The 2020 Green Bay Packers didn’t have too many weaknesses. That was illustrated by their 13-3 regular-season record. Still, their impressive record wasn’t enough to cover up the stench of their special teams. Last season, the Packers special teams finished 29th out of 32 teams in Rick Gosselin’s annual special teams rankings. Their play was so bad that it cost former special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga his job. It appears that head coach Matt LaFleur and general manager Brian Gutekunst have seen enough of bad play from Green Bay’s special teams. Along with a new coordinator, Gutekunst spent several 2021 draft picks that should help bolster the unit in 2021.
Several Draft Picks are Expected to Contribute Immediately on the Green Bay Packers Special Teams
It wasn’t just last season that the Packers special teams were awful. Shawn Slocum, Ron Zook, and most recently Mennenga oversaw special teams units that failed to contribute. Now, it will be up to the first-year coordinator Maurice Drayton to turn around the annual underperforming unit.
The hiring of Drayton was a mild surprise. Drayton has been an assistant for the Packers special teams since 2016. During that stretch, he worked with Zook and Mennenga. So, it was a curious decision to promote someone who was a part of the past failures. However, LaFleur believes that Drayton can bring some new ideas that can turn around the failing unit. Although many have to wonder why he didn’t do so while he was an assistant. Still, Drayton is a coach that has paid his dues.
In this year’s NFL draft, it appears that Gutekunst is providing Drayton with some help. Out of the nine players Gutekunst selected, three of the choices should contribute to the Packers special teams unit.
Here are the three players that could make an impact on the Packer special teams in 2021.
Shemar Jean-Charles, Cornerback
Shemar Jean-Charles was a standout cornerback at Appalachian State. An undersized cornerback, 5’10”, Jean-Charles never backed down from a challenge while covering wide receivers who were bigger than him. He displayed a warrior style of work ethic while mixing it up with bigger receivers in college. He played some zone coverage in college but also showed that he could play in man-to-man coverage as well. His experience in man-to-man coverage should carry over on special teams, specifically on punt return coverage.
Playing special teams won’t be a foreign concept for Jean-Charles. As Jordan Reid of TheDraftNetwork.com pointed out, before becoming a top cover cornerback, he served two seasons as Appalachian’s special teams ace. That experience, along with his background in coverage, should help Drayton and the Packers special teams.
Isaiah McDuffie, Linebacker
Drayton is looking for athletes who can run but also make plays. Sixth-round draft choice Isaiah McDuffie fits both of those categories.
McDuffie isn’t the biggest inside linebacker you will see. Standing 6’1″ and weighing 227 lbs., McDuffie is a bit on the small side for an inside linebacker. But for what he lacks in size, he makes up for it with his athletic ability. McDuffie has good speed for a linebacker. He ran a 4.58 seconds forty-yard dash leading up to the draft. The speed that he displayed then and while at Boston College, should project well on special teams.
Similar to Jean-Charles, before making a mark on defense, he was a key contributor on the Eagles special teams. As a freshman, he registered 11 special teams tackles for the Eagles. He was a tackling machine in college, something the Packers need to get better at on special teams. If McDuffie shows that he can contribute on special teams, he might unseat Oren Burks for a spot on the Packers roster. Burks, a former third-round pick by Gutekunst, has been a major disappointment for the Packers. Most of his playing time has come on special teams and his play there has been uneven at best.
Amari Rodgers, Wide Receiver
The Packers special teams coverage units weren’t the only part of the special teams that stunk it up in 2020. Green Bay’s return game was just as feeble.
On kickoff returns, the Packer utilized both Jamaal Williams and Malik Taylor as their primary kickoff returners. Williams did everything the Packers asked of him and never complained. However, his skills as a kickoff returner didn’t scare opposing teams kickoff coverage units. The use of Taylor as a kickoff returner was a curious decision. Taylor isn’t a blazer and doesn’t have the attributes to make tacklers miss. While both Williams and Taylor were surehanded and protected the ball, they didn’t do much in regards to putting Green Bay’s offense in good field position.
The punt return part of the Packers special teams was just as bad. They finished last season with veteran Tavon Austin as their punt returner. The once explosive Austin didn’t display the elusiveness or speed he once did. The Packers chose not to re-sign Austin this off-season.
The last time the Packers had a game-changing returner was when Randall Cobb held the job. But LaFleur, Gutekunst, and Drayton are hoping that will change now that they have Amari Rodgers in the fold. Rodgers, a third-round pick of the Packers, has been compared to Cobb. While both receivers aren’t tall, they are elusive and make plays when the ball is in their hands. Rodgers is more solidly built than Cobb, but still has comparably the elusiveness Cobb once possessed when he was a returner for the Packers.
Rodgers ability to make plays in the open field no doubt excites Drayton. That type of ability projects well as a returner. It also appears that Rodgers is eager to volunteer as a returner as well. The Packers have been looking for a returner who can make plays. Rodgers finally could be the answer they have been looking for as a returner.
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