GREEN BAY — Mason Crosby may keep the job he’s held for the past 12 years as the Green Bay Packers’ kicker — once his calf injury allows him to kick again in training camp — but he will have to earn it.
Despite acknowledging that Crosby has made plenty of clutch kicks since taking over the job as a rookie sixth-round pick in 2007 and staving off in-camp competition in 2013, new Packers special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga said Monday that Crosby and challenger Sam Ficken are in a wide-open competition as training camp moves into its second week.
“They’re both there. They’re both talented,” Mennenga said. “Obviously, Mason’s been consistent and been in big moments here for the franchise. You have that comfortability with him.
“But Sam has an NFL leg and has done a good job during the spring. Right now, it’s open. And we’ll see who the best man will be.”
Crosby has yet to kick in camp because of what he termed a mild calf injury he suffered before camp began while training on his own. He’s currently on the active non-football injury list but could come off as soon as Tuesday, when the players return to practice after their first day off of camp.
“Honestly, it’s more of a precautionary thing, making sure whenever I do get back on the field there’s no long-term effect,” Crosby said late last week. “I’m still doing some kicking on my own, to kind of move in that direction. I feel like I’m still able to kick, at least field goals. Coming into camp, it’s just something we wanted to be aware of and make sure there are no long-term effects the rest of camp and going into the season.”
With Crosby not kicking, Ficken, whom the team claimed on waiver from Seattle in April, has gotten all the placekicks in camp. He is 8 of 10 on field goal tries so far in camp, having missed from 38 and 43 yards. Ficken represents the first in-person competition Crosby has faced since Giorgio Tavecchio pushed him in 2013 after Crosby struggled badly the previous season. The Packers also brought a third kicker, Zach Ramirez, in as increased competition late in camp that year.
Crosby responded to the competition with one of his best seasons in 2013, making 33 of 37 field goal attempts (for a career-best 89.2 percent accuracy rate) and earning back every penny of a pay cut that had been restructured into performance-based incentives after he went just 21 for 33 (a career-worst 63.6 percent) in 2012.
Interestingly, Crosby’s numbers last year weren’t far off from that career year in 2013. Last season, Crosby finished 30 of 37 on field goals (81.1 percent), and four of his seven FG misses came in a single game — the team’s 31-23 loss at Detroit on Oct. 5.
Crosby’s other misses did wind up being difference-making failures in close games. He missed a 52-yarder at the end of regulation in a 29-29 tie with Minnesota on Sept. 16; he missed a 47-yard first-quarter attempt in a 27-24 Nov. 15 loss at Seattle; and he missed a 49-yarder on the final play of a 20-17 loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Dec. 2 that would have tied the game. After the miss, coach Mike McCarthy was fired with four games remaining in the season.
Ficken, meanwhile, has only kicked in four career regular-season games — all with the Los Angeles Rams over the past two seasons, when the Rams needed a fill-in for regular kicker Greg Zuerlein.
Undrafted in 2015, the ex-Penn State standout went 3-for-6 on field goal attempts in those four games with the Rams and made 14 of 15 extra point attempts. He’s also spent time in past training camps with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Kansas City Chiefs before signing with the Seahawks in January.
“Every opportunity I get, I’m happy for,” Ficken said. “I think the situation will play itself out. It’s not really me competing against Mason. It’s us competing against being great. If you take that approach, I think it’s going to pay off in the long run.”
Ficken was especially appreciative of how Crosby has mentored him even as they compete. That’s consistent with Crosby’s personality, though the most recent time Crosby faced competition in camp, he actually credited Tavecchio for helping him more than the other way around.
“He’s an awesome guy, first, and awesome kicker, second. He’s been awesome in this situation,” Ficken said. “I think anytime you’re dealing with a new experience, you try and learn as much as you can.
“Mason’s been doing this for a long time. I’m trying to learn as much as I can from him. He’s done a great job of helping me along.”
Depending on how the rest of camp plays out and how each performs in preseason play — the preseason opener against the Houston Texans is Aug. 8 — the Packers will have to think long and hard about whether they want to cast aside a proven kicker for a relative unknown.
Crosby is in the final year of a four-year, $16.1 million deal he signed on March 1, 2016. With a $3.2 million base salary and $4.85 salary-cap charge, he’s the highest-paid kicker in the NFL according to Spotrac. Ficken, meanwhile, is on a one-year, $495,000 contract.
General manager Brian Gutekunst already made one move with a high-priced veteran in cutting Pro Bowl defensive tackle Mike Daniels in an effort to amass salary-cap space for a lucrative contract extension for ascending defensive tackle Kenny Clark, but ask the Chicago Bears how their carousel of unproven kickers has worked out lately.
For now, though, Crosby just wants to get to work.
“At the end of the day, long term, I’ll be thankful for a little less time at camp and the strain and be ready to go here, hopefully, pretty soon,” he said. “I feel good. I’m moving around and kicking in rehab. I’m just being cautious. As long as I’m able to get my mental reps and still move around and I’m not laying in a bed and in solitary, I’m able to work on things that I need to work on and make sure my mind is sharp and ready to go.”