GREEN BAY - As the Green Bay Packers’ medical staff withheld wide receiver Trevor Davis from this week’s mandatory minicamp to protect a hamstring injury, several players took his place returning punts and kicks for special teams coordinator Ron Zook:
There was running back Ty Montgomery, who in 2015 averaged 31.1 yards per kickoff return before an injury shortened his rookie season.
There was rookie cornerback Jaire Alexander, who returned 42 punts as a freshman and sophomore at Louisville with a career average of 9.9 yards per attempt.
And there was cornerback Quinten Rollins, a former Division I point guard, who has practiced fielding punts since he entered the league in 2015 but has never been called upon in a game.
“I think you’ve got to wait until you get into (training) camp,” Zook said. “And we’re actually just putting the returns in and so forth. I think the way you tell if a guy can return or not is when you see him in the live action. Can they make people miss, things like that. … And I’m looking forward to (the battle). I know that’s one of the things coach (Mike McCarthy) wanted, he wants competition. I think at any position, the more competition you have, the better you’re going to be. And I think we’ll have some competition back there.”
The return jobs are of particular importance to Davis, who is entering his third season in the league but whose job security with the Packers is tenuous given the depth at wide receiver. Davis, a former fifth-round pick, was among the best returners in the league last season, especially on punts, but his contributions on special teams continue to dwarf his threadbare production from scrimmage. He has more than four times as many punt return yards as receiving yards in 27 career games.
And with general manager Brian Gutekunst using three draft picks on wide receivers this year — J’Mon Moore in the fourth round, Marquez Valdes-Scantling in the fifth round and Equanimeous St. Brown in the sixth round — Davis’ clearest path to the 53-man roster is probably as a bonafide weapon in the return game.
“Trevor will be fine,” Zook said. “Trevor was (third) in the National Football League last year, so he’s shown that he can do it and do a good job.”
A year ago, Davis established himself as one of the league’s best punt returners by averaging 12 yards per return on 24 attempts. He had three returns of 20 yards or more and saved his best return, a 65-yarder, for one of the biggest moments of the season: the closing moments of a must-win game against the Cleveland Browns with the potential return of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who took the field a week later against the Carolina Panthers, resting in the balance.
As a team, the Packers finished second in the league with an average of 10.7 yards per return, and only the Detroit Lions (14 yards per return) were better. As an individual, Davis ranked third behind the Lions’ Jamal Agnew (15.4 yards per return) and Pharoh Cooper of the Los Angeles Rams (12.5 yards per return).
“(That shows) just how much we drilled it in practice,” Davis said. “I mean, we went over it a lot. I caught a lot of punts as well as they did a lot of drill work on how to block for me. We really progressed from the year before last, and now hopefully we can just build off last year. It will be hard to go from No. 2 (in the league) to No. 1, but we’re trying to make that jump.”
One of the unknowns regarding Gutekunst is how he feels about players who offer little value outside of special teams, though the decision to let wide receiver Jeff Janis walk in free agency is something of an indication. Without Janis, who was one of the Packers’ best special teams players as a gunner and kickoff coverage man, it’s possible someone like Davis could make the roster primarily as a returner — he would almost certainly need to win both the punt return and kick return jobs to have a shot — even though he’s a receiver by trade.
Other players who fit the special-teams-only mold could include cornerback Demetri Goodson, who was a terrific gunner and hold-up man before suffering a horrific knee injury in 2016; linebacker Greer Martini, an undrafted rookie from Notre Dame; linebacker Ahmad Thomas, who spent most of last season on the practice squad; and safety Marwin Evans, a special teams regular the last two years.
“I always feel like I need to level up and get better every single year, no matter if you had a great year the year before,” Davis said. “Everyone is always trying to get better. That’s one thing that’s good about our team: We always have a lot of competition, and that always makes us a lot better.
“It’s a huge factor being able to play receiver. Basically just trying to do whatever you can possibly do to help the team win. That’s the biggest way to get there on the field.”
Davis’ biggest competitors are Alexander and Montgomery, with the former in line to challenge as a punt returner and the latter on kickoff returns. Alexander, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds at the NFL scouting combine, is faster than Davis in a straight line (4.42 seconds) but had mediocre return stats at Louisville. He averaged 10.3 yards per return in 2016 during what was his best collegiate season on special teams.
But Alexander is also the most valuable of the three players in terms of overall contributions. Barring the emergence of someone else, Alexander is likely to be the starting nickelback from day one of training camp and will play heavily from scrimmage when healthy. By contrast, Davis and Montgomery are rotation players at their respective positions.
In that regard, Davis might still be the favorite if he can tilt the field as a full-time returner.
“Everyone wants to win any possible position they can,” Davis said. “The more positions that you can try to give teams, the better opportunity you have to make the team.”