Trent Stutzman

Packers Leaning Heavily On Rookie Class

Created on Sept. 14, 2013 4:15 AM EST

The Green Bay Packers under general manager Ted Thompson have been heavily reliant upon their rookies and other young players to get the job done.  But the importance of this year’s rookie class is at a high level, even for a draft-and-develop team like Green Bay.

Whether by injury, lack of talent at a position or both, the play of several rookies will be undeniably critical to the Packers success in 2013. Although the Packers have held one of the league’s best offenses since Aaron Rodgers became the starting quarterback, everyone knew two key areas on the unit were in need of an upgrade heading into 2013 – running back and offensive line.

The former appeared to be the bigger issue, as Thompson used a draft pick on running back Eddie Lacy before selecting any offensive linemen. Thompson not only got a player many considered to be the best running back in the draft, but he got great value in waiting until the second round to take him. Lacy’s power and pass protection provide the Packers’ offense two key ingredients it has lacked in a long time. His spin and athleticism for a man his size are the cherry on top. He’s got some injury history, but when healthy, Lacy is the running back the Packers need.

Later in the draft, Thompson chose tackle David Bakhtiari, a raw prospect intended to just provide depth, at least for his rookie year. But down goes Bryan Bulaga with an ACL, and into the fire goes Bakhtiari. This sequence of events spread panic through Green Bay, but the rookie has looked very impressive, so far. Protecting Rodgers’ blindside is no small task, and Bakhtiari seems to be capable of handling it well.

Another huge need for the Packers was a pass-rushing 3-4 defensive end. They’ve greatly missed Cullen Jenkins’ production that was so critical to the Super Bowl XLV run. Enter Datone Jones, the first-round pick of Thompson in 2013. Jones has the athleticism and versatility to play as an end in the base defense and as an inside rusher in the nickel and dime packages. Unlike Lacy and Bakhtiari, Jones has yet to live up to expectations. Give him some time to build some extra muscle and confidence, and he should get on track.

Safety seemed to be a need for the Packers, but Thompson was patient and didn’t take one in the draft. Instead, he got the undrafted free agent Chris Banjo, who looked very impressive in preseason. Initially no one expected him to get much playing time. With Morgan Burnett’s hamstring problems and the ineptitude displayed by Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings this past Sunday, however, expect to see Banjo see more game action in the future.

Micah Hyde and Johnathan Franklin, both taken in the mid-rounds, seemed to be just luxury picks. Cornerback is arguably the team’s deepest position, and the Packers already got their franchise running back when they selected Lacy. With Casey Hayward’s injury and Davon House not looking sharp, Hyde will be called upon as the first slot corner. And while Franklin hasn’t looked good as a running back, he may be needed to start handling kickoffs because of Jeremy Ross’ awful day Sunday.

Even after all the rookies I just went over, the Packers still have Sam Barrington, Josh Boyd, Andy Mulumba, Nate Palmer and Lane Taylor to fill the traditional rookie roles. Each must contribute on special teams and be ready in case a starter at their position suddenly goes down with an injury.

That’s two rookies filling the two most important roles on the offense besides Rodgers, one being a key pass-rusher to help complement Clay Matthews, two to three filling vital substitution roles and five more holding normal rookie responsibilities. The 2013 rookie class may not go on to be as successful as some others in the Packers’ history, but I can’t remember any recent class being nearly as important in its first year.

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