Packers still looking to replace Cobb in return game
When general manager Ted Thompson drafted Randall Cobb in 2011, the Green Bay Packers' return game immediately went from liability to asset.
That's the nature of special teams, where the quality of an NFL team's return game depends almost entirely on the ability of its returners.
With Cobb off those duties last season because of his increasing role in the offense, the Packers were OK but not as dangerous or dynamic. Hyde finished No. 5 in the league in punt return average and No. 14 on kickoffs and brings great intangibles to the job.
But he's also not a game-breaker, and Thompson didn't add any obvious upgrades in the offseason. So the Packers will look at a large group of potential returners in training camp and make do with what they have. The best guess is Hyde will be the punt returner. Kickoffs, who knows?
"I feel real good about our punt return game," said Shawn Slocum, the Packers' special teams coach. "I thought our kickoff return game was sloppy early (last) year in the San Francisco and Cincinnati games (the first two weeks), unacceptable. Once Micah took over we got stable back there. We need to come out with a productive kickoff return game this year. We need to continue to do what we're doing in the punt return game."
Hyde's credible performance returning punts was something of a surprise after the Packers jettisoned Jeremy Ross because of ball-security issues. Hyde had returned punts his last two years at Iowa, but there was nothing in his numbers (8.2-yard average as a junior, 7.4 yards as a senior) or physical testing (4.56-second 40-yard dash) to suggest he'd do much returning punts in the NFL.
But Hyde catches well, shows good instincts in tight quarters and had good enough ball security (two fumbles, none lost, on 24 returns). His 12.3-yard average on 24 attempts ranked fifth in the league, and the Packers finished first in opponent net punt average, which includes not only punt returns but also fair catches, punts downed and out of bounds, and touchbacks.
"We're doing something right there," Slocum said.
Still, despite Hyde's 93-yard touchdown on a punt return against Minnesota, he isn't the kind of explosive athlete that many teams have in the return game. His limitations probably show up more on kickoff returns, where his 24.1-yard averaged ranked 14th in the league.
In fact, Slocum and coach Mike McCarthy turned back to Cobb for kickoff returns in the playoffs. But that isn't an option during the regular season because of fatigue and injury-risk concerns.
The Packers didn't draft anyone with anything like Cobb's college background as a return man. Fifth-round pick Jared Abbrederis of Wisconsin has the best résumé of the new players and figures to get a look at both spots. He averaged 10.7 yards on 55 punt returns in his career, and 25.8 yards on 33 kickoff returns.
Abbrederis made a career at Wisconsin by proving talent evaluators wrong, so he can't be dismissed. But his long speed (4.53 seconds in the 40) isn't much better than Hyde's, and there's reason to question whether he's dynamic enough at 6-1 and 195 to be a good return man in the NFL.
"He can't return kickoffs (in the NFL)," said a scout with another team after the draft, "and he's a punt catcher, not a returner."
Another rookie receiver, Davante Adams, the Packers' second-round pick, fielded punts in offseason practices but wasn't a returner in college. He had only two punt returns for an 8-yard average at Fresno State.
If Hyde is the odds-on punt returner going into camp, the kickoff-return job is far more open. Running back DuJuan Harris and seventh-round pick Jeff Janis are among the players who will get a long look.
Harris, who missed last season because of a patellar-tendon injury, returned 14 kickoffs for a 22.0-yard average for Jacksonville in 2011.
Janis didn't do much returning in college but is a specimen of an athlete (6-27/8, 219 pounds and 4.41-second 40). At Saginaw Valley State he averaged only 15.9 yards on seven kickoff returns.
"He's got good speed and he's a big guy," Slocum said. "I want to see him do it in front of me. I'll make a judgment based on seeing it live."
Overall last year, the Packers finished No. 20 in the Dallas Morning News' comprehensive special-teams rankings, down from No. 12.
Coach Mike McCarthy was bothered enough by the special-teams play overall to make a change with Slocum's assistant. In the past he'd always had a younger coach working with Slocum but in the offseason fired Chad Morton (36 at the time) and replaced him with 60-year-old Ron Zook, the former Florida and Illinois head coach who was a special teams coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1996-98.
Slocum and Zook will be looking to upgrade coverage units that finished No. 29 in punt and kickoff return average.
The personnel turnover on special teams is high, so Slocum will be looking for help on his coverage units from draft picks such as first-round safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, second-rounder Adams and third-round tight end Richard Rodgers.
Back are core players such as Jarrett Bush, Jamari Lattimore and Hyde. Bush is 30 and getting close to the end of the line, but he figures to stick for at least another year.
"He's a rolling ball of butcher knives," Slocum said. "Comes to work every day like a tremendous pro. This roster I feel real good about, looks like a great roster in terms of athleticism. We ought to have a real good group."
Early last season, Slocum had punter Tim Masthay handling most of the kickoff duties. But after Minnesota's Cordarrelle Patterson returned a well-hit opening kickoff with good hang time 109 yards for a touchdown on Oct. 27, Slocum the rest of the year went almost exclusively with Mason Crosby's shorter placement kickoffs.
"I thought it was important to us to be strategic on where we placed the ball," Slocum said. "Fortunately for us we've got two guys that are good kickoff guys. They'll both compete for that, and we'll do that through training camp and just keep going. I like having both of them."
The Packers are in good shape at the specialist jobs, at least if Crosby is past his kicking problems from '12. He rallied for probably his best season in '13 – he made a career high 78.7 percent (33-for-37) on field goals, including 5-for-7 from 50 yards or more.
"He's had an excellent offseason," Slocum said. "I've always felt that Mason responded well when things didn't go well for him, and I think 2012 was a prime example of that."
Masthay, a fifth-year pro, might never put up eye-catching punting numbers because he plays so many games in bad weather conditions. But he has a live leg, has improved yearly and last season won the field position battle against his opposing punters.
Masthay's gross (44.6 yards) and net (39.0 yards) averages were career highs. Though they ranked only Nos. 22 and 21, respectively, in the league, they were better than the Packers' opposing punters, whose gross average was 43.4 yards and net was 35.6 yards.
"We do have challenges at the end of the year with the weather," Slocum said. "We need to get wealthy early in terms of statistics, but when you look at it, it's really him against the other team's returner and punter on the day that we play. If you look at that, he's had a pretty good success record."
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