Aside from early draft picks, rookies in the NFL often earn playing time and roster spots through their contributions on special teams. For coordinator Maurice Drayton, who is charged with leading those units for the Green Bay Packers, the team’s crop of 2021 draftees offers him some intriguing clay to begin molding over the next several months.
Drayton spoke to Packers media on Wednesday afternoon, the team’s day off between OTA practices this week, and expressed his excitement with several members of this year’s class.
Although Drayton said he was speaking of players in no particular order, fifth-round cornerback Shemar Jean-Charles earned the first bit of praise. “I really love Shemar,” Drayton said; “he has an attitude about teams that I really like. Excuse my phrase, but he has this “dog” mentality that’s really infectious.”
Jean-Charles was a special teams contributor at Appalachian State, serving primarily in that role for his first two years on the field before becoming a starter as a redshirt junior. When combined with his work ethic, which has drawn praise from scouts and coaches alike, that experience should give him a great opportunity to contribute in that area as a rookie.
Drayton also clearly sees third-round receiver Amari Rodgers as a player who can contribute early as well, particularly on punt returns. When asked what quality makes Rodgers stand out in that area, Drayton laughed and said “He catches the ball, for one,” then complimented Rodgers’ hands and ball-tracking skills.
The Packers have seen their share of ball-security issues on special teams lately, with Darrius Shepherd fumbling twice over the past two years despite touching the football just 29 times. One of those came on a kickoff return in the second half against the Indianapolis Colts in 2020, leading directly to a go-ahead field goal by the Packers’ opponents.
Drayton also called out the Packers’ first and last picks in the draft, Eric Stokes and Kylin Hill, as other players who could pitch in right away. But for now, all of the rookies are getting the “101 or 102 level” instruction in special teams fundamentals from the Packers’ staff, while returning leaders such as Ty Summers, Will Redmond, Oren Burks, and company are getting the “301 level class,” in Drayton’s words. Those higher-level concepts include things like hand placement and body position — the finer points of contributing in the third phase of the game.
Drayton did receive one additional new charge this offseason: long snapper Joe Fortunato. When asked about what drew the Packers to a player who has not snapped since his college days a few years ago, he noted that specialists are on a “circuit” of workout camps, where the Packers spotted him. “We saw him at one of these camps and he did some things where we think he has that ability (to contribute on an NFL level),” Drayton said. “First and foremost he’s shown the ability to be accurate in the placement of the ball in what we call ‘shorties’ as well as ‘longies,’ he added, referring to different lengths of snaps for place-kicks versus punts. Fortunato should provide some competition for incumbent Hunter Bradley in training camp this summer.