A brief overview of the top three kick and punt returners on Bob McGinn's board heading into the 2017 NFL draft.
The Journal Sentinel’s Bob McGinn assesses the top specialists and kick returners in the draft. Included is each player’s height, weight, 40-yard dash time and projected round for all but kick returners. All coaches quoted are NFL special-teams coaches.
1. JAKE ELLIOTT, Memphis (5-9, 166, 4.78, 5-7): Four-year starter. “Everybody’s got (Zane) Gonzalez No. 1 but I see Elliott as just a little bit better,” said one coach. “I just like his demeanor and his swing. I think it’s more repeatable than the other guy’s, but Gonzalez is a little bigger. Everybody says Elliott doesn’t have as strong a leg but at the combine he beat him. His kickoffs are fine. He was the best kickoff guy at the combine. He reminds me of the kid at Kansas City (Cairo Santos). He’ll have as good a career, if not better.” Made 81 of 104 field goals (77.9 percent) and all 202 extra points. Playing for Lyons (Ill.) Township High School, his 52-yard FG at the buzzer won a homecoming game. “The one hangup everybody has with him is his size,” said another coach. “Not a real big guy but the ball really jumps off his foot. He hits the ball hard often. What brings legitimacy to him is the start that Cairo Santos has had.”
2. ZANE GONZALEZ, Arizona State (6-0½, 202, no 40, 6-7): Broke FBS records for most FGs (96) and points (494). “He had a very good senior year,” one coach said. “He was fantastic this year with seven makes over 50. He comes with a lot of pizzazz.” Finished 96 of 116 (82.8 percent) and made 204 of 209 conversions. In 2016, he made 23 of 25. “It’s like a given that this guy is really good,” said another coach. “I saw his pro day and, shoot, he missed a bunch of kicks. What I didn’t like about him was when he was on the left hash he’s missing over the right post and when he was on the right hash he’s missing over the left post. I’m looking for a guy that if he misses he’s missing straight and just barely missing. That’s more of what I saw out of Elliott.” From Deer Park, Texas.
3. HARRISON BUTKER, Georgia Tech (6-4, 200, no 40, 7-FA): Four-year starter. “He just had kind of a so-so career statistically but he really came on as a senior,” one coach said. “It was his best year. He has a very competitive personality. Strong leg. Showed well at the combine. Some of his inconsistencies are he’s not always a consistent ball striker. Maybe it’s because of his size.” Would be the tallest kicker drafted in 15 years. “Big, strong, physical guy,” said a second coach. “But sometimes you can be too big.” Made 43 of 60 FGs (71.7 percent) overall, 15 of 17 as a senior. Played on three state championship soccer teams as a prep in Decatur, Ga.
OTHERS: Conrad Ukropina, Stanford; Nick Weiler, North Carolina.
1. AUSTIN REHKOW, Idaho (6-3, 213, no 40, 7): Held FG job all four years and punted last two. “He did everything there and was reasonably successful at both,” one coach said. “He thinks he’s a punter, and I tend to agree with him. Like his mentality.” Punted 124 times for a 44.4-yard average; made 70 of 92 FGs (76.1 percent) and 135 of 140 conversions. “Didn’t have a great combine,” said another coach. “He did not hold, so it was important for him to show he could hold at the combine, which he did.” His score of 33 on the Wonderlic intelligence test paced the leading specialists. From Veradale, Wash.
2. CAMERON JOHNSTON, Ohio State (5-11, 194, 4.91, 7-FA): Former Australian Rules Football player from Geelong, Australia. Tutored by Nathan Chapman, a free-agent punter for the Packers in 2004 training camp. “Aussie,” said one coach. “They’re always more mature. Older. But he didn’t kick many regular NFL-type punts. When he went to the combine he was very impressive.” Four-year starter in a scramble-rollout scheme with a 44.9 average in 211 punts. “He was just doing what the coach (Urban Meyer) was telling him to do,” a second coach said. “My biggest question was, how was he in the pocket, the way we do it in the NFL? At the combine he impressed me. He’s got a big leg, he gets it off quick and he can hold.”
3. RIGOBERTO SANCHEZ, Hawaii (6-0, 193, 5.15, 7-FA): Spent two seasons in junior college and then punted two years for Rainbow Warriors, averaging 44.8 in 144 boots. “To me, he’s the best guy and he didn’t even go to the combine,” said one coach. “He had a bunch of 5.0 hang times, which you hardly ever see out of college guys. He was the kicker so he never held. Lots of people have him listed with the kickers but I think he’s a better punter.” Made 21 of 24 FGs (87.5 percent) and 72 of 74 conversions. “Rarely hits a poor ball,” another coach said. “Better than average leg strength. Good mechanics.” From Hamilton City, Calif.
