With training camp right around the corner, most of the more notable offseason transactions have taken place within the NFC North as all four teams look toward the 2018 season. With a large number of significant additions and subtractions in mind, today continues a three-part series ranking the division’s positional groups.
The final part of the sequence takes a look at special teams, where the Detroit Lions may hold the early advantage prior to the preseason. The Green Bay Packers certainly could challenge for a spot near the top of the division with the growth of a few rookie specialists.
Matt Prater was a good addition for the Lions several years ago after falling out of favor in Denver. He missed just one extra point and one field goal within 49 yards last season, while making 7-of-11 kicks from 50 yards or beyond. Playing predominantly on turf, he still has one of the strongest legs in the NFL and is a kickoff weapon. Sam Martin was middle-of-the-road last season with a 43.4-yard punt average and had the worst touchback percentage among qualifiers. The Lions have brought rookie Ryan Santoso from Minnesota in for competition. At long snapper, Don Muhlbach is going into his 15th year in Detroit and is as solid as they come.
Chicago used three different kickers last season, but should have more stability with Cody Parkey in the fold. The veteran may not have the biggest leg, but was fairly accurate with the Miami Dolphins a year ago and also as a rookie with the Philadelphia Eagles. At punter, Pat O’Donnell averaged 47 yards per punt which tied him for eighth in the NFL despite the difficult outdoor conditions. His net average of just over 39 yards ranked below-average around the league, however. Long snapper Patrick Scales missed all of last season with injury but returns after re-signing with Chicago in the offseason.
Mason Crosby has been a mainstay for the Packers at kicker, but that’s about all that’s consistent with the Green Bay specialist unit heading into 2018. Crosby uncharacteristically missed two field goals within 39 yards a season ago, as well as two extra points. However, he still has the range to boot the 50-plus field goal when called upon. At punter, the Packers quickly moved on from rookie Justin Vogel by drafting JK Scott of Alabama. Though he was a fine collegian, Scott’s first real test will come in preseason, and how he handles the weather in Green Bay is yet to be seen. Hunter Bradley was also drafted to be the team’s long snapper after enduring a revolving door at the position a year ago. There were some early struggles in minicamps, but the Packers are counting on him to be the guy.
Kai Forbath was up-and-down for the Vikings last season, making 84% of his field goals yet missing five extra points. Rookie Daniel Carlson is training camp competition for the veteran Forbath. Ryan Quigley was in the bottom half of the league in both average and net punting, but did have some success downing punts inside the 20-yard line. Long snapper Kevin McDermott enters his sixth season in the NFL and fourth with Minnesota.
Jamal Agnew earned First Team All-Pro honors after a sensational rookie season as a returner. With two punt returns for a touchdown and 15.4-yard average per return, Agnew is the division’s best weapon on punts. Agnew, T.J. Jones, and Ameer Abdullah shared kick return duties a year ago and training camp should decide the main man.
Tarik Cohen handled the majority of kick returns for Chicago, while fielding all punts a year ago. The rookie had one punt return for a score, while averaging 9.4 yards per return. Cohen averaged just over 22 yards per kick return on 26 returns in 2017 and figures to handle double duty as a sophomore. He’s got the speed and elusiveness to keep improving.
Marcus Sherels has long been the team’s punt returner and averaged 9.5 yards last year. He also handled half of the kickoffs and should see that number rise without Jerick McKinnon. First round pick Mike Hughes may factor into the return unit as a rookie after finding plenty of success in that role at Central Florida.
This unit would be ranked higher with some certainty at the returner positions. Despite his questionable fair catch decisions inside the 10-yard line, Trevor Davis was solid overall with the ball in his hands last season, earning a top 10 ranking in punt return average and netting 22 yards per kick return. Davis’ struggles as a wide receiver, however, may cost him a roster spot at the end of preseason. Behind him, rookie Jaire Alexander and even Randall Cobb could assume punt return duties. Without Davis or special teams ace Jeff Janis in 2018, the kick returner spot is up for grabs. It could be either of the two possible replacements above, a rookie receiver, or Ty Montgomery in that role.