Packers by position: In a football world filled with uncertainty, Packers enter training camp with all four specialists set


GREEN BAY — The Green Bay Packers have had their share of training camp battles on special teams, but there apparently won’t be any such head-to-head in-person competitions this summer.

With veteran kicker Mason Crosby back and kickoff/punt returner Tyler Ervin both back after re-signing during the offseason, and punter JK Scott and long-snapper Hunter Bradley returning for their third seasons after being drafted in 2018, the Packers appear set with all four of their specialists.

And considering they won’t play any preseason games and the training camp practice schedule is up in the air amid the NFL’s return-to-play plans with the specter of the COVID-19 pandemic hanging over the 2020 season, it’s probably for the best.

“Obviously, Mason’s the leader of the room and a leader on our team, and Tyler’s done a good job for us.,” special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga said earlier this offseason. “Throughout this offseason and the meetings, you can tell the guys are stepping up and challenging each other. It’s been really good.”

There’s certainly value in that stability, although as is the case every year, the protection, blocking and coverage units will be populated by a host of newcomers, and having the offseason program exclusively in the virtual realm and keeping those special teams units from getting a single on-field snap will create plenty of challenges in that area.

“We tried to adapt and be the best teachers we can be, and be flexible,” Mennenga said of the offseason approach. “We tried to split the groups up among the three of our special teams coaches to keep the groups a little bit smaller, and then we rotate those groups.

“The players have had a good response. They’re good pros. They adapt to anything that we’ve set forth in front of them, so it’s been good. (We’d) love to see them in person and work with them and be able to get those live reps and those kind of things, but the other 31 teams are going through the same thing. So it’s about how we adapt and make the best of a challenging situation.”

Crosby’s return was absolutely vital, as he’s coming off the best statistical season of his career, having made 91.7% (22 of 24) of his field goal attempts after staving off challenger Sam Ficken in training camp last summer.

“It’s great,” Crosby said after re-signing on a three-year, $12.9 million deal. “It’s going to be amazing to say at the end of these three years to have had 16 years in Green Bay and have kicked in those conditions. It’s going to be pretty awesome. I’m just happy to have the opportunity to go into Year 14 and have all that stuff behind us. The Packers came calling pretty quick at the end of the season. We got a deal done pretty fast there.”

Here’s a closer look at the special teams units as the Packers prepare for training camp, which is set to begin when players are scheduled to report on Tuesday:

Depth chart

2 Mason Crosby: Kicker, 6-foot-1, 207 pounds, age 35, 14th year from Colorado.

43 Hunter Bradley: Long snapper, 6-3, 241, 26, third year from Mississippi State.

6 JK Scott: Punter, 6-6, 208, 23, third year from Alabama.

32 Tyler Ervin: Kick returner/punt returner, 5-10, 192, 26, fifth year from San Jose State.

Burning question

Can Mason Crosby keep this up?

While his 2012 struggles seem like ancient history, it’s worth noting that the veteran kicker has bounced back from his worst seasons with two of his best — in 2013 after those struggles the year before, and last year after a handful of crucial misses in 2018, including one at the end of a home loss to Arizona that led to then-coach Mike McCarthy’s firing less than an hour after the final gun. Now, after making all but two of his field goal attempts last season, Crosby will try to parlay that into another strong year. In 2014, he followed up his strong 2013 (33 of 37 on field-goal attempts) with another highly accurate year (27 of 33). Expect nothing less this time around after he was 22 of 24 last year.

“He does a great job in everything that he does, from taking care of his body to his routine throughout the week, his mental approach,” Mennenga said. “He’s been in all the situations, and nothing really shakes him. He’s extremely mentally strong. I know physically, he’s got his routine so that he knows how to go out throughout the season and take care of himself so he’s just as strong at the end of the season as at the beginning.

“I know that Mason will be able to continue to perform at an extremely high level. I look forward working with him throughout his contract and throughout the future here.”

On the rise

Tyler Ervin

Ervin might be the low-key crucial re-signing of the offseason. His late-season arrival awakened a return game that had been putrid, as in the last four games of the regular season, Ervin delivered 106 punt return yards on 11 opportunities, averaging 9.6 yards per punt return and 26.7 yards per kickoff return.

“I was really excited to get him back. I know when we did the postseason evaluations, he did provide a great spark,” Mennenga said. “He’s great for our room. He’s got a great veteran presence to him and has played in big games and played in playoff games. He did provide that spark for us. Hopefully we’ll continue to build on what we started last year. He was a great addition to us, not only on special teams but he helped provide a spark for us on offense. I thought that was big and really excited to get him back.”

Player to watch

JK Scott

Entering his third season, general manager Brian Gutekunst’s decision to use a fifth-round pick on Scott looks like he might’ve overspent his draft capital. Although Scott did deliver a clutch late punt in the team’s season-opening 10-3 win at Chicago, he still hasn’t found the consistency he needs to be an upper-level punter. He finished the 2018 season ranked 26th in net average at 38.8 yards; last year he was 24th with a net average of 39.9 yards. Nevertheless, the team has not seen fit to bring in another punter to compete with him this summer.

“I think just the major thing would be what we call his handle time, from the time he catches the ball to the time it hits his foot, just staying in consistent range,” Mennenga said. “That can lead to a lot of things for any punter, not just JK. Any veteran punter, I think that’s the first thing you go back to is you look at their handle times and is there some variance? Which means they’re rushing it, and that can create stride length changes and those kinds of things.”

Key competitionSpecial teams units spots

Without any preseason games and with limited padded practices, it will be interesting to see how the bottom-of-the-roster players find their way onto the team. Special teams has long been a crucial factor in those end-of-camp decisions, but how do you make such choices with very few live reps on kickoff and punt coverage or kickoff and punt return units?

Aware that uncertainty would potential rule the day in camp, Mennenga said during a mid-offseason Zoom video conference call with reporters that he has tried to simplify the special teams playbook while also spending extra time with rookies who might be potential special-teams fits. Still, those decisions won’t be easy to make with so little to go on.

“I’ve watched these guys on special teams and watched them play offense and defense (in college). I know that Gutey and his staff do a great job as far as evaluating,” Mennenga said. “I think there are several guys that can help us. From a mental standpoint, they’re a sharp group and I think from a physical standpoint, there’s a lot of length and athleticism there. We won’t know until we get them out on the field, so we’ll have to maximize our time with them when we get into training camp and early in the season and try to get the technique part of it down.

“We’re going to train everybody. There’s not one player, except for quarterbacks, throughout the season that don’t come to one or more special teams meetings a week. Everybody’s on board and ready to go and excited about it.”