When you speak to long-time Packers fans face-to-face and say the words, “Special Teams,” you can predict their reaction. A grimace, a sour face, or a pained look is likely to follow, maybe even a deep breath and a little sigh. It’s been many years since the Packers special teams were considered a positive force for the team.
In 2019, the Packers were a few games away from setting an all-time futility record for team punt returns before the late-season signing of Tyler Ervin gave them enough of a spark to at least have positive punt return yardage for the season and to avoid a record-worst punt return yardage record.
This offseason, the Packers have taken some positive steps to try to remedy their problems with special teams this offseason. Whether they’ll be successful or not remains to be seen.
Here are some of the things the Packers did this offseason to improve their special teams:
- Hired a New Special Teams Coordinator
The Packers let go special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga who held the position in 2019 and 2020. In his place, they hired Maurice Drayton who served as an assistant with the Pack for the past three seasons.
Head coach Matt LaFleur was extremely confident that Drayton can get the job done when his promotion to special teams coordinator was announced. “I really think he can elevate our level of play in that area,” LaFleur said. “Guy that’s been here for a while now. Had the opportunity to interview him in the first go-around, was super impressed with him, I just didn’t know a whole lot around him. After being around him for two years now, I think it was just a matter of time before he got one of these other opportunities that presented itself outside of this building. Did not want to lose a guy like Mo Drayton.”
Drayton has been described as enthusiastic, emotional and hard-working and although he was with the team the past few years as an assistant on special teams, he will bring his own vision to the position as the coordinator.
If Drayton can help get the Packers closer to the middle of the pack in special teams, this will be a big step forward for the team.
- The Packers Created Competition
During the offseason, the Packers signed players to compete with some of the special teams performers who have struggled with their consistency in recent years.
Punter Ryan Winslow was signed to compete with J.K. Scott for that position. Scott was a strong leg but always seems to have a November slump and has not been able to maintain the high level of punting that he is capable of on a consistent basis. The team has allowed too many of his punts to be returned for long gains and Scott’s attempts at tackles on too many of those occasions have been embarrassing.
If Scott keeps the position, he will have to earn it and prove to the coaching staff he can live up to expectations. If not, Winslow is an alternative. The former University of Pittsburgh punter has punted in the NFL with the Cardinals in 2019 and averaged 48.5-yards per punt on six kicks in two games.
Meanwhile, long snapper Hunter Bradley, who was drafted the same year as Scott, will face competition from free agent signee Joe Fortunato.
The returns specialist positions are also wide open since Ervin won’t be back with the Pack. Rookie Amari Rodgers is a one of several candidates competing to return punts and kicks as is returnee Malik Taylor.
The Packers need to find some young players to fill in on their coverage teams which have also struggled in recent seasons. Some of their draftees like Shemar Jean-Charles and Isaiah McDuffie figure to have prominent roles and compete for playing time along with returning players like Oren Burks, Randy Ramsey and Ty Summers and Vernon Scott.
At OTAs, Drayton praised Jean-Charles and touted his potential to contribute on coverage teams. “I really love Shemar,” told reporters. “He has an attitude about teams that I really like. Excuse my phrase, but he has this “dog” mentality that’s really infectious.”
The Packers are hoping that their 2021 special teams unit is a much-improved version of what they’ve put on the field in recent seasons. To their credit, the organization didn’t sit still and hope that things would improve, they made changes and put some pieces in place to make that happen.
Now those new pieces must prove they are the right men for the job. Special teams can make the difference between winning and losing several games each year. It’s about time the Packers rediscovered the formula for winning games because of special teams rather than losing them.
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