While the individual parts of kick and punt coverage units change with each season, kickers, punters, holders, and long snappers tend to be more long-term positions. New faces for the Packers at those positions, however, will be more prominent in the near future as another training camp nears.
So far this off-season, Packers' kicking specialists have had limited practice time in the team's previous two mini-camps. That will change during the June organized team activities and into training camp.
Kickers Billy Cundiff and Dave Rayner, punters B. J. Sander and Jon Ryan, and long-snapper Rob Davis are expected to participate more in the OTA's. The spotlight will be on Cundiff and Ryan, two newcomers who have a great chance of nailing down roster spots when the regular season begins.
Cundiff is the leading candidate to take over for Ryan Longwell, the Packers' nine-year kicker and all-time leading scorer, who departed via free agency to Minnesota. Without Longwell, the Packers have a large hole to fill and Cundiff will be the one to do it. The job is his to lose.
"It's a great challenge," said Cundiff. "Obviously if you can come in and fill his shoes, then I think that I proved I can play in the NFL and play at a high level."
Cundiff is a four-year NFL veteran who was most recently released by the Buccaneers. He hit 73.2% of his field goals with the Cowboys over four years, but has the edge on Rayner in experience. Rayner was a kickoff specialist for the Colts a year ago, and they opted to pass on giving him chance this coming year when they pursued and signed Adam Vinatieri.
Cundiff said not only will his performance in pre-season games be a determining factor, but also who comes out on top when kicks are charted in practice and individual workouts.
"It's a big picture approach," he said.
Sander finished last season on injured reserve watching street free agent Ryan Flinn handle punting and holding duties the final two games. His time is running short in Green Bay after Mike Sherman made him a questionable third-round pick in 2004, believing he could be a dangerous punter at Lambeau Field. In two seasons, though, he has failed miserably. He was 30th in the league in punting average last year (39.2) and 31st overall in net average (33.9). Before that, he sat on the bench as the second punter behind Bryan Barker during his rookie season.
The Packers would be wise to end the Sander experiment this year because improvement is not likely. After a full year of practicing and working on his craft, and then going to NFL Europe, he still struggled a year ago. They have a prospect in Ryan that is worth the risk.
If the Packers can teach the intricacies of the NFL punting game to Ryan, an off-season signing from the Canadian Football League, he will be their new punter. There are few doubts about his leg after he set a CFL record with a 50.6-yard average last year.
As for the holder and long snapper, two positions the Packers had some continuity issues with last season, the time to act is now.
"We're trying to lay the ground work now," said Cundiff. "Then you won't have to get into the technical stuff in training camp. It will just start to become a habit."
Cundiff has worked with Sander and Ryan as his holders this off-season, but that could change depending on who makes the roster. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who has some experience holding, could be the best pick to win the job.
Like every training camp, the long snapper spot is Rob Davis's to lose to another position on the roster. His near perfection has allowed him to keep his spot in Green Bay for the past eight years, though this year could be different. With so many young players on the roster, and so much uncertainty at the skill positions on offense, his time could finally be up. His status will come down to how the new coaching staff and general manager Ted Thompson value his role and if they have a capable replacement for him who can play another position as well.
More than any other recent off-season, this one holds more uncertainty for the kicking units. Players like Cundiff and Ryan may not be well-known, but they need to step up to keep special teams from becoming a concern.
Editor's note: Matt Tevsh is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com and Packer Report. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.