Last in a nine-part Packers by Position series.
GREEN BAY - There is no position coach on the Green Bay Packers’ staff who deals with more turnover than special teams coordinator Ron Zook.
Every year, Zook’s units are cobbled together with a new batch of rookies and youngsters mentored by a handful of veterans referred to as core special teamers. And in training camp, when the roster begins with 90 players, no position coach on the Packers’ staff has more bodies to parse through than Zook.
“The young guys, this is a critical time for them,” Zook said. “You’ve got to look at it this way: Those guys are trying to learn offense or trying to learn defense, and then they’re trying to learn something they’ve never done. The biggest thing is to get them to put the time in that they have to put, and we’re giving them as many reps as we can.
“The way that we practice, whether we’re emphasizing the punt team or we’re emphasizing the punt-return team, we’re going against each other using our techniques. So, they’re getting reps and we coach both sides, so they’re getting reps all the time.”
Zook’s churn rate looks something like this: In 2015, the Packers had 21 players take at least 75 snaps on special teams. In 2016, six of those players were no longer on the roster, and the number of players with 75 or more snaps increased to 25. His units change from week to week and series to series depending on cuts, injuries and which players are involved heavily in offensive and defensive game plans against a particular opponent.
In that regard, 2017 could be a very interesting season for Zook as a number of his core players take on larger roles from scrimmage. Outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell played 282 snaps on special teams last season, second on the team to safety Kentrell Brice. But Fackrell enters training camp as the No. 3 outside linebacker, up from No. 5 a year ago, and it’s possible coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers will decrease his special teams availability to increase his effectiveness as a pass rusher.
The same principle could also apply to Jayrone Elliott, another outside linebacker whose snaps from scrimmage could double compared to last season. Elliott has been a core special teamer his entire career, and he played the eighth-most snaps in 2016.
Running back Ty Montgomery falls into the same category. As the starting running back, Montgomery is likely to be protected from significant playing time on special teams to avoid injury. He played 144 snaps on special teams last season and offered Zook a reliable option to return kicks.
There were significant departures from the special teams units as well. Micah Hyde (229 snaps, fifth); Datone Jones (158 snaps, 10th); and Julius Peppers (140 snaps, 12th) all exited during free agency to leave sizable holes in Zook’s rotation.
This year’s core will include Fackrell, Elliott, wide receiver Jeff Janis, inside linebacker Joe Thomas, safety Kentrell Brice, fullback Aaron Ripkowski and safety Marwin Evans.
“The thing I talk to those guys about is, ‘You need to talk to these young guys,’ because they can’t see down the road,” Zook said. “They don’t see the halfway through the season, when they’re tired and they’ve got to know defense or they’ve got to know offense and they’ve got to know what’s going on with special teams. It’s hard for them until you go through that to really see it.”
The Packers ranked 29th in the Dallas Morning News’ annual review of special teams performance last season. It was a significant drop from 2015 when the Packers finished 17th.
Mason Crosby (Ht. 6-1 Wt. 200 Age: 31 Acquired: D6-'07 College: Colorado)
Crosby had two opportunities for game-winning field goals last season and made them both. He drilled a 32-yarder at Soldier Field as time expired to beat the Chicago Bears on a frigid December afternoon and laced a 51-yard attempt as time expired in Dallas to send the Packers to the NFC championship game.
Crosby missed four kicks during the regular season, but two of them were largely beyond his control. He finished 11th in field goal percentage at .867, which was his highest mark since 2013.
He proved his cold-weather worth by making all three extra points on a snowy day at Lambeau Field against the Houston Texans in December. The Packers won that game, 21-13, and Crosby’s counterpart Nick Novak missed an extra point under the same conditions.
Justin Vogel (Ht. 6-4½ Wt. 219 Age: 23 Acquired: FA-'17 College: Miami)
General manager Ted Thompson shook up his punting situation by releasing Jacob Schum in June. Schum, who was battling a minor injury at the time of his release, ranked 27th in the league in gross average (43.2) and 24th in net (39.1) last season. He ranked 19th in punts inside the 20-yard line and 18th in touchback rate.
With Schum gone, the job is Vogel’s to lose. Vogel signed with the Packers as an undrafted free agent in May. He was considered by some to be the top punter in this year’s class and chose the Packers over Tennessee, Miami, Philadelphia and Kansas City.
If Vogel performs well in training camp, the job is his. If he struggles, Thompson will be forced to make a last-minute move to shore up the position, just as he did in 2016 by releasing Tim Masthay a little more than a week before the regular season opener.
“I think he’s progressing nicely,” Zook said. “We’ve done some things going in (toward the end zone), which you’re trying to place the ball in certain places, certain depths, and he handled that well. It’s feeling comfortable in the situation that he’s in.”
Long snapper (1)
Derek Hart (Ht. 6-4 Wt. 245 Age: 24 Acquired: FA-'17 College: James Madison)
There were two long snappers on the roster when the Packers began their organized team activities earlier this spring. Within a week, Hart was the only long snapper remaining.
Thompson and the coaching staff had seen enough of Taybor Pepper and released him May 8, clearing the way for Hart to have an opportunity similar to Vogel’s. If Hart snaps well in training camp, the job is his. If he struggles, Thompson is likely to call Brett Goode, the Packers’ long snapper for the last decade whose contract expired in March. Goode remains unsigned.
“I think he’s getting better,” Zook said of Hart. “The one thing about Derek, he’s a smart guy. He’s an engineer, so he understands what we’re trying to get accomplished. The thing probably anytime you’re looking at a young snapper is they haven’t blocked, particularly in the punting game. That’s something that until you get the pads on and you see what’s happening, that’ll be something that we have to wait until we see it. He’s a good kid, he’s a smart guy, he’s working hard.”