Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Return game: First up around the NFC North
By Kevin Seifert
Every summer, we spend countless hours breaking down all facets of the NFC North. And yet one important issue almost always remains unresolved until days before the season is set to begin. In some cases, teams can't identify their kickoff and punt returners until they make unrelated roster decisions, gauge the health of their veterans and assess their depth at certain positions.
The NFL's decision to push kickoffs up to the 35-yard line devaluated the role of a kickoff returner, at least early in the season. I'll do my best to track the rule's impact on the NFC North this season, especially considering the presence of the game-breaking returners whose names appear below.
But based on what teams have revealed publicly, here is who you can expect to handle return duties in Week 1:
Kickoffs: Johnny Knox
Punts: Devin Hester
Comment: Coach Lovie Smith indicated both jobs could fluctuate based on game conditions. Knox has had success as a kickoff returner, but it would be smart to get Hester a few chances at kickoff return despite the new rule.
Kickoffs: Stefan Logan
Punts: Stefan Logan
Comment: Logan was a great find for general manager Martin Mayhew last year and his kickoff impact will be limited by the new rule. But don't forget he averaged 12.1 yards per punt return in 2010.
Green Bay Packers
Kickoffs: Randall Cobb/Alex Green
Punts: Randall Cobb
Comment: The Packers' public depth chart lists Cobb in both roles, but Green got extended time on kickoffs during training camp and the preseason. If Cobb's bruised knee prevents him from playing Thursday night, next up at punt return might be Jordy Nelson or Tramon Williams.
Kickoffs: Percy Harvin/Lorenzo Booker
Punts: Marcus Sherels
Comment: Sherels is a nice open-field runner but had a preseason fumble. Booker has dealt with injuries this summer but the Vikings would prefer to limit Harvin's special-teams reps to maximize his availability as a receiver.