Special Teams Will Play Factor In Rookies' Fate

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It's a common refrain heard around the National Football League, that the last few roster spots at the time of the final cutdown almost inevitably come down to special teams, and to which players can contribute on the field other than as a backup at their stated positions.

With that in mind, talk of contributing on special teams could be heard all over the Packers' locker room during rookie orientation this past weekend. Even with roster cuts months away, young players are always keenly aware that the early fate of their professional football lives could rest on whether they can make an impact on special teams.

In the case of the Packers' last two 2009 draft picks, that part shouldn't be a problem. Sixth-round selection Brandon Underwood of Cincinnati and seventh-rounder Brad Jones of Colorado both come to Green Bay as accomplished special-teams players, increasing their chances of making the final roster despite being drafted so late.

After three rather uneventful seasons at Ohio State, Underwood transferred to Cincinnati and was named the Bearcats' special teams player of the year in 2008, primarily for his work as a gunner on punt coverage. As it is at his primary position of cornerback, speed is Underwood's best asset on coverage teams and he'll likely be asked to put that to use in Green Bay as well.

"I'm just hoping to establish a name for myself and come in and learn the system," he said. "Basically try to be a factor and show everybody that I was a sixth-round draft pick but I can play."

Meanwhile, Jones has more special-teams experience than the average college draft choice, having gotten his start on special teams as a redshirt freshman for the Buffaloes. When he became a starting outside linebacker as a sophomore, he remained on special teams and contributed to those units his final three years as well.

"It kind of stuck with me, and I don't have a problem with that," Jones said. "I love special teams. I think it's very, very vital to the game."

The Packers hope it's players like Jones who can help the special teams improve in 2009 under new coordinator Shawn Slocum. Head Coach Mike McCarthy has said several times that one effect on the roster with the switch to the 3-4 defense is the necessity to keep more linebackers than in a 4-3, where more emphasis was placed roster-wise on the defensive line.

Backup linebackers are generally considered prime candidates for special teams because of their build, speed and tackling ability, and with a deeper stable of linebackers on the roster, the special teams units should get a boost.

That's where a player like Jones comes in. He's familiar with the 3-4 defense from his days in Colorado, which should help him in his bid for a backup linebacker spot. And his experience on special teams only makes him a more attractive candidate for the final roster, which is tough to crack for any seventh-round pick. In the previous three drafts, the Packers selected five players in the seventh round, and only two (RB DeShawn Wynn and QB Matt Flynn) made the 53-man roster as rookies.

"I'm talking to the special teams coach now, and I want to be on all the special teams," Jones said. "He already knows that. Special teams is my thing.

"That's not what they're telling me is my ticket, but obviously I see that as an avenue. If I can play on special teams and am athletic enough to, then why not?"

That was a thought shared by some other rookies in the locker room this past weekend, as rookies are always eager to get on an NFL field any way they can.

"I've never played special teams but if they teach me how to play it I'll go out there, man," fifth-round pick and offensive lineman Jamon Meredith said. "I've always thought about being a wedge-buster or a punt protector. If they ask me to be on special teams, I'll be happy to."

{sportsad300}Non-drafted receiver Jamarko Simmons, who has a particularly tough assignment to land a roster spot within the Packers' deep receiving corps, realizes that special teams may be the best way to separate himself from the other rookie receivers in OTAs and training camp.

"I think I have to play special teams, and I have to have a big impact on special teams," Simmons said. "With the great receivers here, Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, Jordy (Nelson), all those guys, ... I know I'll fit in some kind of way, but my impact this year will have to be on special teams."

It is something rookies at times have to learn, having not played special teams in college because they were longtime starters. It can be a major adjustment, which is what makes players like Underwood and Jones somewhat rare, but it's a change any rookie must be willing to make or he's limiting his opportunities from the start.

"I haven't played special teams in a really long time, but it's just all about getting back out there and doing it," non-drafted running back Tyrell Sutton said. "It's nothing new. It's just like riding a bike. Once you do it, you never forget it."

Or as most NFL coaches would warn, you'd better not.

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