As always, one football game is far too small a sample size to make sweeping conclusions about any player, particularly when that game is the first preseason contest of the year. Whether it’s Chicago Bears fans losing their minds over David Montgomery’s 13 snaps (with three carries for 16 yards and a touchdown) or a group of Green Bay Packers fans already labeling first-round pick Rashan Gary a bust, outrage and mania are two sides of the same worthless coin.
Inside team facilities, no personnel department crowns a rookie a Hall of Famer or labels them a failure after their rookie seasons, let alone their very first game action under the lights. Coaches will head to the tape and identify areas for players to improve and build on rather than executing summary judgment.
On the other hand, the first preseason game action for a second-year player can be indicative that he has significantly improved his craft over a full NFL offseason, and one particular Packer did just that on Thursday night. Punter JK Scott struggled somewhat as a rookie, showing neither the booming leg nor the pinpoint placement that made him the second player at his position off the board in the 2018 NFL Draft. However, his game against the Texans on Thursday night should make Packers fans optimistic that he will take a significant leap forward in year two.
As a rookie last season, Scott was less than impressive. His 44.7-yard gross average landed him in a tie for 22nd in the NFL, with his net average of 38.8 ranking 27th. He also led the league in most touchbacks with nine in 71 attempts and was just 27th in punts inside the 20 with 19.
On Thursday, Scott punted the football five times and although his yardage averages were not drastically improved, a look at the tape shows a player whose hang time and placement are better than a year ago. Here is a look at each of Scott’s punts against the Texans.
#1: 4th and 5 at Packers’ 30 — 44 yards, 2-yard return
Scott gets off a solid 44-yard punt; that’s not exceptional yardage, but he gave it excellent hang time of 4.45 seconds (by my timing). That allows James Crawford to get down field on return man Keke Coutee right away, and Kyler Fackrell finishes the tackle for a gain of just two yards.
#2: 4th and 4 at Packers’ 40 — 56 yards, muffed, touchdown Packers
This was the best punt Scott had all night, and it’s perhaps his best punt in a Packers uniform. It’s a straight-up bomb — he hits it with 5.05 seconds of hang time and it confuses Coutee, who retreats from his 12-yard line back to the five. The ball hits the ground just outside the numbers and inside the five, and it kicks towards the corner of the field. Without the All-22 available yet, it’s a close call as to whether the ball would have bounced out of bounds or just over the goal line for a touchback, but even if Coutee isn’t there, it at least would give Equanimeous St. Brown, the gunner on that sideline, a chance to track it down or bat it back to be covered outside the end zone.
As it was, the ball hits Coutee right in the shoulder and bounces in the air, allowing St. Brown to try to haul it in. After Coutee makes contact with EQ to jar the ball loose, it falls nicely over the goal line within the Packers receiver’s reach as he brings it in for the first touchdown of the preseason.
This punt showed off both Scott’s capability to boom the football as well as excellent placement. It’s surely the kind of kick that the Packers envisioned when they drafted Scott last year.
#3: 4th and 7 at Packers’ 31 — 51 yards, 21-yard return
This punt was a little bit of Scott out-kicking his coverage, but it’s also a nice job of blocking by the Texans. Scott got a similar hang time to his first kick — I timed it at 4.44 seconds — but it’s a bit longer and flatter, allowing Coutee to set up blocks a bit. In addition, the left sideline gunner (I believe it’s Nydair Rouse) was doubled and shoved out of bounds on the play, preventing him from keeping contain on the outside. Eventually long snapper Hunter Bradley comes in and takes Coutee down after a net of just 30 yards.
#4: 4th and 19 at Texans’ 43 — 32 yards, fair catch
On this play, the Packers are inside Texans territory, giving Scott a difficult short field to work with. A year ago, this would have been the time to expect a touchback, but Scott does nicely here. He gives his coverage team a decently high ball with 4.20 seconds of hang time, settling in at the 11 for a 32-yard boot. It’s not a big number on the stat sheet, but that extra nine yards of field position compared to a touchback is always a nice plus.
#5: 4th and 2 at Packers’ 31 — 45 yards, 6-yard return
This is another really nice, high punt from Scott, who hits 4.81 seconds of hang time. The ball hits at the 24, with Jawill Davis bearing down on Steven Mitchell, the return man. He’s in prime position to make the tackle, but both he and Ty Summers whiff on Mitchell, allowing him to pick up six yards before Randy Ramsey brings him down from behind.
In total, Scott hit three really solid punts, two of which come in over 4.8 seconds of hang time, and the short one that he landed at the 11 is an improvement over his tendencies from a year ago. He placed two kicks inside the 20 (including the punt that turned into the touchdown) and generally did a good job of not allowing Houston’s return men to set up cleanly. The one long return he did allow was partially his fault, but it should reasonably have been a 10-yard return rather than a 21-yarder, thanks to a lack of discipline by some on the coverage team.
In total, Scott averaged 45.6 yards gross and 39.8 yards net on Tuesday. Those numbers are not drastically better than his averages from last year, but they were skewed in large part by that 32-yarder that he dropped at the 11. His other four kicks averaged 49 yards gross and 41.8 yards net, which does show some improvement.
Scott still has some things to clean up, but he seemed much more comfortable on Thursday than he did for much of last season. The coaching change from Ron Zook to Shawn Mennenga may have helped him, and surely a full offseason with the organization was a plus. Hopefully he can carry the good performance from the first preseason game over through the rest of the exhibition season and into the regular season.