Packers Annual Checkup: WR Jeremy Ross

Today is the 41st day of FOX Sports Wisconsin Packers writer Paul Imig’s offseason evaluations of every player on Green Bay’s roster. Click here for all of Paul’s previous evaluations and come back every day through mid-March for Paul’s in-depth film and statistical analysis. Coming up soon:

Sunday, March 10: OT Derek Sherrod
Monday, March 11: CB Sam Shields
Tuesday, March 12: G Josh Sitton
Wednesday, March 13: ILB D.J. Smith
Thursday, March 14: RB James Starks

Friday, March 15: TE Ryan Taylor 

JEREMY ROSS, KICK/PUNT RETURNER; WIDE RECEIVER

Season stats: Five games (three regular season, two postseason), five kickoff returns for 114 yards (long of 44); five punt returns for 103 yards (long of 58); one muffed punt, one fumble; eight snaps on offense as wide receiver, zero targets

Best game: Week 17 loss at Minnesota (three kick returns for 86 yards; two punt returns for 41 yards; 1.4 PFF special teams rating)

Worst game: Divisional-round loss at San Francisco (one muffed punt return near the goal line; minus-1.6 PFF special teams rating)

ProFootballFocus.com season rating: minus-0.1 on special teams

Expectations at the start of the season: Low

Expectations were … Not met

Looking live: The Packers signed Ross to the active roster on Dec. 1, six weeks after signing the 24-year-old to the team’s practice squad. The idea with Ross was simple: If Randall Cobb was to be removed from special teams duties, the speedy former University of California Golden Bear could step in. The first impression from Ross was shaky. In what would have been a questionable decision from head coach Mike McCarthy regardless of the outcome, Green Bay attempted to get creative with Ross in Week 15 at Chicago. With Cobb back to field a punt return in the fourth quarter against the Bears, he caught the ball and threw it across the field to Ross. It wasn’t a great throw from Cobb, but Ross misplayed it and had a chance to recover it but let it slip away again. Chicago pounced on the ball and nearly got back into a game that the Packers had just about secured in victory. Two weeks later, Cobb sat out the regular-season finale, giving Ross an opportunity to return a total of five kicks and punts. The results that day were positive for Ross. In the playoffs, however, Ross made a costly, game-altering mistake when he looked up too early and muffed a punt return inside the 10-yard line. That swung momentum to San Francisco and the 49ers never looked back in their win over Green Bay.

Upon further review: Ross is an athletic, fast, quick, relatively strong player who profiles well as a featured return man. However, when the spotlight on him was brightest, he made two critical errors. The one in Chicago was only partially his fault, but it still appeared as if he wasn’t quite ready for a play like that. In Minnesota, with Cobb out, Ross showed just how good he can be. Devastating turnovers aside last season, that game against the Vikings suggested Ross could potentially be just as good as Cobb in the return game. Ross’ performance  in Week 17 gave the coaching staff the confidence to allow him a chance to touch the ball in the postseason. Oh, did that ever backfire. Having an inexperienced player fielding punts on a stage as big as the divisional round of the playoffs was a scary proposition for the Packers, and the coaching staff’s worst fears were realized. The 49ers were clearly the better team in that game, but what if Ross had successfully fair-caught that punt and not muffed it? It’s the type of moment that can shatter the confidence of a young player going forward, and, more important, can shatter the confidence that a team once had in him.

Overall 2012 grade: D

Status for 2013: 45 percent chance of being on the Packers’ active roster in Week 1 next season. At the moment, Green Bay does not have a better alternative than Ross to permanently replace Cobb. McCarthy commented at the Scouting Combine that he doesn’t want Cobb on special teams anymore, echoing a previous statement from Aaron Rodgers late in the regular season. But, like at any position, there needs to be a suitable replacement to make a switch. Ross could be that player. There’s no denying what his speed could do for the Packers on special teams. But that turnover in San Francisco will linger all offseason while McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson try to figure out whether Ross can be trusted to secure the ball next season on a weekly basis.

Follow Paul Imig on Twitter.