Lambeau Leap of Faith

June 5, 2010 4:14 PM

Unit Grades, Volume VIII: Punt and Kick Returns

The Green Bay Packers suffered a major blow to their return game in the first month of the season, when the best returner on the team, Will Blackmon, went down with an injury. But while the expectations may affect individual grades, the return game as a whole must be based on the league.

Would we give the Oakland Raiders a good grade in passing offense just because everyone but Al Davis knew that Jamarcus Russell was a terrible quarterback? It is no different: The personnel you put on the field has to perform.

Without further adieu, here are the individual grades for each Packers punt and kick returner in 2009...

Tramon Williams: B (13 punt returns, 10.1 average; two kick returns, 13.0 average)

Williams was great on punts, including a big 45-yard return. Unfortunately, by mid-November, injuries forced him off the unit. He was not really used on kick returns because he was not as needed there. In one, he managed 24 yards; the other was an anomaly that led to a return of just two yards, so that will not be counted much against his overall grade.

Spencer Havner: C+ (two kick returns, 13.0 average)

While a 16- and 10-yard return amount to a horrible job for a team's main returners, they do not for a guy who compiles them as a wedge blocker. Both kicks he fielded were not only squibs designed to prevent the return unit from setting up proper blocking, but they were short enough to allow the coverage to get to him quickly. However, in neither case in which it went to Havner did it benefit the opposition, since his team's starting field position was in the middle of the field both times.

4405036367_04311135c0.jpgJordy Nelson: C (17 punt returns, 5.4 average; 25 kick returns, 25.4 average)

Once Blackmon and Harris were hurt, the team could not afford to let Tramon Williams return punts, and Nelson was forced into service. He looked like a fish out of water, and was atrocious on punt returns. However, his kick return average was actually better than average. He had a long return of just 14 on punts, but 54 on kicks, woth no touchdowns on either but just one fumble.

Ahman Green: C (nine kick returns, 21.8 average)

Green was more than adequate in a fill-in role, and very consistent. His long return was just 37 yards, meaning even if you take out his best return he averaged 19.9 yards per return. He didn't fumble, either--not bad for a guy who did not start the season employed.

Will Blackmon: C- (three punt returns, 3.7 average; 10 kick returns, 23.3 average)
Blackmon had a long return of 28 yards on kicks and six yards on punts, so he did not have one impact return. However, his kick return average was second-best on the team, and the sample size is not tiny since he had the second-most returns. His punt returns leave much to be desired, but that is too small a sample size to grade him on.

I will not grade a player lower for getting hurt when returners (especially those who play on offense or defense) are at high risk of injury.

Desmond Bishop: (one kick return for six yards) & Evan Dietrich-Smith (one kick return for five yards): C-

Sure, one would like to see a little more than 11 yards out of these two returns, but these are not players (especially an offensive lineman like Dietrich-Smith) expected to get yardage on especially short squib kicks...the team should be happy they did not fumble.

Brandon Jackson: D (two kick returns, 18.0 average)

Jackson was as disappointing in this area as he was in backing up Ryan Grant, and like in the backfield, had to be replaced by Green. He had one solid (i.e. C-grade) return of 23 yards and one horrible one (i.e. F) of 13, nowhere near the expectation of a team's second running back that is often used as a returner.

Charles Woodson: F (one punt return for no yards, two kick returns, 15.0 average)

Considering Woody's career-long proficiency in the return game, including his leading the league in interception returns for a touchdown, this is surprising. There can be little doubt that with a larger sample size to produce, he would have. However, one can only grade on what one has, and getting no kick returns of even 20 yards and no positive yardage on a punt return is failing.

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