Packers youngsters deliver
GREEN BAY — Tramon Williams got what he wanted. And much more.
It was the Green Bay Packers veteran cornerback who, in the wake of yet another premature playoff exit, decided to channel his inner Charles Woodson and speak up. For all of his team’s draft-and-develop success – an approach that won them Super Bowl XLV a few years earlier – Williams said in the wake of last January’s NFC Wild Card loss to San Francisco that he believed the Packers needed to add more experienced players if they were going to improve.
The defense ended up getting two veterans – outside linebacker Julius Peppers and defensive tackle Letroy Guion – who have been key contributors on Williams’ side of the ball. But they’re also getting significant contributions from each of their past two rookie classes all over the roster – and Williams believes those young players’ maturity level and talent have been vital to the Packers winning eight of their last nine games to enter the weekend at 9-3, tied for the best record in the NFL.
“I actually see a really close group, from young guys to older guys. And when you feel that you have someone’s trust, you’re going to figure out what you need to do to play for those guys,” Williams said as the Packers prepped for Monday night’s game against the Atlanta Falcons at Lambeau Field. “I feel that plays a big factor.
“These guys are easy to embrace. They’re smart, good football players. It factors into the chemistry of a team. And, they’re playing well. I don’t think many people would come in and look at this team and say, ‘It looks like they have a lot of rookies or a lot of young players playing for them.’ That says a lot for what these guys have come in and done.”
From their last two draft classes – a total of 20 players – eight are starters or vital contributors. From the 2013 class, it’s running back Eddie Lacy (second round), left tackle David Bakhtiari (fourth round), nickel defensive back Micah Hyde (fifth round) and inside linebacker Sam Barrington (seventh round). Defensive linemen Datone Jones (first round) and Josh Boyd (fifth round) have also been part-time contributors to this point.
And from this year’s rookie class, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (first round), No. 3 wide receiver Davante Adams (second round), tight end Richard Rodgers (third round) and center Corey Linsley (fifth round) have all started games this season.
Having an impact
Those 10 players have started a combined 69 games, and seven of them have seen action in each of the team’s 12 games this season. Bakhtiari, Lacy and Linsley have started every game this year.
“I think it’s great anytime players – rookies, second-year, third-year players – step up when they’re given the opportunity,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said at midweek. “So I think the three rookies on offense (Linsley, Rodgers, Adams) have really done a good job taking advantage of their opportunities as the year has gone by, and as their opportunities increase.
“We need everybody. That’s why we felt that in the offseason [we should] try to play more people, as many different combinations of personnel as we can. We’ve been doing that for 12 weeks, and we need to continue to do so.”
The contributions stand in stark contrast to those of the 2011 and 2012 draft classes, as only five players – first-round outside linebacker Nick Perry, second-round cornerback Casey Hayward and fourth-round defensive tackle Mike Daniels from the 2012 class, and second-round wide receiver Randall Cobb and fourth-round cornerback Davon House from the 2011 draft – remain on the team. The 2011 class’ rookie contracts are up after the season, and it’s unfathomable to think the 2013 or 2014 classes would be down to so few remaining players by the time the final years of their rookie deals arrive.
“This draft class this year has been completely professional. Amazing with how mature they are, actually. Eye-opening,” veteran fullback John Kuhn said. “They come into work every day, they don’t complain, they’re not late. This class has definitely been one of the more impressive rookie classes from just off the field and in the classroom, and now they’re contributing on the field.”
Aaron Rodgers saw it early. It was the middle of training camp when the Packers quarterback praised this year’s class – and made it clear how it was different from previous ones as the first round of cuts approached.
“You have to earn a spot on this team,” Rodgers said in mid-August. “I think you’re seeing it with this draft class, the maturity about them, the lack of the entitlement that maybe we’ve seen in some other draft classes. They’ve come in and worked really hard. It’s going to be a tough cutdown.”
A little more than three months later, having reiterated the maturity he’s seen from his team, Rodgers delivered another observation: Those young players are bringing an energy and hunger that only comes with youth – and can become contagious.
“Often the best thing you can get out of young guys is not knowing how good they are, that desire to be a part of something special and not really realizing how good they can be,” said Rodgers, who turned 31 on Tuesday and is in his 10th NFL season, his seventh as the Packers’ starting QB. “It’s that hunger and approach that can really start to permeate through the entire team, especially the veterans.
“As you see these guys who are really starting to get it – Richard Rodgers, Davante, Ha Ha on defense, these guys who are playing big roles for us and doing a great job – that’s inspiring as much as a play by [veterans such as] Jordy [Nelson] or a play by Julius [Peppers] or Clay [Matthews] can be.
“So this is an exciting team because you can see the pieces coming together. You see the defense playing great, and the offensive line dominating the way they’ve been dominating and it makes it a lot of fun. Hopefully we’ll look back and say this was our best team to date, but that will only be the case if we can take it all the way.”
