Change could come to Packers' special teams
This is Part 9 of a 10-part series grading Packers players and coaches. Today, we rate the specialists.
Through all the highs and lows, the Green Bay Packers always knew who their specialists were going to be on game day.
The Packers have featured one of the NFL’s longest-tenured stables of specialists in kicker Mason Crosby, punter Tim Masthay and long snapper Brett Goode for the past six seasons. That could change this offseason with Crosby a free agent and Goode coming off reconstructive knee surgery.
Crosby, 31, stands to cash in this spring after another strong performance in his ninth NFL season. Since a brutal 2012 season when he missed a third of his field goal attempts, Crosby has made 97 of 111 field goals (87.4 percent including playoffs) over the past three years.
An unrestricted free agent facing a market starved of capable kickers in their prime, Crosby likely will become one of the highest paid at his position this offseason. It’ll be up to general manager Ted Thompson to decide if that payday will come with the team that drafted Crosby in the sixth round in 2007.
Thompson, 11 seasons into his post as GM, certainly hasn’t forgotten the kicking turmoil the Packers encountered during his first two years in Green Bay when Ryan Longwell (2005) and Dave Rayner (2006) made only 46 of 62 field goals (74.2 percent).
The Packers have more than enough salary-cap space to extend Crosby, who’s arguably the team’s biggest free-agent target after reaching an extension with defensive lineman Mike Daniels in December.
“You can find a guy that can kick the football through them steel poles, but how they're going to handle this environment? How they're going to handle pressure situations?” special-teams coordinator Ron Zook said.
There’s a little more uncertainty with who will be delivering the ball in 2016. Goode tore his anterior cruciate ligament Dec. 20 in Oakland and has a long road ahead of him in his rehab. He’s holding out hope for a return in 2016, but will only be seven months removed from surgery once camp begins.
The Packers signed rookie Rick Lovato out of Old Dominion to fill in for Goode. The stage wasn't too big for the 6-foot-2, 249-pound long snapper, who was fine in four late-season appearances.
Crosby has epitomized consistency since the Packers stood by him during a brutal 2012 season in which he made only 21 of 33 field goals (63.6 percent). Along with making more than 87 percent of his regular-season field goals over the past three seasons, Crosby has been incredibly clutch in the playoffs, breaking David Akers’ postseason career record with his 20th consecutive made field goal this season. His last miss came from 50 yards in the 2010 playoffs. Tied for 14th in field-goal percentage, converting on 24 of 28 attempts (85.7 percent). One of only four kickers to not miss an extra point from 33 yards out this season (41-for-41). Badly mishit his only game-winning kick attempt from 52 yards in an 18-16 loss to Detroit on Nov. 15. Hasn’t looked back since resuming kickoff duties midway through the 2013 season, though his 27.0 yards per return were the most he has allowed in his career. Had 41 touchbacks for the second consecutive season despite having 22 fewer kickoff attempts.
A steady ironman who played in 137 consecutive games before tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in Oakland on Dec. 20. The injury couldn’t have come at a worse time, as the 31-year-old Goode is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. He evidently tore it in the first quarter against the Raiders, but still finished the game. He didn’t have a coverage tackle the past two years, but delivered the ball on point without issue in seven-plus seasons. Stuck around to help mentor Lovato after being placed on season-ending injured reserve.
Needed two weeks to fend off challenger Cody Mandell for the punting job in training camp. Punted better than he did during his rocky stretch late last season, but still was too inconsistent. Did what was asked of him in kicking directionally on a majority of his career-high 81 regular-season punts. It led to Masthay breaking the franchise record with a 40.2 net average, though it’d be remiss not to acknowledge lightning-quick gunner Jeff Janis’ role in that accomplishment. Green Bay’s 4.2 yards allowed on 41 returns was the fewest in the NFL. Masthay, who had a career-high 14 punts out of bounds, had a few deflating mishits throughout the course of the season. Had 18 punts downed inside the 20 with six touchbacks, a three-to-one ratio that was the lowest of his career. Executed a fake-punt to perfection against Arizona in Week 16, reading his blockers on a seven-yard run for a first down. Continued a recent trend of not punting well in the postseason with his 32.8-yard net average against the Cardinals doing the Packers few favors in the field-position battle. Maybe it’s pure coincidence, but hasn’t hit the ball as consistently as he did before the Packers asked him to handle kickoffs in the first half of the 2013 season. Entering the final year of a four-year contract, Masthay may need to fend off another challenge in camp.
Lovato was working at his family’s sub shop in New Jersey when the Packers summoned him to replace Goode on Dec. 22. Coincidentally, the rookie long-snapper was among the specialists the Packers worked out only a few days prior to Goode’s injury. Lovato’s snaps didn’t seem to have as much zip on them as Goode's, but were on the mark. Put one high into Masthay’s chest, but didn’t seem to disrupt anything. Was flagged for one false-start penalty. His contract runs through the 2016 season. Didn’t do anything to hurt his chances at competing for the job.
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