It's time to continue our look through the Packers' roster for the 2011 season. Kevin recently examined the Offensive Line, but in part 6 of our series on the Packers' roster, I'll take a look at the special teams. I'll break down each of the three true "specialists" before diving into the return and coverage units as a whole. I won't break down specific players on those units, as their individual contributions will be examined when they're discussed at their normal position.
In any case, 2010 showed a slight improvement in the Packers' overall special teams according to Football Outsiders. Their stats showed the Green and Gold up from last in the NFL in 2009 to 27th this season. However, I personally credit that entire improvement, small though it may be, to finding a punter who could actually kick the ball reasonably well. Because let's face it, Jeremy Kapinos in 2009 sucked more than Hayden Christensen's acting in the new Star Wars movies.
K #2 Mason Crosby
Player Progression (progress/stagnate/regress): Stagnate
Team Standing (expanded/same/diminished role): Same role
Likelihood of Long-Term Retention: Average to High
After four years in the NFL, Crosby is pretty much a known quantity. He's got a strong leg on field goals, but doesn't get great distance on kickoffs. He is typically very accurate inside 45 yards, but he can go through stretches where his confidence seems to be challenged (especially from the right hash mark). And while he's shown that he's capable of making difficult kicks, he hasn't had many game-winning opportunities to prove he's a clutch kicker. All this means that there's little change to be expected with Crosby. As the only player on the team at his position (and with no expected challenge to his job) his role can't be more stable. And since he makes roughly 80% of his kicks, don't expect him to be going anywhere. Expect him to re-sign with the Pack for a multi-year deal.
P #8 Tim Masthay
Player Progression: Progress
Team Standing: Same role
Likelihood of Long-Term Retention: Average
As a rookie, Masthay made great strides after struggling through the first few months. Once he found his groove, however, he proved to be a great weapon in the field-position game, helping to nullify great returners like Devin Hester and DeSean Jackson and setting kicks up well with good hangtime and placement so his gunners could down them inside the 20. Despite not having a soul, I think the Packers' resident ginger will continue his progression and his leg strength will improve with a full off-season workout schedule.
The only reason I chose "Average" for his long-term retention is because I generally proceed under the impression that young punters tend to be inconsistent. Too many bad punters have come through Green Bay in recent years, and if Masthay regresses, he could easily be just another name on the list. I do think he'll continue to improve, but I'm just hedging my bets. In any case, he will have the opportunity in 2011 to prove that he deserves to be a Packer for a long time.
LS #61 Brett Goode
Player Progression: Stagnate
Team Standing: Same role
Likelihood of Long-Term Retention: High
There's no glamour in being a long-snapper. You're asked to do one thing and do it well. Snap the ball accurately every time and you're invisible...screw up and you're a pariah, plus you'll probably get cut by Tuesday. To make a long story short, Brett Goode hasn't screwed up. If you remember the long, successful career of Rob Davis, you know that the Packers don't like to change their long-snappers. Keep up the goode work, Brett. (And feel free to smack me for that awful pun.)
According to Football Outsiders' analysis, the Packers' punting coverage was actually fairly average, while the kick coverage was rough. This mirrors my personal impression of those units. Jarrett Bush is a great gunner on the punt team, and helped to down a number of kicks inside the 10. The only return touchdown in the regular season was a punt return by Devin Hester in week 3, before Masthay hit his stride. With the seemingly high number of big returns allowed on kickoffs, the Packers allowed no TD returns during the regular season, though they did give up one in the divisional game to Eric Weems of the Falcons. But really, all you need to know about the kickoff coverage this year can be summed up by mentioning one guy: Dan Connolly, offensive lineman, New England Patriots.
While the punt coverage was acceptable in my eyes, I pray the kickoff coverage improves. Unfortunately, improvement in talent on a kick coverage team isn't nearly as obvious as improvement in talent at other positions or units. A new face on the special teams coaching staff might help, but with the struggles of the past several years, I'm not holding my breath.
Thought the kick coverage was bad? Let's turn to kick returns. Pat Lee, Jordy Nelson, Sam Shields, and James Starks were all used at one point or another. Outsiders shows only four teams worse than the Packers in kickoff returns, as they averaged only 20.1 yards per return in the regular season, and an abysmal 15.5 yards per return in the playoffs.
When returning punts, Tramon Williams was solid if unspectacular, but I imagine most of us would rather see him playing strictly cornerback from now on. Who will be returning for the Packers in 2011 is very much a question mark, much as it has been since the great Allen Rossum left for Atlanta in the early 2000's. Who knows, maybe Shields will work on fielding kicks in the offseason and cure his fumbleitis - though that's wishful thinking on my part. Most of us, myself included, expect Ted Thompson to find a prospect in this year's draft to help with the return game. Late targets could include Jeff Maehl of Oregon or Jeremy Kerley of (excuse me while I vomit) TCU. But I guess that the return game will progress if only because it can't get worse.
As for the unit as a whole, we agree that it's an important area for the offseason. Re-signing Crosby should be a priority, as should finding someone with return skills. Dismissing Curtis Fuller from the coaching staff is an indication that there may be some extra focus put into this phase of the game this season.