GREEN BAY – This weekend wasn’t just about the rookies.
Of the 59 players participating in the two rookie orientation practices inside the Don Hutson Center on Friday and Saturday, six of them were on the Packers’ practice squad last year.
What these first-year players have in common is the absence of a credited season toward an NFL pension, making them eligible to practice during rookie orientation despite not technically being rookies anymore.
Call it a second chance to make a first impression.
“It’s a benefit for all of them,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “It’s really a benefit for us as a coaching staff to see how much they’ve improved.”
The six former practice-squadders – linebackers Joe Thomas (pictured, far right) and Adrian Hubbard (49), offensive linemen Jeremy Vujnovich and Josh Walker, and defensive backs Tay Glover-Wright and Jean Fanor (20) – become leaders in the on-field drills because they’re more familiar with the playbooks and procedures than the rookies.
They also remember what this weekend was like last year.
“For me it was scary, constantly looking over your shoulder,” Thomas said. “Am I doing something right? Am I doing something wrong?”
Thomas is certainly thankful for his second chance. Off to a strong start both on defense and special teams in training camp last year as an undrafted rookie from South Carolina State, Thomas injured his knee and was waived/injured at the end of camp.
Told to stay in shape in case there’d be a chance to come back, Thomas rehabbed his knee and was re-signed to the practice squad at midseason.
This weekend, he lined up next to fourth-round draft pick Jake Ryan at inside linebacker, the position getting the largest overhaul in Green Bay’s defense in 2015.
“The opportunity is wide open,” Thomas said. “There’s a lot of guys here, but I’m just going to continue to be me, continue to work hard.”
A self-proclaimed “special-teams guru” his first two years in college, Thomas knows that’s his first route to a roster spot. The status of the inside linebacker spot just adds more to the mix.
The one training camp and half a season he spent in Green Bay can only work to his advantage.
“I’ll be ahead of the curve,” Thomas said of heading into OTAs and training camp again soon. “I’ll be able to come right in and go off of ability instead of everything running through my brain, all the clouds and all the new plays. I’ll have it down pat already.”
Hubbard, an undrafted rookie a year ago from Alabama, feels the same way.
“The second year is always going to be more comfortable,” he said. “It’s like college. You get the one year under your belt, and the second year, OK, I know how things are working.”
Hubbard believes the key for him is to never stop studying and learning. He spent his entire rookie season on the practice squad and now will make a second run at a roster spot at outside linebacker.
It’s a position the Packers have routinely found contributors who came in undrafted and relatively unknown, with six making the team over the past five years.
Of those six – Jayrone Elliott, Andy Mulumba, Dezman Moses, Vic So’oto, Frank Zombo and Jamari Lattimore, who began as an outside linebacker – only Elliott and Mulumba are still with the Packers, in part because young prospects like Hubbard keep rising up each year.
“He’s put on some weight, put on some size,” McCarthy said of the 6-6, 257-pound Hubbard. “Just really taken a huge step, like you see from every player that’s been here year one going into year two. He’s put a lot of work in.”