GREEN BAY - While there'll be league-wide experimentation on special teams this summer with the extra point being moved back in preseason games, the Green Bay Packers' special teams units will be largely devoid of any significant changes.
Kicker Mason Crosby is back on track, having followed up his worst NFL season with his best. Punter Tim Masthay continues to develop into one of the league's best punters, despite the inclement conditions he deals with. And long-snapper Brett Goode continues to do his thankless job without drawing attention to himself, leaving that job to Jimmy Fallon's Late Night Superlatives. ("Sup. I'm your new dad.")
And while special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum and new assistant special teams coach Ron Zook will, as always, have to figure out how to deploy mostly young players on the coverage and blocking units, the only real area of uncertainty is in the return game – not because of a lack of qualified candidates; merely because the team can go several different ways at each spot.
As has been the case in the past, dating back to Charles Woodson serving as the team's punt returner in 2006, the Packers aren't afraid to put a prominent position player in the return role. While wide receiver Randall Cobb's days as a returner appear over – save for perhaps an end-of-game or desperately-needing-a-spark situation – cornerback-turned-safety Micah Hyde was taking the first rep on punt returns throughout the offseason, even as he worked with the No. 1 defense at safety.
"I'll tell you what's happened, the game is changing, in terms of personnel. The No. 1 [offensive] formation is one tight end, one back and three wide receivers personnel grouping," Slocum explained. ". So the game is changing a little bit. You may have a guy who's had some production as a running back as your returner, you may have a cornerback be a returner. You may have to see that."
While rookie fifth-round pick Jared Abbrederis, who averaged 10.7 yards on 55 punt returns and 25.7 yards on 31 career kickoff returns at Wisconsin, is a viable option, he'll have to earn his way onto the 53-man roster before taking over the job.
"Sharp young guy," Slocum said. "He had a lot of production (at Wisconsin), particularly early in his career there, when he first started with them. … There's some candidates there."
On kickoffs, the career-ending neck injury running back Johnathan Franklin suffered while returning a kickoff against Minnesota last November means Slocum will have to explore other options. While Hyde returned 22 kickoffs last season, the Packers would like to give No. 3 running back DuJuan Harris first crack at the job, feeling that his powerful running style despite his short stature makes him well-suited for it.
"It's something we can do with him – the return game – so we spent a lot of extra time on catching balls after practice," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "He has the unique ability, with his size and strength and explosiveness, it makes him unique to defend in the return."
While focused on reducing the number of explosive gains on returns – the Packers finished 29th in kickoff return average allowed and tied for 23rd in punt return average allowed – the most significant change beyond Zook's hiring will be a simplification of the special teams schemes. As with the team's plan on defense, Slocum said the Packers have reduced their special teams playbook by about 15 percent.
"We are always looking to fine-tune," Slocum said. "The less we can give the players, the faster they can play. The less they're thinking and the faster they can play. At the same time, we have some creativity to create problems for our opponents. It's a process that we continually go through. We are what we are. When it comes down to it, it's about the 11 guys who play. That's what's most important."
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Who's the returner?
After the release – some may say premature, some may say not soon enough – of return specialist Jeremy Ross last year, the Packers were fortunate to have Hyde emerge as a viable punt return option. While Ross went on to success in Detroit and appears to have the Lions' return jobs nailed down entering training camp, the Packers are now searching not only for a kickoff return man in the wake of running back Johnathan Franklin's career-ending neck injury, but with Hyde's expanded role on defense, the team could be in the same predicament it was in with Cobb a few years ago – he could be deemed too valuable to use as a return man. If Abbrederis, an accomplished punt returner at Wisconsin, can handle the job at the next level, that would free up Hyde from that gig. On kickoffs, Harris appears to be the best option entering camp.
On the rise
Those years of inconsistent or downright poor punting are a thing of the past in Green Bay thanks to Masthay, who's only getting better. Last season, he set the franchise record for net punting yet again with a 39.0-yard net and landed 22 of his 64 punts inside the 20-yard line and only had five touchbacks, having mastered the Aussie-style pooch punt. Weather and an inconsistent coverage unit didn't do him many favors but he's rapidly growing into one of the league's top punters. While his numbers will never be at the top of the league's stats because of where he kicks, he's proven to be the answer at the position.
Player to watch
Packers general manager Ted Thompson mentioned Abbrederis during his football report at Thursday's annual shareholders meeting and got a huge cheer. Thompson then joked that he'd been waiting awhile to announce the University of Wisconsin wide receiver's name, knowing what a positive reaction it'd get. Imagine the exultation that would result from Abbrederis having an impact this season. Wisconsin's new favorite son – he may rival folk hero/fullback John Kuhn as the team's most popular non-star player already – will have to obviously make the 53-man roster before he can have an impact, but considering the Packers haven't cut a fifth-round pick since 2009, it's a safe bet he sticks. The next step would be to contribute, and while he may not do much on offense right away, returning punts would be a great way to get him involved.
Crosby vs. Crosby.
Crosby wholeheartedly admitted that his competition with free-agent Giorgio Tavecchio helped him rebound from an atrocious 2012, and now, after Crosby's best season, the team has decided he doesn't need a camp leg to battle this summer. That's the right call, but Crosby now must generate his own competition from within. If he can keep up the pace he set last season – or exceed it, having set 90 percent field-goal accuracy as his goal – the Packers will be in business.
Before training camp, Crosby accepted a pay cut that shaved his salary to $800,000 and cost him $2.4 million. Of course, he ended up earning every penny of that back with the terrific season he had. When the team made him restructure his deal, it didn't change anything about the remaining two years of the contract, so Crosby is set to earn a base salary of $2.65 million this year and $2.8 million next year. If he kicks like he did last year, he'll be worth every cent.
"It's something I wanted to do. It's a way I can help contribute to the team. They trust me back there, and they're putting the ball in my hands. I've just got to take advantage of the opportunity." – Harris, on the possibility of being the team's kickoff returner.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on "Green & Gold Today," and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.