Special teams have been a bugaboo for the Green Bay Packers for years now. One major step in revamping the entire unit was relieving special teams coordinator Ron Zook along with most of Mike McCarthy’s other assistants when the longtime coach was ousted last year.
New coordinator Sean Mennenga has the Packers’ special teams looking better so far in 2019, although there are caveats that need mentioning. For one, the sample size is tiny at just two games. Secondly, the bar was embarrassingly low for improvement.
Green Bay made another step toward a total special teams overhaul this week by shipping Trevor Davis to Oakland for a sixth-round pick.
Now, the question is who fills Davis’ role as the Packers’ primary return man.
Davis will go down as a notable “What if?” player, due mostly to his blazing speed and occasional flashes of brilliance in the return game. Those flashes weren’t frequent enough, though, and his inability to see the field often despite his speed spoke volumes about his fit with the team. Some experiments don’t work out, and that’s what the Trevor Davis tenure with the Packers can be summed up as.
— Kris Wysong (@KrisWysong) September 18, 2019
Everybody loves to have options, which is what the Packers have now in the wake of the trade. In fact, Green Bay is going to somehow divvy up return duties among two players in Week 3 against the Denver Broncos, those being Tremon Smith and Darius Shepherd.
Smith was claimed off waivers from the Kansas City Chiefs this week. In his lone full season with the Chiefs (last season, when he was a rookie) he made a name for himself as a kick returner while barely seeing the field as a cornerback. The big-play ability he showed as a returner actually precipitated a muddy positional situation during training camp. Kansas City moved Smith from cornerback to running back as a way to harness his speed in a productive manner, then moved him back to cornerback according to a Week 1 depth chart before waiving him.
The return game is where he’s going to make or break his career. He was last on the Chiefs’ depth chart as both a cornerback and running back and likely would have only seen time at either spot in an emergency.
Mennenga says Tremon Smith and Darrius Shepherd can both field punts and kickoffs. Smith only did kickoffs in KC, but Mennenga pleased with what he's seen in terms of fielding punts. "He catches it pretty naturally."
— Ryan Wood (@ByRyanWood) September 19, 2019
Shepherd was a training camp hero this year, joining the team as an invitee to rookie minicamp (not even as an undrafted free agent) before eventually making it to the 53-man roster. He hasn’t played yet this season due to injury but is expected to be active against the Broncos. He isn’t as naturally fast as Smith (he ran a 4.61 40-yard dash at North Dakota State’s pro day), but he’s still speedy enough and smart enough to make an impact in the return game.
That’s a key reason why he made the team in the first place, even with positive moments during the preseason as a receiver.
There are pros and cons to both options, and that in and of itself makes having a choice the biggest positive of all. Smith’s a castoff, but elite speed is a valuable asset if you can get the ball in his hands (for reference in regard to his speed, Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill, one of the fastest players in the NFL, once said Smith is faster than him).
On the other hand, Shepherd offers a skillset that was clearly good enough for the Packers to keep him around in the first place.
What stands out more than anything is that Green Bay’s new coaching staff is willing to mix things up and try to correct obvious mistakes. The return game wasn’t working anymore with Davis, so now they’re working to fix the problem. It’s a basic concept, painfully so, but it’s still a step in the right direction for a franchise mired in the status quo in recent years.
Neither Smith nor Shepherd may be an all-pro-caliber return man, but the Packers are moving in the right direction as long as they’re actively trying to solve obvious issues. If one of these two new return options pans out, it’s another feather in the collective cap of a coaching staff that has impressed early on in its first season together.