The Green Bay Packers have plenty of issues to deal with in this disappointing 2022 NFL season. The offense has struggled to move the football, the team is making mental errors and key players on both sides of the ball are playing well below expectations this season. But one obvious area the teams needs to address is punt returner.
Amari Rodgers has been the team’s primary punt returner since he was drafted in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft. Unfortunately, the former Clemson star has made more game-changing plays that have hurt the Packers than big plays that have helped the team. He has already lost his job returning kicks and now it is time for head coach Matt LaFleur and special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia to take him off punt returns as well.
This season, Amari Rodgers is averaging 7.1-yards while returning 20 punts. That is 1.2 yards fewer than he managed last season when he was not considered a great return man.
Rodgers has had numerous problems returning punts. He has had issues knowing when to field a punt and when to let it bounce. He has been indecisive once he gets the football, often running east-west instead of north-south which often results in shorter returns against fast NFL players and increases the chance of a penalty being called against the Packers blockers. Rodgers has been a bit better in this area this season than he was a year ago, but he still needs to improve.
Another issue for Rodgers has been a tendency to call for fair catches when there are 5-10 yards of open field in front of him. That costs the Packers field position each time he does it.
But the biggest issue facing Rodgers has been his inability to hold on to the football. He has already fumbled five times while returning punts and kicks in less than a season and a half. That meant he had as many fumbles in his career as catches on offense until he made two catches against Washington on Sunday to increase his career number of receptions to seven.
The fumble against the Commanders was critical. It set up Washington with a short field and led to a field goal in a game the Packers lost by just two points. In general, because the Green Bay offense is struggling so badly, they cannot afford turnovers that give opposing offenses a short field and change the momentum of a game.
The Packers coaching staff has stubbornly stayed with Amari Rodgers as the team’s punt returner despite his struggles over the past year and a half. But after last Sunday, LaFleur finally seemed ready to make a possible change.
“That’s something we’re going to evaluate, for sure, we are evaluating, we’re talking about in terms of what we want to do in that regard,” LaFleur said when asked about the team’s punt returner position.
The question is who the team can use to replace Amari Rodgers right now. There are only a handful of legitimate candidates on the team’s active roster who have experience as return specialists.
Keisean Nixon has already taken over as the team’s kick returner for Rodgers. He has one kick return for 32 yards. While he is a special teams specialist and has limited experience returning kicks, he has yet to return a punt in the NFL. He has the speed to be effective at the position but it’s tough to say if he’d be an immediate improvement over Rodgers.
Romeo Doubs has the most experience and would probably be the best choice but there’s a catch. Doubs averaged 12.5-yards per punt return at Nevada in college while returning 38 punts. He even returned one for a touchdown in his freshman year in 2018. He has yet to return a punt in an NFL regular-season game. The Packers did not have Doubs returning punts during the preseason despite his experience in college.
The catch is this: the Packers are very thin at wide receiver right now. Randall Cobb is on IR; Christian Watson has missed the last two games due to a hamstring injury and his return is uncertain. Allen Lazard suffered a shoulder injury against Washington and his status for Sunday’s game in Buffalo is uncertain. Sammy Watkins returned from an injury to play last Sunday but was still on a snap count.
Doubs is one of the few healthy receivers on the roster right now and the team simply cannot afford to have him suffer an injury returning punts. The rookie is also still working on learning the offense and developing trust and chemistry with Aaron Rodgers and adding more for him to do on special teams would slow down that process.
GM Brian Gutekunst could also look to sign a punt returner as a free agent, but that player would need some time to learn the team’s special teams system. A player with experience working with Bisaccia may speed up the adjustment time.
Regardless of what the team decides to do, Amari Rodgers’ days as a punt returner should be over, at least for now. His inability to hold on to the football and his struggles with the other aspects of the position have hurt the team and it’s definitely past time to make a change.
Follow Gil Martin on Twitter @GilPackers
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