General Manager Ted Thompson and his scouting department pored over NFL cuts Saturday night and decided to forgo a waiver claim or trade to help their flagging return game and thin corps at running back.
So, barring a move after other NFL teams’ final roster tweaks Sunday, the Packers will go into the season with Jordy Nelson as their main punt and kick returner, and with only two halfbacks on their roster with no known fallback on their practice squad after Kregg Lumpkin was picked up by Tampa Bay.
The Packers were a prime candidate to add a return man after they concluded Will Blackmon’s reconstructed knee will prevent him from playing at a high enough level this season and Jason Chery wasn’t sure enough with the ball to trust.
But Thompson made no claims, according to the NFL transaction wire, and decided not to pull the trigger on any trades he considered. That leaves the Packers no better off than last year, when their return game lacked dynamic qualities and finished No. 23 in the NFL in average yards per punt return and No. 19 in average yards per kickoff return.
“I understand that (thinking),” Thompson said when asked about the apparent shortcomings of his roster at returner. “Again, we have a number of fellas that have done returns and done it pretty well. I think our special teams has been a focus all offseason. I know there were times during the preseason games where it didn’t look like we were performing well, but we think we have got a good 53-man roster, and we think that leads to having pretty good special teams. So that is what we believe in.”
Stefan Logan was the one pure return man available on waivers after the Pittsburgh Steelers released him Saturday. The Packers didn’t put in a claim on him, though if they had they wouldn’t have landed him because of the Detroit Lions’ claim, which would have ranked ahead of the Packers on the priority list for awarding players.
It’s unclear what trades were available, most likely for future draft picks, though it’s a given the Packers at least discussed possibilities with other teams. That’s consistent with Thompson’s history in which he’s been reluctant to spend draft picks on return specialists.
In his six drafts with the Packers, Thompson has selected only one pure returner, Cory Rogers in the fourth round in 2006, and that pick was a total washout. Rogers remains the highest draftee Thompson has cut in the player’s first training camp. The other players he drafted with return abilities in the forefront of the team’s thinking were receiver Terrence Murphy, a second-rounder in 2005 whose career ended in ’06 because of a neck injury; Blackmon in the fourth round in ’07; and receiver David Clowney in the fifth round in ’07.
“We’ll use the guys that we have got,” Thompson said.
Blackmon signed an injury settlement that’s believed to be for about two weeks, and when that time runs out, he’s free to sign with any team. The Packers can’t re-sign him until six weeks after the settlement pass. Thompson gave no indication whether the Packers will consider re-signing him at that point.
“We had to get down to the 53-man roster and we base that on what we see,” Thompson said. “We felt like that (knee) was kind of holding (Blackmon) back.”
The Packers also didn’t sign Chery to their practice squad as a fallback returner, though he probably will be available if they change their mind.
So, it looks like Nelson will be their main returner, at least to start the season, assuming coach Mike McCarthy, like the second half of last year, is unwilling to risk the health of starting cornerback Tramon Williams to those duties.
Last season, Nelson actually had a respectable average of 25.4 yards on kickoff returns, which ranked No. 11 in the NFL, but he didn’t present a home-run threat and was pulled from kickoff returns in the Packers’ playoff game at Arizona after a second-quarter fumble. His long return was of 54 yards.
On punt returns, Nelson averaged 5.3 yards, which would have ranked No. 26 in the NFL if he’d reached the minimum number of returns to qualify.
Some of the Packers’ other options include running back Brandon Jackson on kickoff returns and receiver Brett Swain on punt returns. Rookie Sam Shields returned punts and kickoffs early in training camp but was dropped from that rotation because of repeated problems catching the ball.
At halfback, Thompson and McCarthy rolled the dice by cutting Lumpkin and going with only starter Ryan Grant and Jackson. The Packers might have targeted Lumpkin for their practice squad so they could promote him at a moment’s notice, but Tampa Bay claimed him off waivers Sunday.
One of the reasons the Packers risked going with only two halfbacks was fullback John Kuhn’s ability to function in a one-back offense in a pinch. He rushed for 53 yards on 13 carries (4.1-yard average) in the preseason.
They also have sixth-round draft pick James Starks on the physically unable to perform list. Starks is eligible to begin practicing after six games, but whether he can help the Packers this season is questionable considering he hasn’t played in a game since 2008. He didn’t play in his senior season at Buffalo because of a shoulder injury and failed his physical at the start of training camp because of a pulled hamstring.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” Thompson said of whether it’s realistic to think he can help the Packers this season. “That’s a fact. That’s just the way it is. It’s the darndest thing. We’re very frustrated and I know James was frustrated that he couldn’t get out there. That was the option that was available, so that’s what we took. We’ll see where we go once we get to that point.”
According to the NFL’s transaction wire, five players cut by the Packers were claimed by other teams: guard-center Evan Dietrich-Smith by Seattle, tight end-linebacker Spencer Havner by Detroit, outside linebacker Cyril Obiozor by Arizona, nose tackle Anthony Toribio by Kansas City and Lumpkin by Tampa Bay.
Also, punter Chris Bryan, who was cut Saturday, has a tryout this week with Tampa Bay.