OTHERS: Justin Vogel, Miami; Toby Baker, Arkansas; Kenny Allen, Michigan; Eric Keena, North Texas.
MCGINN'S DRAFT SERIES: Position-by-position analysis, rankings
NFL DRAFT: Round-by-round Packers picks
RELATED: Complete Packers draft coverage
1. COLIN HOLBA, Louisville (6-4, 248, 5.14, FA): Worked at the Senior Bowl and combine. “He actually snapped and protected,” said one coach. “He didn’t do it in college but he looks like he can do it.” Former walk-on started two years and made three tackles. “Didn’t play football as a senior in high school,” one scout said. “He got upset with the coaching staff. Pretty consistent. Pretty good.” From Louisville, Ky.
2. BRADLEY NORTHNAGEL, California (6-2½, 246, 5.30, FA): Redshirted in 2012, backup in 2013-’14 and starter in 2015-’16. “It was all shield (protection) in college so you didn’t see him block,” said one coach. “Not real fired up about him because he can’t run. You’re always looking for somebody’s that an athlete. He’s snap, protect and jog down there.” Three career tackles. Played some fullback and defensive line early in career. “He has all the tools,” another coach said. “Has the size you want. But I don’t see any of these guys being drafted.” From San Carlos, Calif.
3. COLE MAZZA, Alabama (6-1, 246, 5.21, FA): Benefited immensely from coach Nick Saban’s NFL-style punt game. “First thing you do is go to the teams that still use (pro-type) punting,” one scout said. “He’s the best guy because I see him do what you have to do in the NFL.” Replaced Carson Tinker as a true freshman from Bakersfield, Calif., and didn’t have a bad snap in four years. Made five tackles. “He’s not the same athlete as Holba but at least he’s been exposed to protection,” a second scout said. “Athletic ability is where he falls short.”
OTHERS: Gabe Marsil, Central Florida; Thomas Hennessey, Duke; Connor Udelhoven, Wisconsin.
1. ADOREE JACKSON, CB, Southern California (5-10, 186, 4.41): Eight returns for TDs in three seasons. “He reminds me of Darrell Green,” said one scout. “All he does is score touchdowns.” Returned 46 punts for a 12.6 average (four TDs) and 79 kickoffs for 27.1 (four TDs), including 29.5 in 2016. “He’s the best,” said one coach. “There’s a lot of difference of opinion on how good of a corner he is but not about his return skills. He’s real electric. Caught it fine. A lot of teams will at least let him return punts. I don’t know about kickoffs because he’s not a big guy.” From Belleville, Ill.
2. CHRISTIAN McCAFFREY, RB, Stanford (5-11, 203, 4.49): Starting punt returner all three seasons and did most of the kickoff work in 2015-’16. “Love him,” said one coach. “His first step is unbelievable. Great vision. Good catcher. His floor right now, he’s a starting punt and kickoff returner. Then he develops into whatever you want after that.” Averaged 11.2 in 34 punts returns and 26.4 in 56 KO returns. Scored two TDs and had two others called back this year by penalty. “He’s very fast, great change of direction, good vision,” said another coach. “He’s just 200 pounds and bench-pressed nine times (actually 10). Might get hurt. He’s got a big bust potential. I understand he carried the ball a lot at Stanford, but in the NFL you’ve got to play against good guys every weekend.” From Castle Rock, Colo.
3. JABRILL PEPPERS, S, Michigan (5-11, 214, 4.47): Handled punts and kickoffs the past two seasons. “He doesn’t have Adoree Jackson’s straight-line speed but he’s good,” said one coach. “He’s bigger, stronger.” Averaged 13.1 (one TD) in 39 punts and 26.8 in 18 KOs. “Whatever you want him to be, he’s going to be,” another coach said. “He does the (returning) for you right now.” From East Orange, N.J.
4. EDDIE JACKSON, S, Alabama (6-0 ½, 201, 4.55): Wedged behind upperclassmen until 2016 when he got his hands on the ball for the first time. “He was the best punt returner I saw,” one coach said. “He’s not a burner but he’s much better than (ex-Alabama returner) Javier Arenas, who the Chiefs had. Thing I liked, he always got positive yards. I don’t like those guys who dance. Tavon Austin goes sideways. This guy is going north-south. When he makes decisions, he makes good decisions. They’re really hard to find. You’ve got a bunch of knuckleheads, they’ve got talent but you (watch them) and say, ‘What are you doing?’” Brought back 11 punts for a 23.0 average and two TDs. From Lauderdale Lakes, Fla.
