GREEN BAY—The Packers have regularly drafted defensive linemen in recent years, and Khyri Thornton of Southern Miss continued that trend.
The selection of Cal tight end Richard Rodgers, however, was the first Packers draft pick at that position since 2011.
That’s how Green Bay spent its two third-round choices on Friday night, taking Thornton with the 85th overall selection and adding Rodgers 13 slots later with a free-agency compensatory pick.
Thornton is the fifth defensive lineman the Packers have drafted in the past three years, joining 2012 picks Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels plus 2013’s Datone Jones and Josh Boyd.
Right now, the only older veterans on the defensive front are B.J. Raji and Letroy Guion, so it’s a given the Packers will need some of the younger guys to emerge, as Daniels did a year ago.
“I don’t know if it’s a youth movement, but I feel pretty good about our group,” GM Ted Thompson said. “We’ll see. Now we have to go play.”
For a while, Thornton was just looking for a place to play in college. After failing to meet NCAA academic requirements, his scholarship to Florida State was rescinded. He then qualified by NCAA standards at South Florida, only to be denied entry by a special university committee.
He eventually landed at Southern Miss, where he became a starter at defensive tackle as a redshirt sophomore in 2011 and earned second-team All-Conference USA honors last season.
“I learned college football is more of a business than anything, but I don’t have any regrets,” Thornton said. “I met some great guys, some great coaches and learned a lot of football.”
Packers Defensive Line Coach Mike Trgovac sees a player who learned to play multiple spots across the defensive front, including the three technique and five technique. He’ll get a look at both as a rookie.
“We’ll have some flexibility with him,” Trgovac said.
A high-motor, high-effort player, Thornton also stood out on film despite Southern Miss’ struggles. The Golden Eagles won only one game over his final two seasons, but Thornton didn’t let that affect his play or impact his dedication to the game.
“When you’re losing like that, sometimes it’s hard to keep your spirits up, but he didn’t have a problem with that,” Trgovac said. “He kept battling, going hard. He had the right demeanor to him.”
“Khyri kept catching our eye,” he said. “He’s extraordinarily quick off the ball and has the ability to penetrate and get in the backfield and pursue laterally. We think he gives us a chance to have a little juice.”
Rodgers provided a nice boost to Cal’s passing game last year, but not as a tight end. Asked to lose weight to play receiver in a new offensive system, Rodgers dropped 25-30 pounds down into the low 240s and caught 39 passes for 608 yards and a TD.
His future in the NFL is as a tight end, though, so he has since bulked back up into the low 260s and he remains confident in his ability to block.
“The good thing is I can adapt,” he said. “The new coaches came in and asked me to lose weight, otherwise I wouldn’t play, so I lost weight. Whatever the coaches ask me to do, that’s all I can do.”
Packers tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot called Rodgers a “decisive route runner” with good hands and a lot of football smarts. Rodgers’ father, Richard Sr., is a longtime football coach who’s currently the special teams coordinator for the Carolina Panthers.
His father is better known for having participated in “The Play,” the multi-lateral kickoff return touchdown to end the 1982 Cal-Stanford game. The elder Rodgers is credited with tossing the final lateral that led to Stanford band members getting run over on the field as Cal scored the winning TD.
Rodgers said he doesn’t believe he’s ever watched “The Play” with his dad, though he did once watch an entire replay of the game with a college teammate.
“It’s weird to see my dad actually playing,” Rodgers said. “He’s old now.”
The Packers certainly aren’t old at tight end. Rodgers is the first draft pick at the position since Ryan Taylor in 2011, but undrafted Brandon Bostick and Jake Stoneburner are also in the mix along with five-year veteran Andrew Quarless. Jermichael Finley’s status remains uncertain, and neither Thompson nor Fontenot had any updates.
“With the production level we had last year, we have to get better,” Fontenot said of his position group. “We’ll expect more of each other, and we made that clear at the end of last season.”
Rodgers put plenty on film of his route-running and pass-catching a year ago, and by returning to his previous size he expects to get back up to speed soon enough with his blocking. He’ll have to, though Fontenot has no reservations about his ability to do so.
“We ask our tight ends to do everything,” Fontenot said. “He’s perfectly capable of competing.”
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