Camp analysis: NFC North special teams
PK Robbie Gould, P Adam Podlesh, PR Devin Hester, KR Eric Weems, LS Patrick Mannelly.
Under Smith, this has always been a priority, and one of the best offseason signings was the two-year extension given to special teams coordinator Dave Toub, who annually puts together a top-10 product. The presence of Hester helps, but there is depth there as well, with unrestricted free agents Eric Weems and Devin Thomas plus TCU rookie Greg McCoy. Gould is the fifth-most-accurate field-goal kicker in NFL history. He lacked length earlier in his career, but hit 6-for-6 from 50 or farther last season, and his kickoffs have gotten stronger as well. Podlesh established a franchise record for net average (40.4 yards) in his first season in Chicago. Mannelly, steady as a rock the past 14 years, vows to come back as good as ever after last season's torn ACL sidelined him the final six games, and he's ahead of schedule in his rehab.
PK Jason Hanson, P Ben Graham, LS Don Muhlbach, PR/KR Stefan Logan, PK Derek Dimke, P Ryan Donahue, LS Matt Camilli, PR Titus Young, PR Ryan Broyles, PR Patrick Edwards.
The best battle of camp could be between punters Graham and Donahue. Donahue, a heavy-footed boomer, unseated veteran Nick Harris last season, but injured his quad during the bye week. Graham, a savvy, directional kicker, took over and stabilized the punt team. With the strength of the Lions' offense, you would think a trusted directional kicker would have more value than a somewhat erratic, long-ball hitter. Return ace Logan is also fighting for his roster spot. The Lions are giving several players a chance to claim the punt return duties – most prominently Broyles and Edwards.
Green Bay Packers
K Mason Crosby, P Tim Masthay, LS Brett Goode, KR/PR Randall Cobb.
The explosiveness by Cobb on returns, highlighted by a league-record-tying 108-yard kickoff runback for a touchdown in the season opener and an 80-yard scoring run on a punt, gave the Packers the final piece of having a potent trifecta of specialists. Cobb's dual role isn't expected to change going into the season, never mind the increased activity he should have on offense. Crosby and Masthay are going on season three together with the team's kicking duties, along with the trusted Goode as the trigger man. Crosby was next to automatic last season, converting 26 of 30 field-goal attempts (including the playoffs) for a career-high percentage of 86.7 and banging through a team-record 58-yard field goal. Masthay also turned in a superior season of strength (45.6 average) and placement (23 punts inside the 20).
K Blair Walsh, P Chris Kluwe, LS Cullen Loeffler, KR Percy Harvin, PR Marcus Sherels.
Walsh, a fifth-round pick out of Georgia, faces as much pressure as anyone on the roster this summer. Not only did he replace one of the league's all-time steadiest players in Ryan Longwell, he also is coming off a horrendous season in which he missed 14 of 35 field-goal attempts. The Vikings love his leg strength on kickoffs and insist that his place-kicking woes from last year are correctable. They point to his 90-percent accuracy as an underclassman as proof that he can become an accurate NFL kicker. The Vikings say they will not bring a veteran kicker to camp. But if Walsh crumbles under the pressure, don't be surprised if one arrives soon. Longwell still hasn't been signed to any team. Loeffler returns from a back injury and should be steady as usual. Kluwe is the best punter in team history. He has a big leg and tremendous control closer to the goal line. Harvin is one of the best kick returners in the league, but the Vikings try desperately to limit his touches to keep his 185-pound frame fresh. Sherels is the backup kickoff returner and No. 1 punt returner, but that could change because he's more of a long-shot to make the team now. Jarius Wright could win the punt return job and compete at kick returner. Josh Robinson is another fast rookie who could return kicks. From a coverage standpoint, the team's youth movement should help. Solomon Elimimian was a standout CFL linebacker. He also excelled at special teams and was voted by his peers as the CFL's hardest hitter in 2010 and 2011.
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