But Rodgers knows those young players will be key to that success, and that’s one reason why he’s made it a priority to connect with them, even as he gets older. Rodgers saw the distance there was between his predecessor, Brett Favre, and the younger players on the team – both literally, because Favre dressed in a staff locker room instead of at his locker in the big room, and figuratively – and has used it as a cautionary tale for him.
Even though there are now players who were in elementary school when the Packers drafted him in the first round of the 2005 NFL Draft – Adams, who turns 22 on Christmas Eve, was a high-school senior when the Packers won Super Bowl XLV – Rodgers said he does his best to remain fluent in the language they speak.
“I’m only 31, right? But you know what? I think you have to keep up with the times,” Rodgers explained during his weekly radio show on 540 ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com. “I don’t have Instagram and I don’t do Twitter during the season, but you kind of have to be up to date on everything, and I am by nature. I love music, so I’m always kind of in the music scene. I’ll change the music to ’90s usually on Fridays during our workouts to kind of get us in the right mood, some of us older guys. Put on ’90s alternative and get some good tunes flowing.
“Leadership is all about meeting guys where they’re at and figuring out what makes them tick. What kind of leadership they respond to, what kind of encouragement they respond to best. It just takes time. You have to invest in your teammates and spend time with them and talk to them, have conversations, remember things about them, kids’ names, wives’ names, things they like to do. That’s just being a good teammate and it’s being a good friend.
“If you want guys to believe in you and play for you and raise the level of their play, you’ve got to let them know that they appreciate them, you care about them and you want to see them get better. That’s done through conversations and through taking the time and meeting people where they’re at.”
Where those young guys are at right now is further toward maturity than many rookies who’ve come through the locker room in recent years. There’s an oft-told story from a few years ago when a major snowstorm hit the Green Bay metroplex and McCarthy dispatched staffers to pick up players who were unaccustomed to driving in snow. When a team representative contacted one young player on his cell phone that morning to offer door-to-door service to Lambeau Field for meetings and practice that day, the player sheepishly had to admit that he wasn’t at home – he was in the dorm room of a female UW-Green Bay student.
While it’s possible there’s been some aberrant behavior or general knuckleheadedness from the young players who’ve contributed this season – “You have your things here or there, but for the most part, these guys came in and understood what it meant to be a professional football player,” Kuhn said – there hasn’t been anything significant that’s rubbed the veterans the wrong way. And that’s almost as important as young players performing on the field.
“When I was playing, there was some division (between the younger guys and the older guys). There’s none of that here,” said offensive line coach James Campen, whose veteran linemen require the rookies to deliver beverages, snacks and chewing tobacco for meetings. “Those guys are accepted. They all go through a process of doing the goofy things they have to do. But when it comes time for football, it’s ‘Hey, you need me as much as I need you. So let’s go.'”
And the Packers will clearly need their young guys down the stretch. Entering the final four weeks of the regular season, Adams has 34 receptions for 417 yards after last week’s six-catch, 121-yard effort against New England; Lacy has 770 yards rushing (4.4-yard average) after running for a two-game season-high 223 yards in the past two weeks; Clinton-Dix has become the full-time starter at safety and ranks third on the team in tackles (74); Hyde has two interceptions, a sack and a 75-yard punt return for a touchdown during the team’s four-game winning streak; Richard Rodgers has caught a touchdown pass in each of the past two games; and Linsley and Bakhtiari are part of an offensive line that’s among the league’s best.
“It’s time to stack them now,” Adams said of the rookies’ successes. “In my book, I feel like I could have or should have had an early run of the season, but better late than never. I’m just going to use it as a play to just continue going forward.”
Way of life
For as long as Ted Thompson is the general manager and McCarthy is the head coach, the Packers will always rely on young players’ contributions. When defensive coordinator Dom Capers was the head coach of the Carolina Panthers in the mid-1990s, the expansion franchise operated under a win-now edict and reached the NFC championship game – a game they lost to the eventual Super Bowl-champion Packers – in 1996, their second season in existence. Two years later, when the aging veterans who’d helped the Panthers win right away had broken down, Capers was out of a job.
“It’s far more prevalent now than it was 10 years ago. It’s just the way things are structured,” Capers said of relying on young players. “We’re a draft and develop team, and when you take that approach, you’re going to have a lot of young guys. We’ve always had a young roster. It’s a young man’s game. But it places a priority on getting these young guys ready to go play.
“You know that sometimes you’re going to have to work your way through some bumps in the road, but hopefully you improve, and you hope that when it’s time to be playing your best football, they’re more battle-tested. I think you’ve seen [the young] guys play some pretty good football for us in the month of November.”
And while the veterans remain vital to the Packers’ success – most importantly the quarterback, who missed seven-plus games last season with a broken left collarbone and is now the frontrunner for NFL MVP – it’s clear that their youth movement will have a say in how their season turns out, too.
“It’s a great feeling knowing that we don’t have to pull a guy aside and say, ‘Hey, listen: You need to do it this way. We don’t have much time,'” Kuhn said. “I think it really pays dividends later on in the year, like now, when you don’t have those step-back days. Two steps forward, one step back. This is all moving forward. Everybody’s on the same train, moving in the right direction.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.
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