Training camp preview: Special teams

Kicker Mason Crosby and punter Jon Ryan give the Packers a leg up on special teams, but long snapper is an issue heading into camp.

After a rookie season in which he led the NFL in scoring and set a team record for points in a season, what does kicker Mason Crosby do for an encore?

Actually, the strong-footed kicker has plenty of room for improvement, which bodes well for a Packers special teams that went from among the worst in the league in 2006 to a definitive strength last season.

Despite posting a league-high 141 points, Crosby finished just 23rd in field-goal percentage (79.5 percent) among kickers with more than 20 attempts. While he was an almost-perfect 19-for-20 (95 percent) on kicks from inside of 39 yards, he was merely 9-of-14 (64.3 percent) from 40 to 49 yards.

With his talent and poise — after beating out incumbent Dave Rayner in training camp, he kicked a 53-yarder and added a last-second, game-winning field goal against Philadelphia in his professional debut — the Packers could have something special in Crosby.

"I think I showed last year I had a strong leg, but I think even moreso, I'll prove this year they can send me out there if they need (a long) one at the end of the half or any situation they need it," Crosby said during the June minicamp.

While offseason gains in the weight room are critical for position players and linemen, they also are important for kickers, who require quick-burst explosion. Crosby send he has benefitted from spending much of his offseason in Green Bay.

"I think it's a credit to the offseason program," said Crosby, who finished sixth in the NFL with 12 touchbacks. "My first offseason as an NFL player, I'm glad I was here. We did a lot of good agility drills, a lot of good legwork.

"I do feel like I'm hitting the ball well. I'm just hitting the ball consistently, and in the offseason even, if I wasn't hitting balls, I was working drills, a lot of work that helps out in the long run. I feel flexible and feel good."

While Crosby is entrenched as the kicker — barring a late roster move, he'll head into training camp as the lone kicker on the roster — incumbent punter Jon Ryan faces a challenge from former Wisconsin standout Ken DeBauche.

"In the NFL, there's always going to be competition," Ryan told the Regina Leader-Post from his punting came at his alma mater, the University of Regina, earlier this month. "Very rarely are they just going to hand you a job. I'm open to competition. It's going to bring out the best in me, as I feel I am a competitor, and hopefully that shows in the preseason."

Ryan goes into training camp a solid favorite to retain the job. DeBauche, from the Green Bay suburb of Suamico, averaged a whopping 44.8 yards as a sophomore but regressed to 41.8 as a junior and 41.6 as a senior.

Ryan, meanwhile, has gotten better. In 2006, he averaged 44.5 yards per punt with a 35.7 net. Last season, the average remained steady at 44.4 yards but his net zoomed up to 37.6, even with the late-season debacle at Chicago.

The X-factor for Crosby and Ryan will be the battle to replace longtime long-snapper Rob Davis. Rookie J.J. Jansen was rated one of the best long snappers in college at Notre Dame last season, while Thomas Gafford did well enough in his battle with Davis a couple of years ago to warrant another look.

Jansen vs. Gafford is not something that can worry the kickers, though.

"You just work on the timing and trust that it's going to be there every time, and go with it," Crosby said. "It's one of those things, every day you have to work it a few times to make sure the timing is there. That's all it is. I have the end part, but there's a lot that goes into it before I kick the ball."

While the kickers and returners get the attention, their supporting casts play critical roles. That supporting cast — born out the depth general manager Ted Thompson has built — is a huge reason why Ryan's net average ranked 10th in the NFL and the Packers ranked seventh with an opponents' average starting position of the 20.9-yard line after kickoffs.

That group is anchored by defensive end Jason Hunter, whose 25 special-teams tackles were the most by a Packer in 22 seasons. He's joined by starting fullback Korey Hall and reserve linebacker Tracy White as special-teams demons.

Bill Huber writes for Packer Report. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com


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