Packers overflowing with return options
GREEN BAY — In the hours after general manager Ted Thompson claimed running back Jhurell Pressley on waivers, there most likely were a fair number of YouTube searches by fans of the Green Bay Packers.
Pressley, an undrafted free agent from New Mexico, signed with the Minnesota Vikings in early May and remained with the team through final roster cuts last Saturday. When the Vikings cut him, Thompson pounced.
On YouTube, the most popular video starring Pressley had 39,704 views at the time this story was written. It was published Sept. 1, the day of the Vikings’ exhibition finale against the St. Louis Rams, and it shows Pressley breaking four tackles en route to a 106-yard kickoff return touchdown.
“Hit the seam, burst and show them your speed,” Pressley said after his first practice with the Packers. “There’s nothing they can do.”
For all the exacerbation attached to unraveling the wide receiver depth chart, coach Mike McCarthy and his staff have another unenviable task at kick returner and punt returner. What was a glaring weakness as recently as two years ago — poor DuJuan Harris ranked 42nd in the league among players with at least 10 returns — the Packers are now overflowing with candidates in the days leading up to the season opener against Jacksonville.
In addition to Pressley, who said he took reps at kick return throughout the week, McCarthy and special teams coordinator Ron Zook also must consider Jared Abbrederis, Micah Hyde and Ty Montgomery, the three players who manned the position during the exhibition season. Wide receivers Trevor Davis (shoulder) and Jeff Janis (broken hand) would offer two additional options if healthy.
“I don't know if anybody really separated themselves, but we tried to get as many returns as we can,” Zook said Wednesday. “We know that we've got some guys that can return. We've got a new pipe in there that can return and it'll be just up to who’s up (on the active roster that week).”
The Packers returned 12 kickoffs during their four exhibition games, and attempts were scattered among the healthy and legitimate contenders. Abbrederis, who also competed against Hyde for the starting punt return job, averaged 22 yards per attempt with a long of 34. Montgomery, who won the job as a rookie last season, averaged 26.7 yards per return with a long of 34. And Davis, whose 4.37-second speed is fastest of the bunch, averaged 24.5 yards per return on two attempts.
More interesting than the apportionment of reps was the slight change in formation that, if so desired, would allow the Packers to double their kick-return threat during the regular season.
A year ago, the Packers relied almost exclusively on a single returner, which meant the player that lined up deepest — Montgomery, Hyde or Janis — was the one who caught the ball. And the nearest player to them lined up a few yards in front.
But during the exhibition games the Packers relied more often on a pair of returners, one left and one right. The direction of the kickoff dictated which player would take the return.
“I just think with the kickers nowadays it’s tough because they can put it a lot of places on the field,” Hyde said. “If you have one returner back, it could be difficult getting to the ball and running and stuff. I wouldn’t think much into it. It’s just something that we’ve done recently.”
Whether the new formation carries over to the regular season is unclear, just as the future de-casting of Janis will muddy the pecking order anew in the coming weeks. When the Packers distributed their Week 1 depth chart, it was Hyde’s name along the top line. (Note: Depth charts are far from binding.)
Statistically, Montgomery and Janis are the two most accomplished candidates. Before his injury, Montgomery was among the best returners in the league with an eye-catching average of 31.1 yards on seven attempts. Janis, who exploded for 70 yards on his first try, finished fourth in the league (29.0) among players with at least 10 returns.
“I learned pretty quick that whatever the call is, you’ve just got to hit it up there and rely on your blockers to open everything up,” Janis said. “If you hit it with speed, it usually opens right up.”
Janis would like to recoup the job once his broken hand is healed. The five players around him might have very different ideas.