the overall consensus was that rookies on a whole are rather terrible at playing football in the NFL, some positions seem to have an easier time than others; notably inside linebackers and running backs tend to do better than quarterbacks and offensive tackles. 

I’ve do the same analysis as before with a couple tweaks; first off any player with only 1 kick return was excluded since short kickoffs or squib kicks usually end up with a non-kick returner running the ball 2 yards before falling down, while this doesn’t completely eliminate non-returners (did you know Vikings defensive tackle Sharif Floyd actually had two kick off returns?) it does factor out a lot of offensive tackles and linebackers who end up the unfortunate recipient of a short kickoff.  Players with only fair catches were also eliminated since it’s basically impossible to grade a fair catch assuming the returner fields the ball properly. 

Observation 1:  Rookie returners don’t suck

Ironically, both rookie kick and punt returners graded out better than any position on the field outside of 4-3 OLB.  My first inclination is that returner is just an inherently easier position to play.  Returning doesn’t appear to be all that complicated: basically find a hole or make a guy miss and hope that you are faster and more agile than the other team. 

Secondly, returning in college is essentially identical to returning in the pros; while blocking rules and where the ball is kicked off are different, the reality is that majority of a return play is the same.  Finally, special teams is almost always made up of young and inexperienced players; Jarrett Bush was a rarity as a core-special teams veteran, this means that while a returner might be inexperienced as a rookie, so is every other player on the field, which drastically evens out the playing field.

Observation 2: Rookie returners perform just as well as veterans

One very valid comment brought forth by Idiot Fan and Thegreatreynoldo from last week was that it would be interesting to compare the grades of rookies versus veterans.  Ask and you shall receive!

Again lending credibility to the idea that returning kicks just isn’t that hard in football, it doesn’t appear as if experience playing in the NFL makes a player any better at returning the football.  This again points to returners relying solely on their physical abilities (which only deteriorate as they age) as opposed to their mental abilities (which can get better as they age).

Corollary 1: Returners don’t get paid much to do an easy job.

In my previous article, I mentioned the fact that it appears that the harder time a rookie has in transitioning to the NFL, the more NFL teams are willing to pay and the higher they are willing to draft them.  For example quarterback is an incredibly hard position to play and thus getting the most talented players who would be most likely to successfully make that transition in the draft requires high draft picks, which of course translates to the highest rookie salaries as well (and compounds to the highest veteran salaries as well). 

Quarterbacks and offensive tackles have always been two of the most sought out positions in the top of the draft while running backs and inside linebackers have been trending down.  You can add returners to that mix at the bottom; with rookies playing as well as veterans there simply isn’t much point to pay a veteran when you can find his replacement in the draft and have him perform on average the same right away.  Devin Hester might be the most accomplished returner in the modern era and he was only given a paltry $5 million yearly during his prime.   

Conclusion: What does this all mean for the Packers?  While I had initially said that Jake Ryan might have the easiest shot and being a positive contributor to the team as a rookie I now have to acknowledge that it’s probably Ty Montgomery who in fact stands the best chance to start and play well.  For one, the Packers literally have 0 true kick returners on roster with DuJuan Harris now in Minnesota and Montgomery shouldn’t have any problem learning how to return kicks and perhaps punts since it’s essentially the same as it is in college.  Finally, while he might be an inexperienced rookie, so are half of the players on the field with him and most of the others aren’t much better. 

While many fans have complained about poor inside linebacker play with AJ Hawk, in reality the special teams unit was by far worse and worse for a much longer period of time.  Thompson stepped up his "game" by actively addressing the issue, not only did he draft two cornerbacks that will likely see plenty of time on special teams but he finally decided to invest significant resources into the units weakest link, namely the kick returner.  The Packers haven't had a starting caliber kick off returner since Randall Cobb and Will Blackmon way back in 2008.  Hopefully Ty Montgomery can provide a spark as a rookie, history says he can.  

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Comments (25)

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Tundraboy's picture

June 29, 2015 at 02:36 pm

Let's hope special teams is improved and Ty is a big part. At same time, catching the ball, and especially punts, while someone, who in the NFL is bigger, is trying to knock you into next week, is still very difficult IMO. Hoping for the best.

