Last year’s rookies didn’t have the luxury of an orientation weekend and OTA sessions to get introduced to the NFL before training camp started. It’s a good thing for this year’s Packers that’s not the case.
A year ago, the lockout wiped out the entire offseason program, but it could be argued the Packers – who were coming off a Super Bowl championship with their starting lineup basically intact – were less affected than other teams.
This year, the Packers used their first six draft picks on defense to potentially re-tool a unit that dropped to the bottom of the league rankings. There are starting spots and other prominent roles to be won, and the OTAs and upcoming June minicamp should only enhance the chances for those rookies to make an impact.
“I think it helps them out tremendously, coming in here and learning the playbook, so that way when they’re in (training) camp, they aren’t just thrown to the wolves,” outside linebacker Clay Matthews said. “They’re getting that done right now.”
Matthews emphasized that the faster first-round pick Nick Perry, who is currently starting at left outside linebacker, gets up to speed, the more it will benefit Matthews and the entire defense. The same can be said for second-round pick Jerel Worthy, who began OTAs working with the No. 1 nickel defense as an inside pass rusher.
Looking at the rest of the defensive draft class, fellow second-rounder Casey Hayward should be in the mix for a nickel or dime cornerback spot, and fourth-rounder Jerron McMillian (pictured) finds himself in a heated competition among several young safeties.
“I couldn’t even imagine not having the rookie camp and throwing the whole book at you and telling you to learn it,” McMillian said. “Since you have the time to develop and grasp the concepts and everything, it’s helpful.”
Another fourth-rounder, defensive lineman Mike Daniels, is currently sidelined following offseason shoulder surgery, but he’s still in on all of the defensive meetings. Fifth-round inside linebacker Terrell Manning is joining, perhaps, the deepest position group on defense, so the initial installations of the playbook over the next few weeks should aid in his fight for a roster spot and to contribute on special teams.
“Definitely it’s a big-time help,” said Manning, who spoke with former college teammate Nate Irving, drafted last year in the third round by Denver, about how rough the process was his rookie year. “If I didn’t have these OTAs, I don’t know what I’d do. I take my hat off to those fellas that actually made the team. Without the OTAs, there’s a big learning curve.”
One of those rookies who made it is sixth-round linebacker D.J. Smith, who became a regular on special teams and started three games late last year. Smith was forced to grow up in a hurry, and he could only smile when asked how different it is for this year’s rookies.
“It’s kind of like a silver-spoon mentality,” he said with a chuckle. “They’ve got it good.
“These guys coming in have a really good opportunity to be able to play fast, play smart and go all out. We’re putting the plays in every day, and to go over them every day, all that recall is going to help these guys out a lot.”
In other words, the time to be swimming (or in some cases, drowning) in the playbook is now, not when the pads go on in late July. Even with OTAs reduced from 14 sessions to 10 under the new collective bargaining agreement, that’s still loads more introductory work than anyone got last year.
Perry said “studying and studying” is going to be the key for him over these next several weeks, and the veterans have seen the rookies taking advantage of this time already.
“Training camp by itself is already a monster,” defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said. “They’re learning all the basic things right now, and they’re really attentive. They want to learn, they ask some questions and we’re just trying to bring them up to speed with everything.”
Matthews said last year’s rookies have told him that this year’s crop has it “easy.” If they take advantage, that should make it easier for the Packers defense to return to its pre-2011 form.
“We need guys to come in and play right off the bat,” Matthews said. “So that’s what we’re expecting from these young guys.”