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Packers searching for standouts on special teams

Veteran leaders imperative for units; young, maturing players could be candidates


INDIANAPOLIS – There's no single magic pill that's going to fix the Packers' special teams.

General Manager Brian Gutekunst is well aware of that.

"Struggles on special teams are never one thing," Gutekunst said at the scouting combine. "It's always multiple things."

Indeed, the Packers had their issues with penalties and turnovers on special teams, saw their veteran kicker go through his first rough year in a while, and need their rookie punter to work toward more consistency throughout the long season.

It's certainly possible the Packers will bring in competition for punter JK Scott and kicker Mason Crosby, though Gutekunst did express an expectation for Crosby to "have a bounce-back year."

In the bigger picture, if Gutekunst were to pick a way personnel-wise to improve the Packers' third phase under new Head Coach Matt LaFleur, he would start with identifying – or acquiring – the type of special-teams stalwarts who have defined Green Bay's more productive units in the past.

Players like Jarrett Bush, Brad Jones, Ryan Taylor, Chris Banjo, and Jeff Janis, while down the depth chart at their respective position groups, were bell-cow players on the return and coverage units who lent leadership and experience to those areas.

The Packers clearly lacked any definitive veteran leaders on special teams in 2018, and it didn't help that third-year return specialist Trevor Davis dealt with injuries all season long.

Nothing would help new special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga more, whether it be in the locker room, in the meeting room, or on the field, to find those types of guys again.

"At the end of the day it's about players," Gutekunst said. "It would be nice to have some guys that kind of become the captain of your special teams.

"I think that's an important part moving forward for Shawn and Matt to have some guys who really embrace (special teams), that's kind of their calling."

There are a couple of candidates on the current roster if the start of their careers last season was just that, a start.

Gutekunst was especially complimentary of linebacker James Crawford (pictured above), an undrafted, late addition to training camp last year as a rookie who surprisingly made the 53-man roster.

He earned it, though, by standing out on special teams, and he went on to lead the Packers in coverage tackles with 13.

"I thought last year James Crawford did a heckuva job as a young first-year player," said Gutekunst, who also will be looking for Crawford to take a step forward on defense as an inside linebacker, with the possibility of helping on the outside in a pinch.

"I think there's some other guys that have a chance to fill those roles."

Another could be inside linebacker Oren Burks, a third-round draft pick out of Vanderbilt whose shoulder injury in the preseason set him back, leading to very limited reps on defense.

But once he was back to full strength, Burks recorded 10 coverage tackles on special teams, second on the team to Crawford. Undrafted defensive backs Tony Brown and Raven Greene also made their mark at times.

Last year, all the aforementioned were rookies, so their experience alone can help moving forward. The Packers also will have three coaches dedicated to special teams this year, with assistant Maurice Drayton and quality control coach Rayna Stewart serving under Mennenga.

The larger question, though, is how much progress the young players make on defense, because of the potential dilemma facing Gutekunst.

Will he have any room on the 53 come September for true special-teams specialists, or will they need to be viable candidates to fill in from scrimmage to make it work?

"I think that's really hard with roster management at times," Gutekunst said of keeping players, aside from a punter, kicker and long snapper, just for special teams. "But if the guy is good enough, it really comes down to the player. If a guy has that kind of ability, then yeah, I think you consider it."

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