Packers rookies Daniel Whelan and Anders Carlson off to fast starts

Aug 1, 2023; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers punter Daniel Whelan (41) punts the ball during practice on Tuesday, August 1, 2023, at Ray Nitschke Field in Green Bay, Wis. Mandatory Credit: Tork Mason-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 1, 2023; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers punter Daniel Whelan (41) punts the ball during practice on Tuesday, August 1, 2023, at Ray Nitschke Field in Green Bay, Wis. Mandatory Credit: Tork Mason-USA TODAY Sports /

The Green Bay Packers special teams have yet to be good through four games, and it has gotten worse, even though Rich Bisaccia is the highest-paid special teams coordinator in the NFL.

They gave up a punt for a touchdown to the New Orleans Saints in Week 3 and mishandled a punt against the Detroit Lions in Week 4. The blocking on kick and punt returns hasn’t been good, and they’ve missed tackles on kick and punt coverage. Many of their struggles last year are there again this year.

The Packers rely heavily on rookies to contribute to special teams this year, especially at punter and kicker. They parted ways with future Packers Hall of Fame kicker Mason Crosby and veteran punter Pat O’Donnell this offseason. In May, they drafted kicker Anders Carlson in the fifth round and signed punter Daniel Whelan as a free agent. The Packers went all in on going young, and it is no different with special teams.

Daniel Whelan’s big leg is paying off

Daniel Whelan played collegiately at UC-Davis for four seasons before being an undrafted free agent of the New Orleans in 2022 and was waived in July 2022. He played for the DC Defenders of the XFL in 2023 and is the first Irish-born player in the NFL since 1985. He was third-best in punt average in the XFL, with 45.6 yards per punt.

Whelan is ranked 14th in the NFL in punt average with 47.8 yards per punt with three touchbacks and three inside the 20 across 18 punts with a long of 68 yards. He ranks second among rookie punters in punt average, with only Los Angeles Rams kicker Ethan Evans ahead of him. He has not had a single punt downed and ranks last in net punt average at 36.7 yards. According to PFF, he is ranked as the fifth-best punter and has the sixth-best hangtime at 4.64 seconds.

So far, rookies Daniel Whelan and Anders Carlson have been the best players on special teams.
The poor net punt average points to how inadequate the punt coverage has been this year, with a difference of 11.1 yards. The Packers are second worst in punt return average, with 17.4 yards allowed per punt and one touchdown across eight returns. The punt protection unit has held up well to start the year, not allowing a single punt block, which was a problem at times last year.

Whelan may not be an All-Pro or Pro Bowl punter, but the Packers don’t need him to be one. They need solid, average performances, and that’s what they have gotten out of Whelan. He has only played four games and has room to improve, especially with his short area punting, where he has three touchbacks, and you’d like to see some punts downed inside the 20. It is just the beginning for Whelan; he is off to a great start.

Against all odds, Anders Carlson is perfect

Anders Carlson’s struggles in training camp and preseason were a big talking point, even when people wondered if the Packers should bring in another kicker. General Manager Brian Gutekunst and Special Teams Coordinator Rich Bisaccia preached patience with their young kicker, which has paid off so far. Bisaccia has first-hand experience of being patient with a young kicker in Daniel Carlson, the older brother of Anders Carlson, who was let go by the Minnesota Vikings during his rookie year only to become an All-Pro a few years later. Anders Carlson is not the same kicker as his brother, but Bisaccia has previous experience with a young kicker, and getting him to become a good kicker can have many ups and downs.

He struggled in training camp and preseason on field goals, especially on the practice field. He was perfect on family night and went 4-for-4 on field goals in three preseason games. He struggled on extra points in the preseason, going 6-of-9. There were a lot of questions heading into the regular season about how much Carlson would work and if he could be relied upon.

Carlson has been reliable this season, going 5-for-5 on field goals and 9-for-9 on extra points. He is also 2-for-2 on 50-plus yard field goals with a long of 52. He was selected in the sixth round of the 2023 NFL draft and the third kicker drafted after Jake Moody and Chad Ryland. He ranks 11th in PFF’s kicker rankings and one of eight kickers with at least five attempts that haven’t missed a field goal. He also ranks 15th on Kickoff grades per PFF with 11 touchbacks, one kick out of bounds, and eight returns for 20.4 yards per return.

Where to Improve?

The rookie punter and kicker are not the issues with the Packers’ special teams, which is surprising considering how many core special teamers are on this team. Whelan and Carlson have been pleasant surprises and have gotten off to a promising start to their NFL careers. The punting should be a little bit better as he is league average on his punt average, and if he can get it up a couple of yards, he would be in the top 10. Carlson needs to use his big leg on kickoffs and kick the ball out of the end zone so the opposing team doesn’t have a chance to return it.

The blocking on punts and kick returns haven’t been good, along with the decision-making from Keisean Nixon on some kickoffs. If they can incrementally get better there, the unit should look a lot better. Also, the Packers must clean up their punt and kick return units.