By Pete Dougherty

Antonio Chatman has a big lead for the job as the Green Bay Packers’ punt returner, not only because the coaching staff has been lauding his play at receiver but because no other punt returners have emerged during training camp.

The Packers were hoping that second-year pro Carl Ford, who landed on injured reserve in training camp last year with a knee injury, would prove to be a viable punt returner this year.

But Ford never returned punts in high school or college, and has dropped at least one punt almost every day in the first two weeks of camp. Though he was still working with the punt returners Friday, those drops have all but eliminated him as a candidate for the job.

Asked whether he could use Ford as a punt returner in a regular-season game, special teams coach John Bonamego said, “Not at this point, he’s still dropping too many balls.”

Chatman, 25, probably will be the Packers’ No. 1 returner in the preseason opener against Seattle on Monday night, though Bonamego also wants to get a look at receiver Robert Ferguson in that role in a game.

Chatman held the return job all last season because he had no drops, only one fumble and showed good range in catching bad punts that might have rolled if he hadn’t gotten to them.

However, he averaged only 8.4 yards a return, which ranked 19th in the NFL, and his occasional indecisiveness left him dancing side to side rather than picking a seam and blasting toward it.

Chatman signed with the Packers last year after playing in the Arena Football League.

Coach Mike Sherman has said the 5-foot-9, 184-pounder looks quicker this year because he’s not worn down by having played in the winter and spring.

Judging by the snaps he’s getting in practice, Chatman appears to be in the running with Ford and Scottie Vines for the No. 4 receiving job, but evidence that he’s more explosive this season probably will come when he returns punts in the preseason.

“I told him in the offseason,” Sherman said, ‘I said. ‘Listen, you can’t make it as a specialist (only). You have to help us as a receiver if you want to be on the team. You have to be able to do both. I really need a guy that can do both.’ I’m not anointing him as the fourth receiver, but he’s certainly helped himself with the plays he’s made out here.”

The Packers have used Ferguson as a punt returner in practice for the past three years even though he had no college experience. He’s returned punts in only one NFL game, at Jacksonville in 2001. He had two fair catches and one return for 4 yards.

“He’s a little unorthodox, but he catches it,” Bonamego said of Ferguson. “He’ll catch it up over his head or off to the side, you don’t like to see that all the time, but he gets it done, he catches it.”