As the NFL draft nears, the demand for a dangerous kick-returner that can also contribute on offense or defense is a need that has continued to confront the Packers on special teams. Other core positions, such as long-snapper, punter and kicker appear to be settled. The coverage units may need a few more hard-chargers after some of the past standouts took on starting roles in 2010.
The return specialist has been a tough spot to find an answer for over the last few seasons, and 2010 was no exception. For kickoffs, the primary candidates currently on the roster are Jordy Nelson, Sam Shields and Pat Lee. James Starks is also in the conversation, having split the duties with Lee during the postseason. Nelson may have taken his final bows with the responsibility in 2010.
Nelson led the team in kickoff returns last season with an average of 22.5 yards per return. He started off hot with a trio of returns of 40 or more yards in the first three games, but fell off from there while emerging as one of the club’s top receivers. What makes him a natural as a downfield threat – long limbs and lanky at 6-3 – makes him a not-so-natural kick-returner. After catching nine passes for 140 yards in Super Bowl XLV, his days as a primary return man may be over.
Shields, among the club’s fastest players, has shown promise, shaking loose for a 49-yard kickoff return vs. Dallas and a 45-yard burst at New England; however, the rookie developed into an integral part of the pass-defense late in the year and in the postseason, displaying rare coverage skills. The coaching staff isn’t opposed to using top talent at returner when necessary, however, and with more seasoning Shields could have a future.
Lee, another cornerback, has had much of his career interrupted by injuries since being drafted in the second round in 2008. Last season he returned 13 kickoffs for a 20.4 average.
Starks, who also has a big frame at 6-2, could also be in the mix, should the Packers fail to draft a return man.
Punt-returner also needs an answer. The solution has been Tramon Williams, but as one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks and still improving, he’s a less-than-comfortable fit. He signed a four-year contract extension in 2010 that rewarded him for his blanket coverage, and he sealed the Packers’ wild-card win at Philadelphia with an interception in the end zone with 33 seconds remaining. He also picked off Matt Ryan twice in the divisional-round playoff game at Atlanta, returning the second 70 yards for a TD. Williams even broke up the final pass of Super Bowl XLV to clinch the victory.
Williams is a playmaker and has averaged nearly 10 yards per punt return in his career, but having one of the defense’s most important players dropping back to field punts 47 times again in 2011, as he did in 2010, is less than ideal.
Having standouts such as Nelson and Williams running toward charging defenders is stretching risk management. Best-case scenario is finding a player in the draft, free agency – anywhere, really – that is a contributor in other areas and can really return punts and kicks. The Packers offense is proven to be among the NFL’s best, but another 15 yards as a head start wouldn’t hurt.
Green Bay appears to be in good shape at kicker with Mason Crosby, who ended 2010 with 509 career points, the second-highest total in NFL history for a player in his first four seasons. Crosby set a team record with a 56-yard field goal in the opener at Philadelphia.
Long-snapper Brett Goode has been flawless since arriving on the cusp of the 2008 season. He fires the ball in accurately and has made a few timely tackles. Goode was inked to a two-year contract extension in January.
At punter, the club has Tim Masthay, who finished the season with a 43.9 average on 71 punts, but he’s best judged over the last nine games, when the first-year player found his footing after a sluggish start. He earned NFC special teams player of the week honors after dropping five punts inside the 20 on a blustery day at the Jets in a 9-0 victory, when field position was a key in the win.
For the rest of the season, he averaged 44.2 yards per punt, dropped 20 inside the 20, had only three touchbacks and had a net average of 39.9. Over those final nine games, opponents averaged only 7.6 yards per punt return. In the last half of 2010, he ranked fourth in the NFL in net average.
The coverage units will likely get some fresh horses, but that’s a yearly scenario for NFL teams with the competition created for reserve spots. Last year, the kickoff- and punt-coverage teams were in a constant state of flux because of the club’s injury woes.
Top contributors in the past, such as Desmond Bishop and Charlie Peprah, concentrated on their starting assignments after moving up. John Kuhn was a workhorse in the backfield on a much greater scale than in the past.
In Jarrett Bush, the Packers have a spark plug in coverage, a player who brings passion and energy to each play. Korey Hall is also an aggressive tackler and the duo combined for 27 stops last year.
There are typically new faces on the coverage units annually, and a handful of the players who ended 2010 on injured reserve will also be competing for jobs.
Ricky Zeller is a contributing writer for packers.com. He has covered the NFL for several publications.