5. RYAN SWITZER, WR, North Carolina (5-8 ½, 180, 4.49): Four-year starting returner and prolific slot receiver who set school records for receptions (244) and yards (2,907). “Dynamic player,” said one scout. “I don’t like small guys but he is a special player. Outstanding quickness, tough, catches the ball. Kind of plays with a chip on his shoulder because he’s a little guy. That’s kind of what makes him a good player.” Averaged 10.9 in 99 punts (seven TDs); only two KO returns. One coach said he had “Napoleon’s disease, the little man complex.” Said another coach: “He had really good stats earlier, wasn’t great this year. l wouldn’t want the kid because he’s so cocky. Just obnoxious. Hard to be around. Even his own teammates didn’t like him. Who needs all those headaches with a guy like that? It’s not like (he’s) Randy Moss.” From Charleston, W.Va.
6. JoJo NATSON, WR, Akron (5-6 ½, 159, 4.45): Played three seasons at Utah State and one for the Zips. “He’s a little juke-around guy,” said one coach. “Pretty electric as a returner. He did just punts.” Averaged 12.6 in 72 punt returns (six TDs). Named Akron’s offensive MVP in 2016 after catching 59 passes for 10 TDs. “No bigger than a minute,” another coach said. “He comes with a little baggage to him. I don’t know many guys who are 5-7 and 170 in the NFL besides kickers. It scares me.” Strong; bench-pressed 16 times. From Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
7. T.J. LOGAN, RB, North Carolina (5-9 ½, 194, 4.39): Never returned a punt because of Switzer’s presence but brought back 77 kickoffs for a 27.2 average and five TDs. Four-year starter with career-best mark of 32.9 in ’16. “Very, very fast,” said one coach. “More of a straight-line runner. Good contact balance.” Productive runner-receiver as well. From Greensboro, N.C.
8. DEDE WESTBROOK, WR, Oklahoma (6-0, 176, 4.38): Finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy race last season. Caught 80 passes for a 19.1 average and 17 TDs and dabbled in the return game for the first time. “He’s probably not going to be the kickoff returner,” one coach said. “You like a little more solid strength there, but he could be the punt returner. He’s got good speed, no doubt. He’s just a slight guy and it’s a big man’s game, even in (return) stuff.” Brought back nine punts for a 27.1 average and five kickoffs for a 16.1 mark (one TD). From Cameron, Texas.
9. ISAIAH McKENZIE, WR, Georgia (5-7 ½, 172, 4.40): Diminutive threat as a return specialist and gadget player on offense. “Punt returner,” said one coach. “He’s a little guy but he can really go.” Returned 59 punts for 11.7 and five TDs. Just three of his 17 KO returns came in the last two seasons. Career average was 22.1 (one TD). “He’s OK,” another coach said. “Not great.” From Miami.
10. CAM SUTTON, CB, Tennessee (5-11, 187, 4.55): Projects as a middle-round draft choice because of his solid performance from scrimmage and in the kicking game. “His personality wins you over,” said one scout. Four-year starter had his final season shortened by six games (broken ankle). Brought back 45 punts for 14.6 average (three TDs), including 18.7 (two TDs) in 2015. Just four KO returns. “He was very good in 2015, not quite as good in 2016,” said one coach. From Jonesboro, Ga.
OTHERS: Carlos Henderson, WR, Louisiana Tech; John Ross, WR, Washington; Tre’Davious White, CB, Louisiana State; Alvin Kamara, RB, Tennessee.
Gabe Marsil, LS, Central Florida: Flying under the radar but his athletic testing numbers put other snappers to shame: vertical jump of 33 ½, broad jump of 10-0, 26 reps on the bench and 40 time of 4.75. Two-year starter made eight tackles.
Justin Vogel, P, Miami: Appeared to be the odd’s on favorite to be the first punter drafted but disappointed at the combine. “The combine’s important to me,” one coach said. “You’re out there and you need to do it. That’s how it is in a game. If a guy doesn’t do it there I have problems with him.”
Packers' Pick to Remember
Phillip Epps, WR-KR, Texas Christian: Twelfth-round draft choice in 1982. Tied for third most punt returns (100) in club history, averaging 8.2. Also returned 25 kickoffs for 21.3. Started 41 games at WR from 1984-’87 before being released on eve of ’89 opener. “I’ve been trying to get out the last two years,” Epps said that day. “I’m looking forward to greener pastures.” Ended his career that year by catching eight passes for the Jets.
Quote to Note
NFL special teams coach: “I don’t think you should ever draft a kicker or a punter. I just think it’s too much of a crapshoot. With those guys, you put them in a pot and pull one out. I just think you can find one.”