In his first six seasons as head coach, Mike McCarthy has never presided over a Packers training camp that didn’t have at least some uncertainty at one of the three main specialist positions. That won’t be the case this year.
With kicker Mason Crosby and punter Tim Masthay coming off their best seasons as pros, and with Randall Cobb emerging last season as a rookie kick-return sensation, the Packers enter 2012 as solid at those three spots as they have been in recent memory.
Crosby begins his sixth season in his prime, having topped the 80-percent mark on field goals for the first time in his career in 2011. His 85.7 percent efficiency (24 of 28) included franchise-record boots of 56 and 58 yards in a span of three weeks.
The strong-legged Crosby also took advantage of kickoffs being moved forward 5 yards last season by booming 49 touchbacks, good for third in the league.
Masthay, meanwhile, built on a strong finish to 2010 – his first full season in the NFL – with an even better 2011. Punting just 55 times all season, thanks to Green Bay’s prolific offense, Masthay set franchise records for gross average (45.6 yards) and net average (38.6), the latter a stat kept only since 1976.
Perhaps more impressive, Masthay put 23 of those 55 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. A repeat of that proficiency could gain more recognition should Green Bay’s defense improve as much as the Packers expect.
In Cobb, the Packers have the most dynamic return man they’ve had in McCarthy’s tenure. Cobb burst onto the scene with a record-setting 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in his first NFL game, and he added a punt return for a score later in the season. No Packers rookie had ever performed that double feature.
The only stains on Cobb’s first season were three fumbles, but he elevated the Packers return games from 26th (kickoffs) and 22nd (punts) in 2010 to 12th in both categories last year.
Add long-snapper Brett Goode to the list of known quantities, and all that remains for special-teams intrigue is how much turnover could occur on the coverage units.
Of the Packers’ top six tacklers on special teams in 2011, cornerback Pat Lee (12 tackles) is gone and linebacker Brad Jones (11) will be fighting for a roster spot at one of the team’s deepest positions. Also, should young safety M.D. Jennings (nine) win a starting job on defense, his special-teams responsibilities could diminish.
That said, veteran Jarrett Bush – who tied with Lee for the team lead with 12 coverage tackles last year – re-signed in the offseason, while linebacker D.J. Smith and tight end Ryan Taylor both hit double-digits in tackles as rookies. Those two members of the 2011 draft class look like possibly the next generation of leaders on those units.