Special teams need attention

From inept return units to subpar kicking, the Packers had the worst special teams in the NFL last season. That makes Ted Thompson's search for talent all the more important.

While much of the focus this offseason has been on the Packers' offense — Will they trade for Randy Moss? Who will replace Ahman Green at running back? — one area in which Green Bay needs a great deal of improvement is on special teams.

A breakdown of NFL special teams conducted by the Dallas Morning News a couple of months ago showed the Packers had the league's worst kicking units for the second consecutive season.

Chicago had the league's best special teams last season, according to the breakdown, and the Bears showed how important the kicking units can be. Thanks in large part to the instant offense provided by rookie Devin Hester, the Bears actually boasted one of the league's highest-scoring offenses, despite being hamstrung by quarterback Rex Grossman.

You name it, and the Packers were bad at it last season. Through my research:

Kickoff returns? They ranked 31st out of the league's 32 teams with a 19.7-yard average.

Punt returns? They ranked 27th with a 7.8-yard average.

Kickoff coverage? They ranked 19th with a 22.8-yard average allowed.

Punt coverage? They ranked 18th with a 9.1-yard average allowed, and were one of 13 teams to allow a touchdown.

Net punting? Because of Jon Ryan's inconsistency, they ranked 25th with an average of 35.7 yards.

Inside-the-20 punting? Sometimes, a good coffin-corner punt is as good as scoring. Instead, the Packers ranked 29th.

Field-goal kicking? Dave Rayner showed promise, but the Packers ranked 25th with 74.3 percent accuracy.

Special-teams play has been a problem for the past few years. The Packers haven't had a decent returner since Allen Rossum returned a kickoff for a touchdown in 2000 and a punt for a touchdown in 2001 before joining the Atlanta Falcons. They haven't had a punter since Josh Bidwell — who was only average, anyway — was allowed to skip town after the 2003 season.

It's not for a lack of trying. Mike Sherman drafted DeAndrew Rubin to return kicks in 2003 and, infamously, traded up to grab punter B.J. Sander in 2004. Ted Thompson drafted Cory Rodgers to return kicks in 2006. Neither Rubin nor Rodgers could catch the ball, much less break a tackle or make a guy miss.

Of course, special teams is about more than a returner, punter and kicker. It takes a supporting cast, and it's that supporting cast that took a hit when Sherman ran the team to the ceiling of the salary cap.

Worse, Sherman put together back-to-back hideous drafts. Nick Barnett, the first-round pick in 2003, is a starter, as are the final picks in 2004, Corey Williams and Scott Wells. In between, Sherman drafted 12 players. None of them are on the team, and 10 are out of the league.

Those ugly facts left the Packers without the type of quality depth that's needed to make the key blocks on returns and beat the blocking on the coverage units.

So, while the focus is — and always will be — on the glamour moves, the key for Thompson is to continue building a core group of players. That's why Thompson treats every draft choice like it's gold. He doesn't need every seventh-round pick to turn into the next Donald Driver. He just needs enough picks who can make a difference, even if it's only doing the dirty work that goes unnoticed by everyone but the kick returner who just picked up another 5 yards because of a decent block.

Lawrence is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com. Send comments to steve_lawrence_packers@yahoo.com.

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