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hobbes's picture

June 29, 2015 at 04:43 pm

At this point in time, I think Micah Hyde is still going to be the primary punt returner while Montgomery presumably has the first shot at kick returner. Now if Hyde wins a starting job at safety or cornerback I could see this changing but presumably kick returning is a little easier to field the ball since there definitely is a bigger gap between catching the ball and having a defender in your face.

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holmesmd's picture

June 30, 2015 at 01:18 pm

Yeah!

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AgrippaLII's picture

June 29, 2015 at 04:56 pm

For the past few seasons the Packers Special Teams have been pretty lackadaisical...especially on kick and punt returns. Finding a guy who could actually catch the ball without dropping it was the goal. Finding someone already on the roster to fill that role has proved elusive unless they use one of their offensive or defensive regulars. Drafting Ty Montgomery tells me things are about to change. Special Teams is going from just don't screw it up to attack mode!

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Tundraboy's picture

June 29, 2015 at 06:18 pm

As it should. Here's to 2015-16.

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John Galt III's picture

June 29, 2015 at 07:24 pm

Desmond Howard had 244 return yards for the Packers when we won the Super Bowl vs. the Patriots and Howard won the Super Bowl MVP. He was our Devin Hester.

That was long time ago. I have never felt Special Teams was anything but a detriment most of the time since. There was Craig Hentrich as a punter, a few good years from Ryan Longwell and Mason Crosby and some good returners for a year or so but it has been sporadic.

I'm not sure why this is, but we can't put all the burden on Montgomery. If he catches the ball at the goal line but (5) of our guys miss their blocking assignments you could have Usain Bolt back there and it's a busted play.

I hope the coaching changes will help

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hobbes's picture

June 30, 2015 at 11:40 am

Special teams as a whole has been downgraded in order to protect the safety of the players; more times that not returners are catching the ball 5 yards into the endzone instead of the 5 yard line. I didn't include the analysis on return touchdowns or longest returns simply because they are so sporadic; however, you can expect Montgomery to be average in returns, about 22 yards for kick offs and 10 yards for punts.

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aaronqb's picture

June 29, 2015 at 08:56 pm

Many rookies will play better toward the end of their rookie season than at the beginning. So, if you believe the PFF ratings (I'm not sure I do since those grading the players don't know what the person's assignment was and are not professional scouts).

Having said that, I think it would be more valid to weight performances in the last few games more heavily than those at the beginning.

A few cases in point ... Sam Shields had two INTs in the NFC championship game. Yet, his season rating was negative. GB doesn't win the SB without Shields. James Starks led the NFL in post-season rushing yards that same season. He played sparingly during the regular season due to injuries and rookie ramp-up time. GB probably does not beat Philly without Starks.
Bryan Bulaga started on the OL after Tauscher went down injured. Not sure of his score, but he performed very well down the stretch. Andrew Quarless was the starting TE after Finley got injured.

I expect significant contribution from this year's rookies, but not necessarily early on.

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hobbes's picture

June 30, 2015 at 11:46 am

While I see the validity in your comments, there are probably too many other factors that could also cause rookies to decline such as injuries, hitting the "rookie wall", changes to the return units etc. The other issue is that returns are have such a small sample size, on average a rookie will see 15 returns in a season, which means essentially 1 return a game. There's probably just too much variation in returns on a game by game basis to really make a concrete conclusion

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LambeauLife1295's picture

June 29, 2015 at 10:04 pm

I think Abby and Hyde are also 'true' kick returners, but I'm not sure if you mean kickoff returners specifically, or also punt returners, considering the initial overall intent of analysis of special teams returns. Btw, I think its awesome that you cited Idiot Fan and TheGreatReynaldo for their contributions of hypothesis.

This site has always been a daily go-to, but the merger has really separated you from the pack (Pun intended lol) Keep up the great work, you keep us thriving in what's become a' Frozen Tundra' of Packers news this month!

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hobbes's picture

June 30, 2015 at 11:48 am

I think Hyde is probably their best returner at the moment, but I'm not entirely sure if he was drafted to be a returner or was even supposed to be a returner. Abby probably was but the jury is still out on him. My last comment really was on kick returners specifically, though you are correct that the Packers have more options at punt return.

