A look at the kick returner options

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Unless the Green Bay Packers go outside for a new kick returner, a possibility they will surely explore this week during their bye, their options are relatively limited.

Either risk using star receiver Randall Cobb, who excelled at the job most of the last two seasons before turning it over to Jeremy Ross late last year, or go with a combination of unproven rookies.

That’s the situation after the Packers released Ross on Monday, one day after he fumbled a kick for the second time in four games dating to last season.

Given Cobb’s importance on offense, a role that blossomed last season when he caught a team-high 80 passes, the Packers may be hesitant to reinstall him as their full-time returner when they play the Detroit Lions on Oct. 6

“We haven’t discussed that,” special teams coach Shawn Slocum said Monday. “Our game plan will dictate that.”

The Packers have used Cobb, who has three career special teams touchdowns in his first two NFL seasons, sparingly on special teams this season. He has handled five punt returns, mostly in situations where he was deep in his own territory, and called for fair catches on four of them.

It’s worth wondering if the practice of using Cobb on so-called “important returns” messed with Ross’ confidence, but Slocum said Ross’ problems were on kickoff returns and not punt returns, where he averaged 10.0 yards per return this season.

Ross was indecisive on a kickoff return in Week 1 at San Francisco and it led to poor starting position and then misjudged and fumbled a short kickoff on Sunday at Cincinnati. Ross, who impressed the Packers with a 58-yard punt return in Week 16 last season against Tennessee and had a 44-yard kickoff return in Week 17 against Minnesota, seemingly hasn’t been the same since he muffed a punt that the 49ers recovered in the NFC Divisional playoff loss in January.

If the Packers opt against putting Cobb at risk on special teams, then they likely would split the duties between rookies Johnathan Franklin on kickoff returns and Micah Hyde on punt returns. Franklin, who rushed for 103 yards against the Bengals, had no game experience as a return man in college at UCLA and had one kickoff return for 14 yards in the preseason but spent significant time during training camp working as a returner. Hyde, a backup cornerback, returned punts at Iowa and averaged 12.5 yards on two preseason punt returns.

“We always have an idea but as far as how we prepare and really with the game plan, as we go into the game with Detroit will determine which direction we go,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said.

The Packers worked out former New York Jets return specialist/running back Joe McKnight earlier this month but didn’t view him as an upgrade over Ross at the time.

“We’ll put someone out there that can function and do the job the right way,” Slocum said.