The Green Bay Packers’ 2018 draft class has birthed a number of position battles to be settled during camp. One spot of less than critical importance, but which is very intriguing nonetheless, is punt returner.
In recent years, the punt return position has been handled by Buffalo Bills safety Micah Hyde and the incumbent, wide receiver Trevor Davis. Despite Davis’ flashes of excitement, though, his job is very much in jeopardy.
Here’s a breakdown of each of the candidates to return punts for the Packers in 2018:
Trevor Davis: After splitting duties with Micah Hyde in 2016, Davis became the Packers’ primary punt returner last year. He ranked third in the league with an average of 12.0 yards per return, including a long of 65 that essentially won the game against the Browns in Week 13.
Davis is a threat every time he touches the ball, due largely to his dangerous speed (4.42 40-yard dash). But for every big return, there’s been an avoidable error. Davis has shown a propensity to catch punts when he should let them fly, and to let them fly when no defenders are in sight.
Brian Gutekunst will need to weigh whether the big plays are worth the blunders. Additionally, Davis will be facing steep competition just to make the team this year with three drafted receivers battling for roster spots. The ill-advised airport arrest won’t help matters.
Jaire Alexander: The Packers’ first-round pick returned punts in his freshman and sophomore seasons at Louisville, averaging just under 10 yards per return and scoring one touchdown.
While Davis’ signature trait is his speed, Alexander tested even faster with a 4.38 40-yard dash. Unlike Davis, he’s in no danger of being cut.
The question, though, is if the coaching staff sees fit to risk their first-round draft pick’s health returning punts. Despite the upside he offers, it may be something Mike McCarthy shies away from.
Randall Cobb: Formerly the Packers’ primary returner, Cobb hasn’t fielded punts extensively since 2014. He’s probably the most natural, experienced returner on the roster.
But, as with Alexander, he may be too valuable on first through third down to risk his health returning punts. Cobb’s also lost a bit of his top-end speed since his heyday returning punts in 2011 and 2012, when he scored two touchdowns.
Other options: Tramon Williams returned 60 punts during his first stint with the Packers, including a 94-yard touchdown in 2007. But he’s likely too old to be a desirable option to take the job on full-time.
Quinten Rollins has done some work in practice returning punts. But he’s facing a steep battle just to make the roster, offers far less in explosion than the other candidates, and is untested in the role.
Several other rookies and veterans will receive opportunities in practice to show their ability. It will be interesting to see who these players are and how they fare with their opportunities.
Prediction: I believe Jaire Alexander will be the primary Packers’ punt returner in 2018, with Randall Cobb the first substitute in case of injury or poor performance.
Despite Davis’ big plays the past two years, I think he’ll ultimately be cut before the season begins. Alexander will be a dangerous and far more reliable option in his place. Cobb provides a more-than-worthy backup option.
No matter how things play out, this will be one of the more interesting battles of training camp. It will be fascinating to watch rookie punter JK Scott boom punts to Alexander, Davis, Cobb, and others this summer.