GREEN BAY — Maurice Drayton had only been officially on the job as the Green Bay Packers special teams coordinator for about five minutes and he had already put punter JK Scott and long-snapper Hunter Bradley on notice.
“The beauty of it is, I call our room where we are the ‘Truth Room.’ We’re going to tell the truth,” Drayton said when asked about Bradley and Scott during his introductory news conference with reporters. “They both know that they have to be more consistent in the things that we need them to do to be successful.
“They have a prescription that we’ve written for them to work on. ... They’re getting better, and they will be better. And they understand that their backs are against the wall.”
If the two specialists are smart, part of that prescription will be to take a page out of veteran kicker Mason Crosby’s playbook. Because since Crosby’s back was against the wall in the wake of a horrendous performance at Detroit in an October 2018 loss to the Detroit Lions, he’s been almost perfect.
In what would end up being an eight-point loss to the Lions, Crosby had missed five kicks — 41-, 42-, 38- and 56-yard field-goal attempts, plus a 33-yard extra point — despite kicking in a climate-controlled dome. On the flight home, quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Crosby’s friend and longtime teammate, wondered if it would be their last trip together.
Since then, though, Crosby has been nearly automatic. The rest of 2018, he was 19 for 21 on field-goal attempts and 26 for 26 on extra points. In 2019, he was 22-for-24 on field goals and 40 of 41 on extra points. And last season, he was perfect on field-goal attempts (16-for-16) and went 59 for 63 on extra points.
Add that all up, and over the past 43 regular-season games, Crosby has missed only nine total kicks, He’s 57 for 61 on field-goal attempts (93.4%) and 125 for 130 on extra points (96.2%).
“Sometimes we might forget. He’s basically had one bad game in all these years (since 2012),” Rodgers said late last season. “One year, they bumped his salary down (after a poor 2012) and tied a lot of it to incentives and sure enough he went out and had a hell of a season (in 2013). He’s such a consistent guy. He’s such a fantastic guy. I’m fortunate to have played with him so long. I hope there’s more years together.”
Well, given the uncertainty involving whether Rodgers will report to training camp with Crosby and his fellow veterans, there’s no guarantee the two will have any more years together. But that won’t be because of Crosby, who re-signed with the team before last season (three years, $12.9 million) and is under contract through 2022.
The futures of Scott and Bradley are less certain. They enter camp with in-person competition and will have to earn a fourth year on the roster after being part of general manager Brian Gutekunst’s first draft class in 2018.
Last year, the Packers didn’t bring in anyone to compete with either of them in camp. Now, Scott will battle Ryan Winslow while Bradley will be challenged by Joe Fortunato.
“I’m really pleased with their process and the way they came back,” Drayton said of Scott and Bradley during the offseason program. “They’re just homing in on their own internal process, working on themselves. We’re very pleased with what we’ve seen thus far. (But) as you know, it’s a marathon, not a sprint, so they have to bring it every day.”
Here’s a closer look at the special teams units as the Packers prepare for training camp, which is set to begin when veteran players are scheduled to report on Tuesday:
2 Mason Crosby: Kicker, 6-foot-1, 207 pounds, 36 years old, 15th year from Colorado.
6 JK Scott: Punter, 6-6, 208, 24, fourth year from Alabama.
43 Hunter Bradley: Long snapper 6-3, 241, 27, fourth year from Mississippi State.
8 Amari Rodgers: Punt/kick returner, 5-9, 212, 21, rookie from Clemson.
9 JJ Molson: Kicker, 5-11, 180, 24, first year from UCLA.
7 Ryan Winslow: Punter, 6-5, 219, 27, first year from Pittsburgh.
47 Joe Fortunato: Long snapper, 6-4, 240, 27, first year from Delaware.
32 Kylin Hill: Kick/punt returner, 5-10, 214, 22, rookie from Mississippi St.
How different will special teams be?
The Packers’ track record on special teams is … well, not good. In longtime NFL columnist Rick Gosselin’s annual special teams rankings, in which teams are ranked in 22 special teams categories, the Packers’ lone top-10 finish under previous coach Mike McCarthy (2006-’18) or Matt LaFleur was in 2007. Meanwhile, they’ve finished last in the NFL four times since 1992; in ex-coordinator Shawn Mennenga’s two years on LaFleur’s staff, the Packers finished 26th in 2019 and 29th in 2020.
LaFleur believes Drayton, a holdover from McCarthy’s staff who served as Mennenga’s assistant, will change that.
“I’ve had a chance to witness him for the last two years and I’ll tell you what, he’s a teacher. He’s an excellent communicator,” LaFleur said. “(He) brings great energy to that room, and that’s really what I thought was needed — just his voice leading that room. I’ve got a lot of confidence in his ability. I think he’s going to do a tremendous job for us.”
On the rise
While Tyler Ervin initially breathed new life into the Packers’ return game, it didn’t last. His 2020 season was derailed by a host of injuries, and he wasn’t brought back. That puts Rodgers, a rookie third-round draft pick, in position to have an immediate impact on returns — just as his mentor, former Packers standout Randall Cobb, did as a rookie in 2011.
“Amari, (we’re) looking forward to big things out of him. Very smooth athlete, very smart, heady,” Drayton said. “His approach to (returns), he understands the importance of it, and that’s what makes him very valuable to us right now as a prospective punt returner.”
Player to watch
While he has had his moments of brilliance — remember how his clutch punt at the end of LaFleur’s first career victory in the 2019 season opener at Chicago wound up emblazoned on a T-shirt? — Scott has just been unable to deliver consistently.
Scott was 28th out of 30 qualifying punters with a 37.0-yard net average last season. While his 45.5-yard gross average ranked 18th (just 0.1 yard shy of Tim Masthay’s 2011 franchise record of 45.6), having two returns for touchdowns buried his net average, dropping it below his 38.8-yard net as a rookie in 2018 (26th in the league) and 39.9-yard net in 2019 (24th).
Whether Winslow, a 2018 undrafted free agent from the University of Pittsburgh who started out with the Chicago Bears, can usurp him is hard to say. Winslow has just six career regular-season punts (all with Arizona Cardinals in 2019).