GREEN BAY - On Nov. 22, 2015, the Green Bay Packers found themselves in a quandary.
In a blowout win over Minnesota, Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater lofted a throw to Kyle Rudolph that sent Micah Hyde racing in pursuit. Hyde, whose job it was to cover tight ends all season, missed with a diving attempt at a tackle. The lunge aggravated a nagging hip injury, and Hyde spent the remainder of the half feeling numb.
Hyde’s absence in the secondary was overshadowed by the fresh vacancy at kick returner, where Hyde had taken over for rookie Ty Montgomery, who won the job out of training camp. With Montgomery hurt and Hyde unable to run, the Packers turned to their third option, Jeff Janis.
What followed was a 70-yard return — on his first attempt, no less — that foreshadowed a late-season silver lining. The Packers, plastered against the bottom of the NFL barrel in kick-return average the year prior, found a gem in Janis, whose three returns of 40-plus yards tied for third in the league — and he only had 14 attempts. By season’s end, the Packers improved more than 20 spots in kick return average and finished second in the league in explosive returns.
Flash forward to a new season and special teams coordinator Ron Zook has at his disposal an embarrassment of kick-return riches. With Montgomery healing, Janis emerging and rookie Trevor Davis flying — he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.37 seconds — the Packers might have too many options at a position that resembled engine sludge as recently as 2014. May the most elusive man win.
“I think when you get into your specialists it really comes down to your personnel acquisition philosophy,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I mean, is it a position? (And) what level of importance? Or are you just going to draft football players on offense and defense and from that take the returner? I think it’s clearly a philosophical (thing). The approach is what you have to look at.”
Though McCarthy described the process as somewhat black and white — pure returners vs. positional players who can also return — the Packers have, for the second year in a row, placed an emphasis on finding a player that straddles both categories.
The trend began when general manager Ted Thompson selected wide receiver Montgomery with the third pick in the 2015 draft. A product of Stanford, Montgomery contributed almost immediately on offense as something of a mirror to Randall Cobb. He was deployed all over the field, from the perimeter to the backfield to the slot in an impressive, albeit shortened, debut.
But Thompson’s choice was multifaceted, and in Montgomery he also tabbed the No. 1 kick returner in the draft. Montgomery won the job out of training camp and averaged 31.1 yards per return on seven attempts, good enough for the fourth-best mark in the league. That he arrived shortly after the Packers finished the 2014 season ranked 31st in return average was hardly coincidental.
“You’ve got to kind of be able to see past the first wave,” Montgomery said. “A lot of the time you want to be up in the hole before the hole is even there. If you see it, it’s probably too late. I think that’s really the most important thing.”
This season, Thompson turned again to a receiver-returner hybrid when he selected Trevor Davis in the fifth round. Davis, who transferred from Hawaii to California, drew rave reviews for his speed, route running and sturdy hands from director of football operations Eliot Wolf on draft weekend. His experience returning kicks and punts — 45 kickoffs for 24.7 yards and two TDs; 14 punts for 8.2 yards — only added to his speed-filled appeal.
“I love both of them, just returning in general,” Davis said.
The competition is made more interesting by the variation in body type among the three candidates. In Janis, the Packers have a physical freak, a player whose imposing frame (6-foot-3, 215 pounds) should not logically be accompanied by 4.42-second speed. Montgomery is more compact and chiseled, a ripped 216 pounds stuffed into a 6-foot frame. His excellent vision offsets a notch less top-end speed.
And then there’s the newcomer, Davis, a slender, lanky and diminutive — he’s only 189 pounds — blur. Three players, three distinct choices.
“I mean, you look across the league there’s all kinds of different body types,” Zook said. “There’s guys that run real fast, a lot of times those guys have a knack of not taking too many tough shots. It remains to be seen how that works out for (Davis).”
And perhaps he will emerge as merely the latest special teams weapon. After all, things worked out just fine after Hyde got hurt.