NFL draft preview: Packers could use lift in return game
If nothing else, Devin Hester reminded NFL coaches and scouts just what a difference a premier punt and kickoff returner can make.
Hester, a surprise second-round draft pick by the Chicago Bears last year, proved to be the best playmaker on the offensively challenged Bears' run to the Super Bowl in 2006. Including the postseason, he had seven returns for touchdowns — three kickoffs, three punts and one missed field goal. In the regular season, he averaged 26.4 yards a kickoff return and 12.8 yards on punt returns.
"I think (the Bears) shocked the world in two ways — when they picked him and when people saw the results," said Bobby April, the special-teams coach for the Buffalo Bills. "I think it's definitely going to affect the way people are going to look at the return game in a lot of places."
The Packers are one of several NFL teams that need to upgrade their return game, though they've been trying and failing for several years now. They haven't had a decent return man since Allen Rossum in 2000. His 2001 season was shortened by a knee injury.
Since then, they've have tried and failed to find a returner in a host of ways, including drafting the likes of DeAndrew Rubin and Carl Ford (seventh round, 2003) and Cory Rodgers (fourth round last year). Maybe this year they'll again look to the draft for a prospect, though they also consider receiver Shaun Bodiford and perhaps cornerback Will Blackmon as candidates after injuries cut short their rookie years in 2006.
One of the difficulties of landing a quality returner this year is that the top prospects also are position players of note. Ohio State's Ted Ginn Jr. returned six punts and two kickoffs for touchdowns in his three-year career and is a first-round prospect as a receiver and return man. He could be someone Packers General Manager Ted Thompson is considering with the 16th pick of the draft if he's available. Ted Ginn Jr. probably will go somewhere from picks 12 to 20.
Maryland's Josh Wilson is a quick but undersized (5-foot-9¼, 189 pounds) cornerback who probably will be a second- or third-round pick. He returned kickoffs for the first time in his career last season and averaged 27.3 yards on 31 returns.
"He's fast," said a scout for an NFC team. "He's just a kickoff returner. It's a shame he's not a punt returner, or there'd be a lot of guys really interested in taking him even higher."
Texas' Aaron Ross is a late first-round to early second-round prospect as a cornerback who returned three punts for touchdowns and averaged 13.0 yards a on 57 returns the last two seasons combined.
Probably the two best players who will be more pure return prospects are Kansas State's Yamon Figurs and Michigan's Steve Breaston. Both are down-the-line receiving prospects who could make a quick impact in the return game and perhaps later in their careers play as a No. 4 or No. 5 receiver.
Figurs is of slight build (5-113/8, 178 pounds) but ran a blazing 4.30 40-yard dash at the scouting combine. Last year as a returner, he averaged 12.5 yards and scored two touchdowns on punts and averaged 23.8 yards and had one touchdown on kickoffs.
"He can fly," said a scout from an AFC team. "He's got Hester speed or maybe faster."
Breaston was a four-year receiver and returner for Michigan. He averaged 12.6 yards and scored four touchdowns on 127 career punt returns and averaged 24.6 yards and scored one touchdown on 81 kickoff returns.
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