The NFL’s trade deadline came and went with nary a deal being reached around the NFL. For the Green Bay Packers to continue their push, they’ll be depending on improving from within.
To that end, general manager Brian Gutekunst released receiver/returner Darrius Shepherd and tight end Evan Baylis and promoted cornerback/returner Tremon Smith from the practice squad on Tuesday. The Shepherd/Smith transactions are all about improving the team’s feeble return units.
Through eight weeks, the Packers rank 30th in the NFL in kickoff-return average and 32nd in the league in punt-return average, with Shepherd making no impact in either phase. Smith didn’t make much of an impact as a kickoff returner to start the season with a 22.7-yard average on three returns but was fourth in the league last year with Kansas City with a 26.8-yard average.
Shepherd averaged just 16.3 yards with a long of 21 on nine kickoff returns against Detroit and Oakland. The Packers replaced him with Chandon Sullivan last week, with Sullivan averaging 16.0 yards with a long of 19 on three runbacks vs. Kansas City.
Smith has the team’s long kickoff return of the season, though that went for just 25 yards.
Of 13 punts fielded by Shepherd, he had 11 fair catches, one return for 0 yards and a fumble against Detroit. There isn’t an obvious replacement on punt returns other than Tramon Williams, who averaged 6.9 yards per return last season. Smith was an all-conference returner at Central Arkansas but has no NFL experience outside of seven returns the past two preseasons.
The Packers claimed Smith off waivers from Kansas City on Sept. 17 and traded receiver/returner Trevor Davis to Oakland shortly thereafter. Davis has averaged 26.8 yards on kickoff returns and 11.2 yards on punt returns for the Raiders.
With the moves, Green Bay has 52 players on its roster. Among the internal candidates for the 53rd spot are tight end Jace Sternberger, who is on injured reserve (ankle) but was designated for return, and safety Ibraheim Campbell, who is on the physically unable to perform list (knee). Both players started practicing a couple weeks ago. By Nov. 5, the Packers must add them to the active roster, put them on season-ending injured reserve or release them.
Campbell is capable of taking on the dime linebacker snaps that Raven Greene won in training camp and Adrian Amos has been handling in Greene’s absence. Sternberger might not be much of a contributor after missing a big chunk of training camp with a concussion and then suffering an ankle injury in the preseason finale, but the third-round pick could use a couple months’ worth of practice reps.
GM Brian Gutekunst had a terrific offseason to move the Packers into contender status but his trade of Davis has been a big mistake through a half-season.
At the risk of oversimplification: In 2017, when Davis ranked third in the league in punt returns and had perfect ball security on punt and kickoff returns, the Packers ranked a respectable 16th in Rick Gosselin’s annual special-teams rankings. In 2018, when Davis played in only one game due to recurring hamstring issues, the Packers sank to 32nd.
While Davis has been excellent for Oakland, the Packers have an unthinkable minus-8 punt-return yards. Their longest return of the season went for 1 yard.