Will Blackmon, who was the leading candidate for both spots provided he could get healthy after tearing the ACL in his left knee last season, was placed on injured reserve over the weekend before reaching an injury settlement with the team on Sunday. With his departure, wide receiver Jordy Nelson worked as the No. 1 kickoff returner on Monday in practice with cornerback Tramon Williams handling punt returns with the first unit. Running back Brandon Jackson is listed as the backup at kickoff returner with wide receiver Greg Jennings the backup on punts.
All of those players will be seeing plenty of time on offense and defensive respectively, and while he said he takes that into account when making a decision about who will be the returner, Head Coach Mike McCarthy's focus is on finding the ones that can help the team win games.
"I feel good about Jordy Nelson and Brandon Jackson in the kickoff return and I feel good about Tramon Williams and Greg Jennings in the punt return if that is the direction we go," Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. "We're going to compete on special teams and we're going to give our football team the opportunity to play with good field position.
"All of the work that we have done in the offseason in training camp, it's about putting the returner in a position to be successful. We'll make sure we have the best guy back there with the football."
Williams led the team last year with a 10.4-yard average on 13 punt returns, including a 45-yarder against Detroit in Week 6, the longest punt return by a Packer all season. In 2007, his first season on the active roster, he scored on a 94-yard return vs. Carolina when kicker John Kasay punted out of a field-goal formation. Jennings hasn't returned a punt since his rookie season of 2006, when he posted a 5.8-yard average on just five returns.
With veteran cornerback Al Harris out for at least the first six games as he continues his rehab from reconstructive knee surgery, Williams has shifted from his nickel role to that of starting right cornerback opposite Charles Woodson. While adding return duties would seem like a heavy load for an every-down player, Williams said he wasn't concerned.
"You only have a roster of 53 men and you've got to put those guys to use," said Williams, who added that he expects to be the punt returner at Philadelphia. "I am definitely up for the challenge as a punt returner.
"It's a challenge obviously but it is something that I have been doing since I have been playing football. It's just another day. I'm excited to get back there. We've been working on special teams pretty much the whole offseason with an emphasis. I think we are going to be good out there."
Nelson has returned kickoffs each of his two seasons with the Packers, and served as the primary man in that area in 2009 after Blackmon sustained the season-ending knee injury in Week 4. Nelson posted a 25.4-yard average on 25 returns, good for 11th in the NFL, and the average was the best by a Packer (min. 25 returns) since Allen Rossum posted a 25.8-yard average in 2000.
Nelson did have some struggles with ball security, including a lost fumble on the opening kickoff at Detroit on Thanksgiving Day. He also fumbled on a second-quarter kickoff return in the Wild Card contest at Arizona, but did recover.
"I think the injury that he had (sprained knee Nelson sustained in Week 6 that forced him to miss three games) affected him a little bit in the return game last year," McCarthy said. "I don't see that anymore. I think he was a little hesitant in that particular game (Arizona).
"But I think he's done a very good job, and we've changed some things schematically in our return game that I think plays to Jordy's strengths. I like the body of work that Jordy Nelson has given us returning the football on kickoffs in the preseason."
Nelson posted a 29.7-yard average on his three kickoff returns in the preseason, including a 36-yarder at Seattle and a 31-yarder vs. Indianapolis the next game. His opportunities were limited because the Packers were spreading the reps around to younger players on the roster, much like they did throughout all of the special-teams units.
"I think the guys that are here know what we need to do, know what to do," Nelson said. "I think going through the preseason on some of the kickoffs, like Coach was saying all preseason, they were rotating a lot of guys through, giving a lot of guys opportunities to make the team. Some made it, some didn't, so now we're ready to move forward with the guys that we have got.
"It's on us. There is no one else to do it, so it's on us to get it done. It's going to be a big part of this season. Whether we go a long ways or not is going to depend on special teams."
Ready for the challengeWhile saying he has shown improvement, McCarthy didn't give a timetable for the return of cornerback Brandon Underwood, who was working at nickel back during the preseason before injuring his shoulder in the third game against Indianapolis on Aug. 26.
With Williams moving into the starting right corner spot in Harris absence, the vital third corner spot could be manned by non-drafted rookie Sam Shields at Philadelphia in the season opener.
Shields, who played cornerback for just one season at Miami after playing wide receiver his first three years, impressed with his speed and athleticism during the preseason and led the team in interceptions (two) and passes defensed (five). He saw action with the No. 1 defense in the nickel role against the Colts in the third preseason game and started at left corner opposite Williams in the preseason finale at Kansas City with Woodson taking the night off.
"From what I've seen of him so far, not afraid of going out there and making a play," Woodson said. "He's going to go out there and make some mistakes, as we all are, but I think his confidence level is very high. He's a gifted athlete, and we have every confidence in him."
With two experienced starting corners in Williams and Woodson, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Shields is well aware he could be a target for opposing offenses early on.
"I am prepared," Shields said. "There have been a lot of things on my back from college on up. It's nothing new. I've just got to keep working hard and moving forward.
"It's a job so you have got to take advantage of it. That is what I am going to do. I work with some of the guys that can help me out with some of the little mistakes that I do make so I can correct it. When game time comes, I know what I am doing and I can play fast."
Changing it up
With the Packers trimming their roster to the 53-man limit this past weekend, a few players on the roster made jersey number changes.
Rookie linebacker Frank Zombo, who wore No. 47 during the preseason, will now wear No. 58. Safety Charlie Peprah, who sported No. 46 during the preseason, switched to No. 26, the number he wore during his first tenure (2006-08) with the Packers.
Quarterback Graham Harrell, one of eight players signed to the practice squad on Monday morning, switched from No. 7 to No. 6, which was his number at Texas Tech.
Running back James Johnson, the only practice-squad signee not with the Packers during camp, will wear No. 39.
Injury/participation updateThe Packers don't have to put out an official injury report for Sunday's season opener at Philadelphia until Wednesday.
The starting outside linebackers, Clay Matthews (hamstring) and Brad Jones (shoulder), both returned to practice. Matthews missed all four preseason games while Jones only played in one. Jones is wearing a harness to protect the injury, but said it isn't overly restrictive.
Defensive end Cullen Jenkins (calf) and Desmond Bishop (hamstring) participated in the jog-through portion of practice.
"I think (Jenkins and Bishop) are going to be ready to go Wednesday or no later than Thursday," McCarthy said. "I had a chance to watch them go through rehab after the jog-through and it looked encouraging. As you know, you see how they feel in the morning. You are dealing with muscle strains, but all of the information the medical staff has been giving me all along has been positive." Additional coverage – Sept. 6