Green Bay Packers returner Will Blackmon(27) leaps over a Cincinnati Bengals defender during last season's Sept. 20 game at Lambeau Field. / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette
After final cuts Saturday, the Green Bay Packers still are looking for their punt and kickoff returner.
Among the moves to reduce their roster from 75 players to the mandatory 53-man limit by 5 p.m. Saturday, the Packers reached an injury settlement with their preferred returner going into training camp, Will Blackmon, and cut Jason Chery, who failed to convince them in Thursday night’s preseason finale that he’s the man for the job. There’s a chance they’ll sign Chery to their practice squad as a fallback.
Now General Manager Ted Thompson and his personnel crew have to find a viable return man via the waiver wire or trade, or be prepared to go into the season looking no better than last year in that facet of the game, which was mostly a dud after Blackmon’s season-ending knee injury in Week 4.
Currently, the top returners on the Packers’ roster are cornerback Tramon Williams and Jordy Nelson, though Williams is an unlikely candidate because of his value as a starter on defense. Last season coach Mike McCarthy refused to expose him to the added injury risk in the return game after Williams became a starter, and there’s little reason for that to change. Williams has a career average of 13.3 yards on punt returns and 22.2 yards on kickoffs.
Nelson ended up as the primary returner last season but was more of a caretaker with the ball and a marginal threat for a big play, especially on punt returns. Nelson averaged only 5.3 yards on punt returns and 25.4 yards on kickoff returns, and the Packers finished Nos. 23 and 19, respectively, in those categories overall.
The most prominent return man cut by an NFL team Saturday was Stefan Logan, a second-year pro who was Pittsburgh’s main returner last year. As a rookie he averaged 9.3 yards on 30 punt returns, with a long return of 25 yards, and 26.7 yards on 55 kickoff returns, with a long of 83 yards.
Pittsburgh cut Logan, whose nickname is “Joystick,” in part because they had other options with rookie receivers Emmanuel Sanders, a third-round draft pick, and Antonio Brown, a sixth-rounder, both of whom made the Steelers’ roster.
The Packers were hoping Blackmon would come back from Oct. 29 knee-reconstruction surgery to reclaim the job but decided that his persistently sore knee would not allow him to make it through the season healthy. He missed almost two weeks of training camp when the knee flared up in early August, and was out again the last week of camp.
Paul Lawrence, Blackmon’s agent, said the injury settlement will pay Blackmon for “a couple weeks,” after which his client can sign with any team but the Packers. He can’t re-sign with the Packers until six weeks after the injury settlement runs out.
Besides Williams and Nelson, the Packers also could use halfback Brandon Jackson on kickoff returns, though he’s never returned a kick in a regular-season game. Also, they kept only two halfbacks on their final roster, so they might be as hesitant to expose him to the injury risk as they are with Williams.
Cornerback Pat Lee also has returned kickoffs in practice in the past but never in a regular-season game. Undrafted rookie Sam Shields returned punts and kickoffs early in the preseason but had too many problems catching the ball to suggest the Packers would use him in a regular-season game.
The Packers gave Chery a long look for the job last week after he took back his first punt of the preseason for a 75-yard touchdown the previous preseason game against Indianapolis. Chery handled all the return duties against Kansas City. He fumbled the opening kickoff, which was a big strike against him, and averaged only 16.0 yards on three kickoff returns, though he didn’t have much running room on any of them. He was better on punt returns, where he averaged 9.0-yards on three attempts and handled two fair catches cleanly, but it wasn’t enough to win a roster spot.
In other moves of note, the Packers chose Tim Masthay as their punter over Chris Bryan; kept Tom Crabtree as the No. 4 tight end over Spencer Havner; and cut No. 3 halfback Kregg Lumpkin while keeping all three of their fullbacks (Korey Hall, John Kuhn and Quinn Johnson).
The Packers also kept all seven of their draft picks, though halfback James Starks, a sixth-round selection, is on the physically unable to perform list and out for at least the first six games.
Three undrafted rookies made their roster, at least for now: Shields, who is a cornerback, outside linebacker Frank Zombo, and guard-center Nick McDonald.