Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Packers aide Drayton has his work cut out for him
GREEN BAY - Before he was hired as the Green Bay Packers’ special teams coordinator, a career advancement decades in the making, Maurice Drayton’s background was education.
It’s only fitting Drayton introduced himself as coordinator this week with a history lesson. He is the Packers’ ninth special teams coordinator since 1992, the year Brett Favre arrived in town, establishing three decades of Hall of Fame quarterback play. In that time, quality special teams has been an elusive target.
The Packers finished among the NFL’s top 10 in Rick Gosselin’s special teams rankings just once in the past 15 years, and that was under Mike Stock in
2007. They finished last in the league four times.
Drayton said it’s no coincidence. “We, as special teams coaches and a phase within the Green Bay Packers,” Drayton said, “we’re a victim of our overall program’s success. We are so blessed and so lucky to have had over that time frame two gold-jacket quarterbacks. People live their whole lives, and they never even sniff a gold-jacket quarterback. So when you have that, a lot of times you don’t have to play complementary football. And if you don’t have to play complementary football, then special teams, typically, is on the lower end of that.”
Drayton was promoted to coordinator after three seasons as assistant special teams coach to change the trend. It’s a daunting task ahead of him, to be sure. The Packers ranked among the NFL’s leaders in fewest penalties under former coordinator Shawn Mennenga the past two seasons, but they compared favorably in almost nothing else. Their units were among the NFL’s worst in covering and returning punts and kicks, staples of quality special teams.
The work to turn things around has begun, Drayton said. Along with assistant special teams coach Rayna Stewart and special teams assistant/game management specialist Connor Lewis, Drayton is spending this spring studying film to decide what should remain in the playbook.
Drayton described a “pragmatic” coaching style that will be based in percentages. He learned under Denver Broncos special teams coordinator Tom McMahon, whom he worked for as an assistant two seasons in Indianapolis. Drayton called McMahon his “big brother” in the profession, someone who taught him most of what he knows, specifically how to be calculated with decisions steeped in analytics.
But Drayton also knows analytics only go so far. The Packers need their most important specialists to play well. That means figuring out how to revive punter JK Scott and snapper Hunter Bradley from dismal 2020 seasons. Drayton wouldn’t provide specifics of his exit interviews, but indicated they were appropriately harsh.
“I call our room where we are the truth room,” Drayton said. “So we’re going to tell the truth, and some things I cannot say here, but they both know that they have to be more consistent in the things that we need them to do to be successful. They have a prescription that we’ve written for them to work on. They also have their own personal, what I call kick doctors, or specialists doctors that they’re working with, who I’ve fostered a relationship with.
“So they’re getting better, and they will be better. And they understand that their backs are against the wall.”
At best, Scott and Bradley have been inconsistent in their three seasons together. At worst, they represent a breakdown in how the Packers have evaluated special teams.
General manager Brian Gutekunst drafted Scott (fifth round) and Bradley (seventh) in 2018. At the time, Gutekunst explained drafting Scott by calling his talent “rare,” something he has shown only in flashes. Bradley has good zip on his snaps even by NFL standards, but his accuracy is often wayward.
Scott and Bradley were the exception as significant special teams investments. With quarterback Aaron Rodgers occupying a bloated portion of the Packers’ salary cap, sacrifices have been required elsewhere on the roster. For a team built to win with its quarterback, offense and defense often are prioritized over special teams.
The best special-teams player in the NFC North is Cordarrelle Patterson. He counted $5.75 million against the Chicago Bears’ cap last season, part of his two-year, $10 million contract signed before 2019, despite gaining only 364 yards from scrimmage. But Patterson was selected as an All-Pro for the second straight season because of what he did as a kick returner. In 2020, he finished second in the NFL with a 29.1-yard average on 35 kickoff returns, including a 104-yard touchdown. It was his third straight season returning a kickoff return for touchdown.
The Packers do not have a Patterson on their special teams. Their last playmaking returner was Micah Hyde, who was phased out of the role after a couple of years because of his value as a defensive back. Randall Cobb was an explosive returner early in his career, but he also was phased out to play receiver. Trevor Davis, a fifth-round pick in 2016, was serviceable returning punts and kicks, but he never took one to the end zone.
It has been seven seasons since the Packers have returned a punt or kick for touchdown.
“The explosive part,” Gutekunst said, “a lot of that comes down to the returners. The last couple of years, we had some good moments with Tyler (Ervin) at the end of ’19 and a little bit in ’20, but we had some injuries there as well. I don’t think there’s any change in the way we’re going to go about scouting players. We’ve done this for a long time, and we believe in what we’re doing.
“At the same time, I do think the explosiveness on special teams does come down to your players and what you have there. We’re certainly looking to improve there.”
Gutekunst said the Packers have “good, young players” on their special teams. Despite their struggles in coverage, Gutekunst identified linebackers Ty Summers and Oren Burks and safety Will Redmond as “standouts.” Even still, the unit remains lacking in production. For all the hope in Ervin last season, he is a career journeyman who has never returned a punt or kick for a touchdown in his five seasons.
If the Packers want to seriously upgrade their special teams, it will likely require more than a different coordinator. The Packers have 10 draft picks this spring. Perhaps one will be used on a return specialist.
Either way, Drayton knows a lack of playmakers won’t be an excuse for more shoddy special teams.
“My whole life,” Drayton said, “I’ve done more with less. So we will maximize every God-given ability that those individuals have.”