Over the past couple of weeks, packers.com has examined the Packers’ roster, position by position. In the eighth and final installment, we look at the specialists.
GREEN BAY—Over the past two seasons, the Packers have had virtually no changes at the three main specialist positions of punter, kicker and returner.
The one spot that won’t change, barring injury, is punter. Tim Masthay is coming off the best season of his three-year career, topping his own franchise record for net average from 2011 (38.6 yards) by a shade in 2012 (38.9).
More impressively, Masthay continues to be a legitimate weapon by pinning offenses deep with his Aussie-style pooch punts. He tied the franchise record with 30 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line – 43 percent of his total 70 punts – while having just five touchbacks. At this point, the contract extension Masthay signed during training camp last summer appears to be a sound investment for the Packers.
On the flip side is kicker Mason Crosby, who is coming off the worst season of his six-year career. After a solid start that featured five consecutive made field goals, Crosby missed 12 of 24 attempts between Weeks 5 and 15 before finally rebounding to make six straight through the last two regular-season games and two playoff contests.
Most important in that strong finish was that three of those final six field goals could be classified as high-pressure, suggesting Crosby had finally shaken whatever had wrecked his year. In Week 17, he hit a 51-yarder on the final play of the first half to pull the Packers within 20-10 against the Vikings, and later he added a 40-yarder in the fourth quarter to tie the score at 27. In the playoff loss at San Francisco, he was good from 31 yards to tie the game at 24 midway through the third quarter.
Still, even though the Packers stuck with Crosby through thick and thin in the heat of the season, that doesn’t mean competition isn’t on its way for training camp. It wouldn’t be unexpected for the Packers to seek safety in competition as they make sure there are no lingering effects from Crosby’s slump.
It should be noted the player hiking the ball to both Masthay and Crosby, long-snapper Brett Goode, just completed his fifth season with nary a wayward snap. The only question with Goode is whether he will last in his position as long as his predecessor, Rob Davis, who performed the role for the Packers for 11 straight years before Goode took over in 2008.
As for the return game, Randall Cobb has been the Packers’ primary returner on punts and kickoffs since arriving as a second-round draft pick in 2011, and he has three return TDs to his credit already.
With the likely departure of Greg Jennings, though, comes perhaps even more emphasis on Cobb in the offense. As it was, he led the Packers with 80 receptions for 954 yards in 2012 and added 132 yards rushing on 10 carries. Aside from the injury factor – Cobb hurt an ankle in Week 16 on a punt return, forcing him to miss the regular-season finale – the question the Packers have to ask is whether a key offensive role combined with return duties could wear Cobb out over the course of another 16 games.
If there’s concern in that regard, the most likely alternative on returns is Jeremy Ross, who made a strong impression filling in for Cobb late in the season until he muffed a punt inside the 10-yard line at San Francisco in the playoffs, leading to a momentum-changing TD for the 49ers.
If the Packers look to reinforce the receiver position in the draft, another pick on a hybrid receiver-returner like Cobb is an option, as well.