The Green Bay Packers (1-2) have made some significant changes since their Week 3 loss at Paul Brown Stadium against the Cincinnati Bengals (2-2), releasing wide receiver and kick returner Jeremy Ross and promoting running back Michael Hill from the practice squad to the 53-man roster.
With Ross’ release and Hill’s promotion, the Packers now have only four wide receivers on their roster, meaning dynamic tight end Jermichael Finley is guaranteed an even greater role in the Packers’ offense.
The problem right now for the Packers though is that Finley is still recovering from a concussion which he had suffered against the Bengals. Finley hasn’t practiced since the injury, and the Packers will likely place wide receiver Randall Cobb as the team’s short-term kick returner.
If Finley can somehow be medically cleared for Sunday’s NFC North showdown against the Detroit Lions (3-1), it would put less pressure on the coaching staff’s decision on who will return kicks for Green Bay. Like it or not, Finley is the key player for the Packers.
Let’s say hypothetically, best-case scenario is that Finley is cleared to play by Sunday. If cleared, Cobb would likely be returning kicks and the Packers would practically have five wide receivers in Aaron Rodgers‘ arsenal. If Finley isn’t cleared, though, the Packers would only have four wide receivers and possibly risk placing an unproven rookie returning kicks in order to protect Cobb.
Those rookie candidates to return kicks includes cornerback Micah Hyde, along with running backs Johnathan Franklin and Hill. Cobb, the Packers’ leading receiver this season, must be protected if Finley isn’t medically cleared to play on Sunday. With Hyde, Franklin and Hill, there are alarming negatives to be wary of for each player.
The Packers’ defensive secondary is still ailing, as cornerbacks Jarrett Bush and Casey Hayward along with safety Morgan Burnett are all recovering from hamstring injuries. If Hyde returns kicks, it could place a greater burden on the defensive secondary if he were to go down with an injury.
Placing Franklin on kick returns is similar to Hyde’s situation, as the running backs are hobbled as well. Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said rookie Eddie Lacy is ready to play on Sunday, but don’t forget, fellow veteran offensive backs John Kuhn (hamstring) and James Starks (knee) will likely be questionable to play against the Lions (Franklin is also battling a foot injury).
Lastly, it would be a huge gamble for the Packers to give Hill the opportunity to return kicks. An undrafted rookie from Missouri Western, Hill will likely suit up for his first career NFL game on Sunday. Yes, Cobb returned kicks as a rookie, but he was a second-round pick who was expected to make an immediate impact. Hill has never played in an environment like Lambeau Field before, and he would be the greatest unknown among all Packer players.
All of these potential decisions which lie ahead for the Packers this week correlate directly with Finley’s status. Finley caught 61 passes last season, a franchise record for most catches by a tight end. The Packers also let wide receiver Greg Jennings walk in free agency to help further expand the wide receiver group and Finley’s role.
Battered and bruised up, the Packers need their 6-foot-5, 247-pound brute force more than ever before. Too much simply relies on the shoulders of the potential game-changer.