This is the ninth in a series of stories previewing the Packers' draft.
GREEN BAY — There aren’t many sure bets during the NFL draft, but it’s probably safe to say that the Green Bay Packers won’t be using one of their 10 selections on a punter and another on a long-snapper. Not after doing exactly that last year.
But a kicker? That might be an even-money proposition.
General manager Brian Gutekunst surprised more than a few folks during his first draft when he invested a fifth-round pick (No. 172 overall) in Alabama punter JK Scott and a seventh-rounder (No. 239 overall) in Mississippi State long-snapper Hunter Bradley.
Having been on the Packers’ scouting staff for two decades, Gutekunst knew full well that those aren’t simply throw-away picks. Gutekunst not only has a top-level starting center on his roster who was a fifth-round pick (Corey Linsley), but he was also around when his predecessors took quality players like Micah Hyde, Aaron Kampman and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. And just the other day, in his pre-draft news conference, he mentioned a couple of Packers Hall of Famers — wide receiver Donald Driver (1999) and right tackle Mark Tauscher (2000) — who proved to be longtime starters.
“Those guys are absolute difference makers for our football team,” Gutekunst said of Driver and Tauscher on Monday. “In the seventh round.”
So, given Gutekunst’s clear understanding of the importance of such picks, only one conclusion can be drawn from the Scott and Bradley picks a year ago: That he believes special teams is worth investing in.
“We saw a lot of value,” Gutekunst said. “Both players performed extremely well at a high level in college football, and we just thought it gave us a chance to provide a lot of competition at that area.”
That might mean another foray into special-teams drafting on Day 3 if Gutekunst is unsure about Mason Crosby, who is in the final year of his contract and missed some critical kicks last season, when he made 30 of 37 field-goal attempts while working with a new holder (Scott) and snapper (Bradley).
The Packers have already added kicker Sam Ficken (on waivers from the Seattle Seahawks last week), so perhaps Gutekunst will see him as sufficient head-to-head in-house training-camp competition for Crosby, who hasn’t had a mano-a-mano camp battle since since 2013, when he was coming off a disastrous 2012 and the team brought in Giorgio Tavecchio to push him that summer.
But if one of the top-rated kickers is still on the board near the end of Day 3 — Utah’s Matthew Gay, LSU’s Cole Tracy and local product Spenser Thompson-Meyers of St. Norbert College are at the top of the list — perhaps Gutekunst will decide one is worth a late pick.
Meanwhile, it’s more likely that the Packers would use a pick on a position player who also has return skills. Wide receiver Trevor Davis, a fifth-round pick in 2016, is entering the last year of his contract and is no lock to make the team after being sidelined by hamstring injuries nearly all of last season. New coach Matt LaFleur has stressed that improving on special teams is one of his priorities. He not only hired Shawn Mennenga as his coordinator but gave Mennenga two assistants.
Ex-coach Mike McCarthy only had one assistant special teams coach under each of his coordinators over the years, and the units were almost annually a problem. The Packers finished last in the 32-team league in 2018 in respected NFL columnist Rick Gosselin’s annual special teams rankings, which factor in 22 different categories for a composite score, and under McCarthy, the Packers were perennially in the lower half of the league on special teams and were last in the league three times in 13 years.
“I was looking for with that position was somebody — obviously you’ve got to have the knowledge base — (with) some juice, some enthusiasm,” LaFleur explained. “I feel really confident that we have three high-quality coaches in that regards. Because there’s one thing that is so important to me. It’s not about offense and defense. It’s about offense, defense and special teams. And that’s going to be a big emphasis for us moving forward.”