Randall Cobb was hardly returning punts, and that was before signing a $40 million contract this offseason.
After breaking into the NFL as a return specialist, the Green Bay Packers found other ways to use Cobb's freakish athleticism. He caught four touchdowns in six games two years ago, then returned from a fractured right fibula to catch 91 passes for 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns last fall.
Cobb is a Pro Bowler now, and the league's highest-paid slot receiver. So the return opportunities have diminished. This offseason, that's started to change. He's consistently taken punt-return reps since the start of the Packers' organized team activities, and that hasn't changed through the first two days of training camp.
Coach Mike McCarthy said Cobb "absolutely" could continue being used as a punt returner.
"At the end of the day," McCarthy said, "when you're designing plays and you're looking at distribution of opportunities, you want to give Randall the ball. So he's definitely an option as a punt returner."
Cobb was among the NFL's best return specialists in his first two seasons. He averaged 10.29 yards on 57 punt returns, and 18.12 yards on 72 kickoff returns, in 2011 and 2012. He also returned two punts and one kickoff for touchdowns.
Those opportunities have become rare. In his past two seasons, Cobb has 17 punt and two returns kickoffs. There's good reason for fewer special teams snaps, of course. With fewer returns, Cobb's production as a receiver increased.
Cobb, a special teams captain last year, said he'd still like to be used as a returner.
"Special teams is important," Cobb said. "We understand offense puts the points on the board a lot of the times. Defense, they're going to make the stops. But special teams, one play can change the outcome of the game.
"I feel like I can make a big return. We have guys that can make big returns as well, but we bring different kinds of return ability to the table."
Cobb's role as a returner – and how many opportunities he receives – mostly depends on how much the Packers can stomach seeing their $40 million receiver get hit on special teams. Considering it's one of the most dangerous plays in football, with "gunners" getting 40-yard sprinting starts before delivering their licks, the team's limit is unlikely to be high.
There are other players to field punts, perhaps starting with defensive back Micah Hyde. Eventually, third-round rookie receiver Ty Montgomery or second-year wideout Jeff Janis might also fill that role. But, Cobb said, he doesn't want injury risk to prevent him from helping the Packers as a return specialist.
"You can get drilled catching the ball across the middle," Cobb said. "What's the difference? Football is a contact sport. I'm going to take shots. I took shots at receiver last year. I took shots in the return game. That's all part of football. So … it happens. It's part of our game.
"I just know when my number is called, I'll be on the field."
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