Running Free: A Packers Special Teams Assessment

On a team with as much offensive firepower and defensive potential as the Green Bay Packers, it’s easy to forget that the special teams squad even exists. That stands to reason because it’s been a largely forgettable unit that’s produced more blunders than bright spots. At the end of the 2020 season, Matt LaFleur showed incumbent special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga the door and promoted his assistant Maurice Drayton to the top post. Will Drayton be able to coach this unit up in 2021, or will we continue to see opposing teams running free? 

Place Kicker

Mason Crosby is set to return for his 15th season as a Green Bay Packer, coming off a stellar 2020 season as the lone bright spot on the otherwise abysmal 28th ranked special teams unit according to Rick Gosselin’s exhaustive rankings. Crosby turns 37 on September 3rd, but his performances the last few seasons haven’t indicated he’s slowing down. A perfect 16-of-16 on field goals last season (59-of-63 on extra points), while also nailing a near career high 57 yard attempt on week 14 at the Detroit Lions. 

16 attempts in 2020 is not a large sample size. In fact, it’s the fewest attempts Mason has had throughout his career, thanks in large part to a historically efficient Packers offense. If the Packers offense does regress a bit, you can assume that Crosby will be closer in line with his average of 30 attempts (and 81.8% made) over the span of his career. Safe to say that the Packers all-time leading scorer will not likely be to blame if this unit doesn’t perform. 

Coverage Units 

In 2020 you had to hold your breath every time the ball was kicked in the opponent’s direction, with coverage units finishing in the negatives in kick-off and punt coverage according to Football Outsiders Special Teams DVOA. 

Freeway sized lanes, gunners losing outside leverage and punters hurling themselves at nimble return men running free; burn the tape. In some ways, new special teams boss Maurice Drayton may not have to do much to be seen as successful. Keep the opposing return man from scoring? That’s a win! Consistently keep the opponents from starting their drives in Packers territory? Better yet! It’s amazing what we will settle for at this point. 

As is the case every season, the bottom third of the roster will earn their keep playing special teams. Some seasons the level of athletes lining up for the coverage units may be better than others but discipline and football IQ are the great equalizers. Hopefully Drayton can channel the group’s raw athleticism into a heady, cohesive unit, instead of trotting out the sieve we’ve become accustomed to. 

Green Bay Packers punter JK Scott punts during the first half of an NFL football game against the Houston Texans Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/Sam Craft)

Punter 

B.J. Sander err… JK Scott has been an underwhelming member of the Packers special teams since he entered the league as a fifth round draft pick in 2018. Scott’s selection has furthered the sentiment that if you’re going to use precious draft capital to add a specialist, they had better be field tilting, clutch performers. 

Scott has barely registered as average, and at times has been terrible. Scott’s career average of 44.6 yards per punt on paper is pretty good. The problem has been for every bomb the big legged Scott hits (14 punts of more than 50 yards in 2020), he shanks one that puts the defense in a tough spot (15 punts of fewer than 40 yards). In addition, Scott struggled with hangtime this past season as evidenced by a whopping 15.8 yards per return for punts that were returned and a career low of 38.3 net yards per punt. 

In addition to Scott, the Packers have brought in punter Ryan Winslow for camp competition. Winslow was signed by the bears as an undrafted free agent in 2018 and has also had stints in the Alliance of American Football and for the Arizona Cardinals. 

If the Packers are indeed pushing all of their chips to the middle this season, it makes sense to scour the free agent wire to see if they can improve a sneakily important position. Thomas Morestead, Chris Jones & Dustin Colquitt are three available options who’ve all had varying degrees of success over the years. A reliable veteran could pay dividends at the most critical moments. 

Long Snapper 

In general, the less that is heard and spoken about the long snapper the happier all involved will be. Another specialist draft pick (7th round, 2018), Hunter Bradley found himself as a topic of discussion one too many times in the 2020 season and enters training camp in a fight for his job with new addition Joe Fortunato. 

Bradley hasn’t been a disaster, as evidenced by Crosby’s perfect 2020 season but it’s fair to wonder if some of JK Scott’s struggles can be attributed to inconsistent snaps from Bradley. Again, the more tight spirals and fewer headlines the better with whomever mans the position in 2021. 

Return Man 

The addition of Randall Cobb all but seals Amari Rodgers fate as the Packers do-it-all return man. Rodgers will certainly be featured in the offense, but with Cobb in the room the Packers should look to the return teams first to showcase the rookie wideouts skills.

Rodgers will be an immediate upgrade over the revolving door thrown at the punt position last year. Four players could only manage a meager average of 5.3 yards per return and a long of 11 yards. We can also expect him to add a spark in the kick return game as well. 

Rodgers brings familiarity and proven success to the position, returning 68 punts in his time at Clemson with an average of 7.8 yards and one touchdown. 

How nice would it be to have a player that can cleanly field the ball, consistently move up field and occasionally break a big play? Tune in this fall for the Amari Rodgers show! 

New year, new results?

There are a lot of ways to win (and lose) a Super Bowl, but surely the fewer soft spots you have as a team the easier it is. The Green Bay Packers do not need to field a top special teams unit to win another championship, they just need to get out of their own damn way. Hopefully a new year and a new coach will create a positive impact for an otherwise talented team. 

You can follow Adam on twitter at @adamjcarlson28.

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