Packers step out of comfort zone by drafting punter JK Scott
GREEN BAY - When Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst justified the selection of punter JK Scott by describing the Alabama product as “rare” — a highly complimentary word in the world of scouting — he was also stepping out on a limb relative to the rest of the league.
One hundred seventy-one players had come and gone before the Packers snagged Scott in the latter stages of the fifth round, including another punter more than 20 picks prior. The Seattle Seahawks were the first team to select a punter in this year’s draft, and general manager John Schneider chose Michael Dickson from Texas.
After that, 17 teams had a chance to draft Scott before the Packers were on the clock with the 172nd overall pick, and all 17 passed. If other general managers agreed with the ascription of rareness, Gutekunst’s belief in Scott was still rarer than most.
“I think obviously in our opinion, one of the best ones — if not the best one — in college, and a guy that you feel good about his skill set,” college scout Matt Malaspina said.
“He’s an athletic kid, he’s 6-5, he’s got really good hands and has really unique flexibility. He has the ability to directional kick and consistency. He played at the highest level under the highest spotlight week in and week out and performed well. That’s definitely a positive and something that attracted us to him.”
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The cocksureness of their evaluation brought to mind an interview with kicker Norm Johnson, a two-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro who spent 18 years in the league from 1982-99. Johnson had overlapped with Packers special teams coordinator Ron Zook for several years when Zook held the same title with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the mid-90s, and Johnson talked about their time together for a story that ran in 2015.
Johnson spoke highly of Zook and enjoyed playing for him, and that was due in part to Zook’s willingness to admit that he knew very little about the physical act of kicking.
“Let’s say you have three specialists,” Johnson said of punters, kickers and snappers. “Where do they go to have meetings? Well, we’d go to the special teams coach. So kind of through osmosis (the special teams coach) would learn some things about kickers and punters. Zook would say, ‘Hey, you tell me. You’re the expert.” He’d look at me and say, ‘If you’re looking for me to tell you anything about kicking, you’re going to run circles around me. I can’t help you there.’
“And a lot of guys would do that. It was almost irritating to have a coach try to tell you something when you know that he didn’t know what he was talking about.”
That Zook was unfamiliar with the mechanics of kicking a football is not surprising given his career as a defensive back at Miami (Ohio). It’s difficult to know the finer points of striking a ball with your foot if you've never really done it firsthand.
Johnson said Zook’s limited knowledge of how the specialists do their jobs was typical of most special teams coordinators he played for during a career that included stops in Seattle, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
“Most of them know very little about punters and kickers, holders and snappers,” Johnson said. “Most of them know the Xs and Os of teaching blocking, teaching how to stay in your lane, coverage-team stuff. But when it comes to a kicker or punter getting tips from the coach, that doesn’t really happen. Most coaches don’t understand that aspect of the game.”
While Johnson said nothing about the capability of scouting departments to evaluate kickers and punters, his comments can be extrapolated to form an interesting query: If football coaches know very little about the act of kicking a football, what would be different for scouts evaluating the same act? In other words, if many special teams coordinators lack the proper knowledge to teach kicking and punting, how do scouts evaluate kickers and punters with any sense of reliability?
A scout for an AFC team said kickers and punters are harder to evaluate than players at other positions. The scout said he learned to grade specialists by studying the most successful kickers and punters in an attempt to recognize what they do well, but even then the task is difficult.
“Because (the position) is 90 percent mental,” the scout said. “Mental toughness is hard to predict for potential NFL kickers.”
Perhaps that is why both Gutekunst and Malaspina referenced Scott’s experience in national championship games at Alabama as a significant asset. Scott played in three straight title games from 2015-17 and punted 23 times. His average of 45.2 yards per punt and his long of 57 yards are both impressive given the magnitude of the situations.
“We need to be better on special teams,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “ … Drafting him was a reflection of what we felt about him as a punter and obviously as a kickoff guy.”
Given the risk of drafting a punter in the fifth round, Gutekunst's boldness will be attached to Scott both in the coming season and the seasons beyond, especially given the lack of depth at pass rusher and offensive tackle. If Scott and long snapper Hunter Bradley perform poorly, critics will say the Packers could have applied those picks more sensibly.
For the moment, though, Scott is the only punter on the 90-man roster after Gutekunst granted Justin Vogel his release earlier this month. Now the Packers must hope their scouting department knows more about punting than the average special teams coach.