Packers training camp preview: Special teams
This is the 10th in a series of 13 previews leading up to the Green Bay Packers’ July 26 start of camp.
TODAY’S POSITION: SPECIAL TEAMS
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 6
Projected starters: Kicker Mason Crosby, Punter Tim Masthay, Long snapper Brett Goode, Kick Returner DuJuan Harris, Punt Returner Micah Hyde
It was the bounce-back season that Mason Crosby very much needed. He went from a career-worst 63.6 percent on field-goal attempts in 2012 to a career-best 89.2 percent in 2013. Crosby went from having competition in training camp last year to once again being all by himself this year. Crosby won’t be confused for one of the NFL’s best kickers any time soon, but if he can continue to connect at the rate he did last season — and never come close to revisiting his horrendous performance from a year earlier, the Packers will be happy to keep inviting him back for a couple more seasons.
Tim Masthay has done a good job for Green Bay as the team’s punter over the past four seasons. There’s been no reason for the Packers to bring in competition for him. At 27 years old, it would take a 2012-Crosby-esque season for Masthay’s job to be in any danger in the coming seasons.
Similarly, Brett Goode has been dependable for the past six seasons. Goode has two years remaining on his contract, but if he doesn’t falter, his time in Green Bay will likely extend beyond that. Goode will turn 30 years old midway through this season.
Micah Hyde returned 22 of 39 kickoffs and 24 of 30 punts last season. He’s not going to outrun many special-teams groups, but Hyde is sure-handed and has the trust and confidence of the coaching staff. That went a long way for Hyde as a rookie in 2013.
Best position battle: Kick and Punt Returners
There are no spots on the Packers roster that qualify as ‘To Be Determined’ more than kick and punt return. Hyde had both jobs last season, but a combination of elements make it unlikely that he has the role nearly all to himself again. First, Hyde has been deemed as one of Green Bay’s best 11 defensive players, which has the team determined to keep him on the field for every snap on defense. Not that Hyde doesn’t have the endurance to handle it, but if he has around 10 consecutive plays on defense and then gets sent back to return a punt, it will be a lot of work for him. Second, he wasn’t that great as a returner. He was steady and overall just fine, but it’s not like Hyde is a threat the way that Randall Cobb was. Third, there is more competition to return kicks and punts this season. And lastly, the injury factor on returns may prove to be too great of a risk for the Packers to put Hyde in harm’s way. Green Bay removed Cobb as the main return man because of his importance on offense. Hyde could get a similar treatment.
If Hyde remains in one of the two return spots, it will be on punt return. From the first day he was assigned that role during training camp in 2013, Hyde was quite good at it. He tracks the ball well and catches everything. He’ll get competition from several players, though, including rookie Jared Abbrederis, who returned punts in college at Wisconsin.
On kick returns, listing DuJuan Harris as No. 1 on the depth chart is simply a prediction. Harris is one of several players who could end up in that spot. The Packers had him returning kicks in minicamp, and given his relatively small role on offense and his combination of speed and quickness, Harris seems like a logical choice.
Cobb is the X factor in all of this. He’s definitely the best option and the most talented returner among the entire group. However, Aaron Rodgers stated late in the 2012 season that he didn’t want Cobb on returns, and by last season, Cobb barely was (he had one kick return and three punt returns).
Ranking against the rest of the NFC North:
1. Vikings; 2. Packers; 3. Lions; 4. Bears
With the dynamic Cordarrelle Patterson on returns, Minnesota has a player who could soon be known as the NFL’s best return man. Patterson is that good. The Vikings also boast Blair Walsh at kicker, whose two-season field-goal success of 89.7 percent is better than Crosby’s best-ever season in 2013. Jeff Locke is a second-year punter with a big leg who should improve upon his rookie season. Green Bay checks in at No. 2, even with the questions in the return game and the need for Crosby to perform at an acceptable level for a second consecutive season. But the Packers are in a better position than Chicago and Detroit. The Bears are replacing Devin Hester, who had long been a pivotal player that Green Bay game-planned for twice each year. Chicago also drafted punter Pat O’Donnell in the sixth round to replace Adam Podlesh. Detroit will have a battle between Giorgio Tavecchio (remember him, Packers fans?) and seventh-round-pick rookie Nate Freese to be the Lions’ new kicker. Sam Martin had a great rookie season at punter for Detroit. In the return game, Jeremy Ross (remember him, Packers fans?) gave the Lions a tremendous effort at the end of last season.
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