Jayrone Elliott has a goal for this season, and it's a doozy.
The Green Bay Packers' second-year outside linebacker wants to be a Pro Bowler. Not just any Pro Bowler, he said. Elliott has a specific target in mind.
"Pro Bowl for special teams," Elliott said. "I don't want to set (my goal) too high, but you've got to set a goal. I see guys like (former special teams Pro Bowler) Eric Weems from Atlanta, disruptive on film. I feel like I can do the same things he does."
Entering the fall, Elliott has a mindset the Packers sorely need.
Special teams too often resembled a train wreck last season. Ramifications were severe. If not for miscues, the Packers get their shot in Super Bowl XLIX. They also might have hosted the NFC title game instead of traveling to thunderous Seattle.
Instead, last season became a painful example of special teams' importance.
Actions were taken this offseason. Within the coaching staff, responsibilities shifted. Coordinator Shawn Slocum lost his job. Except for fifth-round quarterback Brett Hundley, the Packers specifically drafted players who could boost their third unit.
"I think every one of these guys helps us on special teams," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said after the draft.
There's no guarantee all the adjustments will result in change.
The Packers will need to replace nine-year veteran Jarrett Bush, a special teams playoffs captain each of the past five seasons. The Packers decided this offseason was the right time to move on without the 31-year-old unrestricted free agent. Bush was limited as a cornerback, but he'll leave a void. His 96 special teams tackles led the Packers over the past seven seasons.
Following his offseason promotion, special teams coordinator Ron Zook has plenty of work to do. In Bush's absence, Zook's first job might be finding a new ace. Which is where Elliott comes into play.
"That's definitely a motivation," Elliott said. "Every guy wants to be a leader. Every guy wants to be that guy. If I can take special teams as my chance to lead, I'll take it and run with it. Staying extra, meeting with Coach Zook, getting the playbook down and helping rookies get it down so we can get to training camp and not lose a step."
At the NFL combine in February, McCarthy said more offensive and defensive starters will fill the Packers' special teams units. Still, the best special teamers tend to embrace the role full time.
It takes a rare mindset to develop into an impactful special teams contributor. Their work almost always goes unnoticed. A key block to spring a long kickoff return. A tackle on punt cover. Not exactly highlight material.
Fans aren't lining up to buy Justin Bethel and Matt Slater jerseys. The Arizona Cardinals cornerback and New England Patriots receiver combined for three starts in their 10 seasons (seven seasons for Slater), but they've been voted to the Pro Bowl as special teamers each of the past two years (four straight for Slater).
Elliott wants to be one of those guys. Undrafted out of Toledo last season, he'll do whatever it takes to make the 53-man roster a second time.
"Those guys are looking at me as a leader," Elliott said, "so I've got to bring it every day and try to be the best leader I can out there. If the coach is telling you he wants you to step up and be a leader, that gives you a great chance to make the team again."
Zook believes the Packers have a promising, young core on special teams, a group that includes more than Elliott.
Sean Richardson could've found a home with the Oakland Raiders this offseason, but general manager Ted Thompson matched the safety's $2.55 million restricted free agent offer sheet because of what he brings on special teams. If cornerback Demetri Goodson again makes the roster, defense might not be his primary job.
These are the unheralded players who could turn around a special teams unit considered worst in the NFL by the Dallas Morning News' composite rankings.
"I've been very, very happy and impressed with the second- and third-year guys," said Zook, an assistant before Slocum was fired in January. "The way you can see they've — particularly the second-year guys — they understand what it's all about now. They've turned the wick up a little bit and gone extremely hard. They've all worked hard."
Elliott might be the best of the Packers' young special teamers.
His plus-5.5 special teams grade tied Bush for highest on the team last season, according to Pro Football Focus. His 10 special teams tackles were one fewer than Richardson, but Elliott only missed on tackle (Richardson missed two).
Elliott still wants to develop as an outside linebacker. With speed off the edge, he believes he could develop into a consistent pass rusher. With that in mind, he studied extensively during the spring.
In the film room, Elliott grabbed tapes from Clay Matthews' first two seasons with the Packers. Three hours each day, five days a week, Elliott watched his All-Pro teammate's transition to the league. He wanted to see everything — the rookie mistakes, the growing pains, the flashes of dominance.
"Clay was wild," Elliott said. "He'd throw his body around, fly around out there, just an Energizer bunny. He was out everywhere on the field — dropping back, covering guys, rushing off the edge, rushing from the A gap, everywhere. Hopefully I can just try to be as physical as I am, and as athletic as I am."
Matthews isn't going anywhere. And outside linebacker could be one of the Packers' deepest positons when training camp opens next month.
Elliott sees the depth chart, notices the logjam. Still, he said, his physicality and athleticism has a place on an NFL field. Like Weems, Bethel and Slater, he believes special teams could be his niche.
"There's only 11 guys on defense," Elliott said. "When you have third down, come on. Clay's going to be out there rushing, Peppers is going to be out there rushing, Mike Neal is going to be out there rushing. I'm not going down to a one-technique (defensive tackle).
"So I just go out there on fourth down and help the team out. I'm just trying to go out and do whatever I can to help the team win."
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