By Jason Wilde Thing, ESPN Milwaukee
~ GREEN BAY – As much as this weekend will be about Datone Jones, Eddie Lacy and the rest of the Green Bay Packers’ rookie class, the team’s success in 2013 is more likely to hinge on the players who took part in the annual rookie orientation camp last year.
For while the post-draft chatter always centers on which rookies will have the greatest impact in the upcoming season, the “develop” portion of the Packers’ draft-and-develop philosophy demands that the second-year players make a significant leap forward after their rookie seasons.
“Again, our veterans will determine the fate of our team,” Packers general manager Ted Thompson said after the draft, repeating one of his frequently used phrases.
That’s not to say that Jones won’t play a major role on the defensive line, or Lacy or fourth-round pick Johnathan Franklin won’t win the starting running back job and be vital on offense.
But especially defensively, the Packers will be counting on their sophomore class.
That means first-round pick Nick Perry, second-round pick Casey Hayward, fourth-round picks Jerron McMillian and Mike Daniels and undrafted free agent Dezman Moses will have to become more consistent contributors on a team that annually eschews veteran free agency and relies on promoting from within.
Although the Packers are unlikely to get a lot of help from defensive end Jerel Worthy – the second-round pick’s rookie season ended with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee Dec. 30 at Minnesota, leaving his availability for the Sept. 8 season opener in serious question – Perry, Hayward, McMillian, Daniels and Moses will all be looking to expand their roles this season.
That’s what wide receiver Randall Cobb did last year, when he was the one offensive player the Packers could count on, as Greg Jennings (eight games) and Jordy Nelson (four games) missed time with injuries and five players served as lead running back at different times. Cobb, who caught only 25 passes and had his greatest impact on special teams as a rookie, wound up leading the team in receptions (80) and receiving yards (954) while finishing second in touchdown receptions (eight) last season.
Cobb was the one player from the 2011 draft class to step forward last season, as first-round offensive lineman Derek Sherrod missed the entire year as he still recovered from the broken leg he suffered as a rookie; third-round running back Alex Green couldn’t hold onto the starting running back job; fourth-round cornerback Davon House’s promising season was interrupted by a shoulder injury that required surgery; tight ends D.J. Williams (fifth round) and Ryan Taylor (seventh round) made limited contributions and since-released sixth-round linebacker D.J. Smith started the first six games in place of an injured Desmond Bishop before suffering a season-ending knee injury himself.
This season, after Thompson used his first six draft picks on defensive players last year, the Packers will need more from those picks on the defensive side of the ball.
“I think we can’t forget how many of our young players, our rookies, played on defense last year. Frankly, for as excited as we are about the 2013 draft class, the most improvement of our football team will come from the men that are already in the building,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “Our young players on defense will be a year better.”
As rookies, Hayward played the most snaps, at 769 according to ProFootballFocus.com. McMillian (614), Moses (504), Worthy (467) Daniels (280) and Perry (211) also saw at least 200 snaps of action on defense.
Sixth-round inside linebacker Terrell Manning did not play a defensive snap but did chip in on special teams after a training-camp illness stunted his early growth.
Perry actually suffered what turned out to be a season-ending wrist injury in the Sept. 9 season opener vs. San Francisco but played through it. Then, he suffered a knee injury at Houston on Oct. 14, later undergoing surgery for the wrist injury.
In his 211 snaps, Perry managed two sacks – including a forceful blow to Colts rookie Andrew Luck that drew a controversial penalty and $15,000 fine – along with eight hurries.
Although he struggled early on in transition to 3-4 outside linebacker, he appeared to be getting more comfortable when his season came to a crashing halt.
Now, with co-starter Erik Walden having departed for a surprisingly lucrative unrestricted free-agent deal from Indianapolis, Perry should be the starter if healthy and will need to be a difference-maker. The only outside linebacker the Packers drafted was Illinois State’s Nate Palmer in the sixth round.
“You know, I think he was coming along. There’s a lot to learn at this position,” outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene said of Perry. “You really need to put in a lot of time and the cleats on the field to get better. It’s just hard to watch and get better. You really need to have time on the field. He was coming along.
“I saw a couple good things and I saw a couple bad things, which is typical of a young fella coming in and trying to learn the system and making that transition from a defensive end to an OLB.”
Hayward played primarily as the Packers’ No. 3 cornerback in its nickel and dime packages, handling slot-corner duties after veteran safety Charles Woodson’s collarbone injury. Hayward started seven games (six in the base defense and one as the third cornerback) and finished with six interceptions, most among rookies and tied for fifth-most in the NFL. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Hayward was targeted 76 times on the season and allowed only 33 completions (a 43.4 catch rate) for 456 yards and no touchdowns and an opposing passer rating of 30.4. More impressively, he was not flagged for a single penalty all season.
With Tramon Williams having been forced to match up with opponents’ best receivers all season, cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt is hoping Sam Shields and Hayward can take on some of that burden in 2013.
“Tramon was put in all the difficult matchups. What I have to ask is, ‘Is Sam to the point where he can handle those difficult matchups? Is Casey to the point where he can get those difficult matchups and balance this thing out?’” Whitt said. “Casey probably played better than any of you all expected him to play and probably played better than I expected him to play. So the competition in the room has gotten better.”
Daniels was pressed into action because of injuries and showed some burst as a pass-rusher (two sacks) while delivering a game-altering fumble return for a touchdown against Detroit on Dec. 9, while Moses got his shot after making the 53-man roster coming out of training camp and recorded four sacks, five QB hits and 12 hurries while sharing time with Walden after Perry’s wrist surgery.
Worthy said at the Wisconsin Sports Awards in April that he expects to be ready this season, but defensive line coach Mike Trgovac acknowledged that the odds are against him. That could lead to more opportunities early for Jones.
“This will be a challenge for Jerel because he is transitioning from the defense he played to this defense. This would have been a big offseason for him,” Trgovac said. “Hopefully, he’ll get back a little bit sooner, but that’ll be a challenge for him. I think he can do it, but it’ll definitely make things a little tougher on him.”
McMillian, meanwhile, could have the most important role. He shared time with M.D Jennings at safety, seeing extensive action in the nickel and dime defenses while appearing in all 16 games. He did not start a game all season, but with the Packers releasing Woodson and not drafting a safety last month, the safety spot opposite Morgan Burnett is there for the taking for McMillian.
“I think he has a lot of upside. He did a good job when he was in there taking the place of Woodson in the dime spot,” safeties coach Darren Perry said. “He made some plays and he did some good things that get you excited. But, as with all young players, there’s still room to grow. Obviously, he’s not there yet but we think he’s got a chance to be a productive player for us.”
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