GREEN BAY – The Packers' special teams were sorely in need of a spark when General Manager Brian Gutekunst submitted a claim on fourth-year returner Tyler Ervin last December.
A running back by trade, Ervin had just been waived by the Jacksonville Jaguars after a quiet six-game stint in which he returned five kickoffs for 107 yards and five punt returns for only nine yards.
The modest totals still trumped the Packers, who had minus-8 yards on punt returns through the first 13 weeks of the 2019 season.
Ervin changed those fortunes in an instant, returning four punts for 51 yards in his debut appearance against Washington on Dec. 8. The mortar kicks that had been common on kickoffs began to dissipate and punters started kicking away from Ervin.
While an admittedly small sample size, in six games (including playoffs) Ervin showed promise in compiling 366 all-purpose yards. His special-teams prowess impressed Matt LaFleur enough for the Packers' head coach to even draw up some offensive plays for Ervin late in the year.
So it came as no big surprise when the Packers announced on Monday they'd re-signed the 5-foot-10, 192-pound returner, providing a sense of stability for special teams during an uncertain offseason.
Take a look at photos of Packers RB Tyler Ervin from the 2019 season.
"It's definitely helped us," said Packers special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga of Ervin's addition late last season. "He's willing to take chances and has done a good job fielding the ball and running through some contact and things like that.
"It's been the perfect recipe where he's back there and he's confident (and) our guys are confident in him."
The re-signing of Ervin is just one example of the emphasis the Packers have placed on special teams this offseason. Gutekunst also retained longtime kicker Mason Crosby and core special-teamer Will Redmond, who led the unit with nine coverage tackles in 2019.
Gutekunst, often not one to say too much prior to free agency, made it clear in a February interview with Green Bay reporters that it was a priority to bring back Crosby, the second-longest tenured player on the roster to quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
The franchise's all-time leading scorer enjoyed a career year in 2019, making 22-of-24 field goals and 40-of-41 extra points. His 91.7-percent conversion rate tied Hall of Famer Jan Stenerud for the best single-season field-goal percentage in franchise history.
It came during a year in which kicking was down league-wide, as Crosby was one of only five kickers with more than 20 attempts who made more than 90 percent of his field goals.
Crosby, 35, has been dependable throughout his 13 NFL seasons to date. He currently leads all active NFL kickers with 208 consecutive regular-season games played, with Buffalo's Stephen Hauschka (148) the next closest behind.
"Really happy to have him back," said Gutekunst of Crosby at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. "Obviously, he's been a 14-year pro now. Holds all his records. I think by the time he's done with us – at least in our lifetime – it'll be pretty hard for anybody to catch that."
Take a look at photos of Packers K Mason Crosby from the 2019 season.
The Packers have aimed to improve their special teams for the better part of a decade, with stability often the biggest hurdle. While Crosby has been a staple, the Packers have gone through a rotating cast of coverage players, and a carousel of punters and long snappers before settling on Alabama's JK Scott and Mississippi State's Hunter Bradley.
Scott has displayed the incredible leg strength that made him a sixth-round pick two years ago. After getting off to fast starts in each of his first two NFL seasons, the issue for the 6-foot-6 punter has been carrying that early momentum through to the end of the year.
Still, Scott showed marked improvement in Year 2 with more punts inside the 20-yard line (29-19), better average net yards (39.9) and reducing his touchbacks from nine to four.
As far as the core-four units, the Packers are positioned to return seven of their nine top special-teams performers from a year ago, including linebackers Oren Burks (who tied Redmond with nine coverage tackles) and Ty Summers (who led Green Bay with 311 special-teams snaps in 2019).
Redmond, a former third-round pick, bounced around the NFL for three years before landing in Green Bay midway through the 2018 season. He played in 13 games last year with four spot starts at safety. A fast, heady and hungry player, Redmond has the tools to potentially fit the versatile coverage role the Packers have struggled to fill since Jarrett Bush's final season in 2014.
With Mennenga and his staff intact, the Packers are banking on stability spurring improvement in 2020. Gutekunst held up his end of the bargain in ensuring Crosby, Ervin and Redmond don't wander away during the NFL's silly season.