Can the Packers afford to have Randall Cobb remain the primary returner?

Randall Cobb celebrates a touchdown

His first statement in the NFL was a loud one. He took a kickoff out from the back of the end zone in his first career game and returned it 108 yards for a touchdown. In his first game as a pro Randall Cobb had tied an NFL record.

Cobb would return a punt for a touchdown later in the season against the Minnesota Vikings, giving the Packers a weapon they had not had since Allen Rossum was returning kicks for the team in the early 2000s. Cobb finished his rookie season averaging 27.7 yards per kickoff return, and 11.3 yards per punt return. Paired with his returning abilities Cobb caught 25 passes and averaged 15 yards per reception. He was dynamic in every sense of the word.

Last season Cobb was less dynamic as a returner, but far more productive as a receiver. Last year was Cobb’s breakout season in the Packers offense as he served as a focal point of the passing attack led by Aaron Rodgers. Before the 2012 season hit Rodgers said that Cobb could wind up being the best draft pick Ted Thompson has ever had. With picks such as Aaron Rodgers, Nick Collins, and Greg Jennings to his name that is a lofty statement by Rodgers. Cobb however, helped back up Rodgers claim by leading the team with 80 receptions including eight touchdowns. Cobb’s emergence and stability helped soften the blow of star receivers Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson being in and out of the lineup with various injuries. The Packers offense evolved around his versatile abilities. Cobb lined up outside the numbers, in the slot, and occasionally in the backfield. His emergence gave the Packers a dimension they did not have, and through that he became the focal point.

Cobb’s emergence in the offense, coupled with the departure of Greg Jennings begs the question, can Cobb be the Packers primary returner this upcoming season? Mike McCarthy was on the record in February saying he would prefer that Cobb not play a big part in special teams. The candidates appear to be all over the map for 2013.

Late in 2012 Jeremy Ross emerged as an intriguing option. At times Ross appeared electrifying as a returner with big returns against the Minnesota Vikings and Tennessee Titans late in the season. Unfortunately for Ross, the two plays that stick out the most in the minds of many are his fumble on an ill advised trick play against the Chicago Bears, and a muffed punt against the San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs. At the time of the fumble against the 49ers the Packers held a 14-7 lead and scored relatively easily on their previous possession. Ross’ fumble changed the entire landscape of the game the Packers eventually lost 45-31. Ross faces another issue in being he is a wide receiver. This is a position the Packers are notoriously deep at, this year they are a bit thinner at the position, but Ross would likely have to prove some worth as a receiver to make the final roster.

Another intriguing option would be Packers fourth-round draft pick out of UCLA Johnathan Franklin. Franklin has limited experience in the return game, but is electrifying as a receiver out of the backfield, which could translate to the return game. Franklin will be fighting for carries in a loaded backfield that includes Eddie Lacy, DuJuan Harris and likely one of James Starks or Alex Green. Emerging as a returner would allow him to make an impact as a rookie, and give the Packers another option to keep their primary weapon off of special teams.

Keeping Cobb off of special teams is paramount to the Packers offense for a variety of reasons. Despite the likelihood of the Packers running the ball more this season, they are still an offense led by the right arm of quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his group of receivers. With the previously mentioned departure of Greg Jennings it is likely that Cobb will take an even bigger role as Rodgers’ primary receiver this season. With that being the case the Packers cannot afford to expose him to any unnecessary risk. The play that sticks out in everyone’s mind is last year against the Titans where Cobb got twisted up on a punt return and lied on the field for what appeared to be a serious injury. Luckily for the Packers Cobb would only miss the final game against the Minnesota Vikings and returned for the playoffs, but the scare from that December day should be enough for the Packers to give anyone else every opportunity to be the primary returner in 2013.

During OTA’s the Packers had players including Cobb and Jordy Nelson back returning kicks with the two aforementioned players along with rookie Micah Hyde. The competition will be wide open once training camp hits, but one thing remains clear:

The Packers have to have someone emerge as an effective return man in training camp or their breakout weapon in 2012 may not be able to be their primary weapon in 2013.


Jacob Westendorf is a writer at You can follow Jacob on twitter at