Rookie JK Scott's booming punts could take Packers' special teams to another level
Last in a series of nine position previews leading up to the Green Bay Packers' 2018 training camp.
GREEN BAY – General manager Brian Gutekunst wouldn’t be the first guy to get duped into thinking a punter with superb college credentials was going to make it in the NFL.
Shoot, he wouldn’t even be the first Green Bay Packers chief to make that miscalculation.
Despite the organization’s own history of expending draft picks on punters who failed miserably, Gutekunst fell in love with Alabama punter JK Scott and selected him in the fifth round. He did it despite having a punter who was coming off a statistically impressive rookie season in which he set the franchise mark for net average at 41.6 yards per attempt.
Justin Vogel, an undrafted free agent, ranked 24th in gross average at 44.4 yards per attempt, but finished seventh in net, which was no small feat given late-season weather conditions. Whatever his shortcomings — special teams coach Ron Zook often cited inconsistency — it’s hard to imagine he wasn’t going to get better with more experience.
But Gutekunst may have felt Vogel’s net was more the result of having good coverage units, including a top-flight gunner in Jeff Janis.
What he saw in Scott is obvious. The 6-6, 208-pound senior allowed opposing returners just six attempts all season, landing 27 of his 54 punting attempts inside the 20-yard line and forcing 27 of the 54 to be fair caught.
Scott boomed punts in his first three seasons for the Crimson Tide, but in 2017 he focused on hang time. His average dropped from 48.0 as a freshman to 43.4, but after three years in which opponents returned an average of 20 of his punts, he all but took the return game away from Alabama’s opponents.
It seemed like a good year to select punters — not since 1999 had four been selected in a single draft and three of them were selected in the fifth round. Recent history has supported that it’s not a waste to select a punter. Over the course of the last seven years, eight of the 10 punters drafted are still with their original team, so the chances of winding up with duds like B.J. Sander (third round, ’04) or Ray Stachowicz (third, ’81) — two Packers misses — might be diminished.
Even though Scott has continually punted in high-pressure situations for Alabama, all eyes will be on him in training camp and that can be daunting. All throughout the season, he’ll be presented with tests: first exhibition game, first road game, windy conditions, rainy conditions and the cold.
If Scott passes them all, he could push the special teams to another level.
Lock: K Mason Crosby.
Good bet: P JK Scott.
On the bubble: LS Hunter Bradley, LS Zach Triner.
Biggest offseason move
Gutekunst decided against re-signing Janis despite the impact he had covering punts. Janis was a gunner when Tim Masthay set the club record for net average in 2015 and he was a gunner when Vogel topped it last year. He was continually double-teamed and yet was still the first one down on one-third of Vogel’s punt attempts last year. If the Packers keep cornerback Demetri Goodson and receiver Trevor Davis, there’s a chance they could be solid in punt coverage. They might want to consider rookie Jaire Alexander at the gunner position because of his speed, but a lot will depend on how much he’s playing on defense.
It’s hard to do anything but yawn when considering the long snapper position. Of late, the Packers have tried to add speed and athleticism to the position and then realized no one could replace the accuracy veteran Brett Goode provides. This year, they expended a seventh-round pick on long snapper Hunter Bradley, hoping either Bradley or free agent Zach Triner can fill the spot. Either way, they’ll have Goode on speed dial.
Keep an eye on
As much experience as Davis gained last season, don’t discount the possibility of Alexander taking the punt return job from him. It’s hard to find guys with Alexander’s short-area quickness and while he was limited in his number of returns in college he still averaged 9.9 yards on 43 returns with one touchdown. Davis made some terrific returns in clutch situations, but his decision-making was abysmal and he needs to show he can be trusted.
The Packers finished a respectable 16th in Rick Gosselin’s special teams rankings, but the big question is can they move into the top 10 under Zook. If the defense is going to be a work in progress, then the special teams need to make things easier on it. They need Scott to keep opponents starting deep in their own territory and the returners to keep the offense from having to start deep in its own territory. It won’t be easy replacing Janis and the long snapper issues could have an impact on Crosby, who is entering his 12th season.
There is no way to predict how Scott will react to the pressure he’ll face in camp or the weather he’ll face in Lambeau Field. He has the pedigree to succeed, but that’s not worth a hill of beans when you’re punting from your own goal line at Soldier Field in December in a game that could determine your playoff fate. Gutekunst added some talented athletes in Alexander, Josh Jackson, Oren Burks and Kendall Donnerson. Now it’s up to Zook to teach them the system and make them perform. All in all, it seems like special teams is going to be a question mark again.