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Clay Zombo's picture

June 29, 2015 at 11:35 pm

One thing is for sure, there is no shortage of possible return men on the roster anymore. This will be another fun battle to watch in the preseason.

Ty Montgomery
Damarious Randall
Jeff Janis
Micah Hyde
Jared Abbrederis
Randall Cobb if needed

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RCPackerFan's picture

June 30, 2015 at 07:42 am

I think the lead candidates to return Kicks will be Montgomery, Janis, & Abbrederis with Montgomery likely the winner.

Punt Returns Hyde has been great. He will be the main guy to return punts, but I expect either Abbrederis or Montgomery to replace Cobb as the top backup.

Both should be good battles to watch.

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hobbes's picture

June 30, 2015 at 11:52 am

I think the availability of Hyde really depends on what happens at cornerback. If for instance he supplants Hayward as the other outside cornerback, then I don't think the Packers can afford to keep him on returns. If Hyde loses to Hayward but beats out Randall and Rollins (my guess), then as the nickel back the Packers have a debate on their hands. If either Randall or Rollins wins the nickel back spot and Hayward remains at outside corner (or if Hayward sticks to the slot and Randall and Rollins man the outside spot) then Hyde is definitely free to do returns.

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dobber's picture

June 30, 2015 at 08:17 am

Should be noted that Janis has about 9 total career returns (college and pro) to his name. He's not likely to figure into the equation.

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RCPackerFan's picture

June 30, 2015 at 08:39 am

He showed he can return kicks last year in the preseason. That is one of the reasons why people were wanting him to play more because he showed ability in the preseason.

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DrealynWilliams's picture

June 30, 2015 at 08:56 am

And how many returns/return yards did Harris have before becoming a full-time KO Returner?

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hobbes's picture

June 30, 2015 at 11:54 am

I don't think that's ever stopped the Packers before; DuJuan Harris had 5 kick returns in college and he was the starting returner for the entire season. Now is that a smart move? I would say no but what do I know.

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

June 30, 2015 at 12:15 am

Nice article with interesting results. The yards per carry metric takes out the issue of the validity of PFF. I don't even have a suggestion for additional research.

Regarding Monty, I still wonder how fast he is. There was a squib in an article noting that Monty was the surprise of his pro day when he ran a 4.38 forty, but all the regular sites (CBS, NFL, etc.) note a 4.55 combine and a 4.51 pro day. Watching his tape, to me he simply looks faster than 4.51. A couple of other people who comment here have mentioned seeing the 4.38 number.

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NewNikeShoes's picture

June 30, 2015 at 12:22 am

IMO, the 40 dash is probably the worst thing ever in football, as it doesn't show anything except straight-line speed, which is useless as football is about the change in direction and the intellect to diagnose a play pre-snap and during play.

I've seen some of his tape, and he does look so much faster. That kick return for a td is beautiful.

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hobbes's picture

June 30, 2015 at 12:01 pm

The 40 might be most applicable for return men as speed is pretty vital to what they do and at least for kick off returns, they do have a chance to really sprint in a straight line for about 10-20 yards if they want. Now what does the 40 show with defensive linemen? Pretty much nothing.

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dobber's picture

June 30, 2015 at 08:18 am

Part of the 40 time is how it's clocked. Most often in pro days and the like, it's done with a stopwatch and a twitchy finger...which can mean hundredths or even tenths of seconds.

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hobbes's picture

June 30, 2015 at 12:03 pm

I have always wondered why the NFL didn't standardize the measuring. It's not as if scouts couldn't just bring the setup they use at the combine, it's not like they don't have the money.

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Tundraboy's picture

June 30, 2015 at 06:18 pm

Did not know that. Great point. Never thought the dash was the end all because quickness , agility and changing direction have to go along with it anyway.

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hobbes's picture

June 30, 2015 at 11:57 am

I must have done a good job when you don't have any more suggestions :D I will say that I did the t-test on PFF grades as well and it supports the yards per average results of there being no statistical difference between veterans and rookie.
I don't know if any research has been done but I think the general consensus is that players will run faster on their pro days (less stress, more familiar environment etc) than the combine (not to mention the difference in measuring protocols). Maybe averaging the two out to something in the 4.4 range makes the most realistic measurement.

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