With 15 days until the start of training camp, we begin our position previews with the special teams.
Kicker: Mason Crosby. Punter: Tim Masthay, Peter Mortell. Punt returner: Micah Hyde, Randall Cobb, Trevor Davis. Kickoff returner: Jeff Janis, Ty Montgomery, Trevor Davis.
Coming: Mortell, LB Lerentee McCray. Going: LS Brett Goode.
Punter: Masthay is the heavy favorite to beat out Mortell, the Green Bay native and undrafted rookie from Minnesota. Here’s what Masthay has done during his six seasons with the Packers: In 2010, he set the franchise record with a net average of 37.6 yards per punt. He rose the bar with net averages of 38.6 yards in 2011, 38.9 in 2012, 39.0 in 2013 and 40.2 in 2015. His punts weren’t always a thing of beauty last season, but that was by design, with Masthay asked frequently by coordinator Ron Zook to kick the ball to a spot rather than just letting it rip. However, the door is open after Masthay struggled in the playoff loss at Arizona. After a resounding 44.0 net average a week earlier at Washington, Masthay struggled to a net of 32.8 in Arizona’s dome.
Mortell hit some bombs during the minicamp — which Masthay was allowed to skip as a veteran player — but consistency is what it will take to unseat a proven veteran. “You don’t get second down or third down, so you can’t have a couple great punts and then one or two (bad punts),” Zook said. “It’s a consistency thing. As a football player, you’re continually working on being consistent and knowing your craft and being as good as you possibly can be.”
Long snapper: After Goode sustained a torn ACL in a late-season game at Oakland, Rick Lovato was brought in from the family ‘s sub-sandwich shop. Thrown into a pressure cooker, Lovato was flawless. He’ll have to stay that way. Regardless of when Goode is physically ready, there are countless long snappers just waiting for their opportunity. “The one thing that you see with the young centers coming out is in college everybody’s going to the rugby punt now so no one blocks,” Zook said. “They snap and run out of there. It really is a thing that you have to work and work and work because the protection is so key. Not only is it putting the ball back there on the money but he’s got to be able to block. We ask him to block and it’s something he doesn’t have as much experience because, in college, they snap it and run.”
Returner: In 2014, the Packers finished 23rd in average starting field position following a kickoff return (21.2-yard line). Montgomery jump-started that unit by averaging 31.1 yards per return. When he was lost with an ankle injury, Janis picked up the baton and averaged 29.0 per return. Green Bay soared to No. 5 in field position (23.0-yard line). Montgomery and Janis will be challenged by Davis, the fifth-round pick out of Cal. While the speedster averaged only 21.4 yards per runback as a senior, he averaged 32.6 with two touchdowns as a junior. “We can’t coach 4.3 — 4.3’s 4.3 and 4.3’s fast,” Zook said. On punt returns, Hyde will be the favorite. While he averaged only 5.8 yards per return last season, he had a total of three touchdowns during his first two seasons and led the NFL with a 15.8-yard average in 2014. Davis averaged 8.2 yards on 14 punt returns at Cal so there’s not much of a track record in that phase of the game.
IF THIS HAPPENS ...
The Packers took a big step forward last year, Zook’s first as the coordinator. After ranking 31st in the annual Packer Report Special Teams Rankings in 2014, the Packers improved to No. 16 last year. The black mark was kickoff coverage, with Green Bay ranking 27th in opponent field position following a kickoff. However, take the Lions’ 104-yard runback out of the mix and the Packers would have ranked 15th. That 12-point rise would have resulted in Green Bay ranking 11th in the overall rankings.
If the Packers get the kickoff coverage sorted out, and if Hyde (or someone else) re-ignites the punt return, they’ll field one of the top special teams in the NFL. That, of course, is assuming Crosby and Masthay (or Mortell) turn in strong seasons and the Packers build upon their success on kickoff returns. The core is strong with Chris Banjo, Jayrone Elliott and Janis — the indomitable punt-coverage gunner — and should get even better with the addition of McCray.
SPOTLIGHT ON ...
Crosby. GM Ted Thompson was wise to show extreme patience in riding out the storm with Crosby in 2012 and he was wise to retain Crosby with a four-year, $16 million contract on March 1.
Among kickers who have played in at least 20 games over the past three seasons, Crosby ranks a mediocre 15th with 85.7 percent accuracy on field goals. However, kicking at Lambeau Field in December is obviously a much greater challenge than kicking in some domed stadium. Over the same three-year span, 33 kickers have attempted at least 10 field goals during the final four games of the regular season and playoffs. In other words, crunch time with the potential of bad weather. Crosby ranks eighth with 88.9 percent accuracy, according to Pro Football Reference.
“What better place to be than in Green Bay, where I’ve started building a legacy these last nine years and I’ve established myself here?” Crosby said. “I couldn’t really imagine playing anywhere else. I was down in Texas and it was 75 degrees and I looked at the forecast and was like, ‘We play in that sometimes in December.’ It’s all part of it. I really enjoy the challenge and embrace it.”
Plus, while kickers around the league struggled with the 33-yard extra point, Crosby was a perfect 36-of-36. Among kickers with at least 20 attempts, Crosby was one of just five to not misfire.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.