The Green Bay Packers may have pulled two opening-day starters out of this year’s draft, but it’s the future of the defense that has benefited the most from recent newcomers.
Third-round safety Morgan Burnett has worked with the No. 1 defense throughout the offseason and training camp with 2009 starter Atari Bigby out. Meanwhile, first-round pick Bryan Bulaga is in a tight competition with Daryn Colledge to start at left guard.
Last year, the Packers wound up with two rookie starters: first-round linebacker Clay Matthews cracked the No. 1 defensive unit a month into the season, and seventh-round outside linebacker Brad Jones replaced the injured Aaron Kampman in the final eight games.
Mix in 2009 first-round defensive tackle B.J. Raji, who will start this season, and 2010 second-round defensive end Mike Neal, who will be in the top five rotation, and there’s a young core on defense built through the last two drafts.
The 2006 draft, when Greg Jennings, Colledge, Jason Spitz and A.J. Hawk all started during that season, was the last time the franchise produced numerous rookie starters. But the Packers were coming off a 4-12 season and presumably starting jobs were easier to acquire. Now, with the Packers coming off a playoff berth and 11-5 season, it should be harder to crack the lineup.
Packers General Manager Ted Thompson likes how his team is coming together.
“I think that’s always kind of an ideal situation, have a nice mix of veterans and young guys,” Thompson said. “So that there’s history and understanding and experience on the part of the veterans. Then you have the future and the excitement and the nervousness on the part of the rookies.
“I think that makes a good mix.”
But can that mix equate to a Super Bowl-quality defense this season?
The Packers were the No. 1 run defense in the league before adding Neal, who teammates think may be the strongest defensive lineman on the roster. Ends Cullen Jenkins and Ryan Pickett are proven commodities and Nick Barnett and Hawk are dependable as inside linebackers. Reigning NFL defensive player of the year Charles Woodson and two-time Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins anchor the secondary.
The pass rush continues to be the glaring weakness, but the organization is counting on youth to pick up the slack.
Instead of drafting a high-profile pass rusher, Thompson had faith in Jones, who is battling with Brandon Chillar for the starting job opposite Matthews.
“When you think about last year, you look at us the second half of the season and we really had three rookie starters in that defensive front,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “With B.J. Raji, Clay (Matthews) and Brad (Jones), we liked the way they played, so that’s a good young group.
“If we can add some more young guys, you’ve got a pretty good young defense you can build on.”
The Packers ranked No. 2 in the NFL in overall defense last season, and assuming early returns are accurate, Burnett and Neal could make it better.
“We still have a lot of preseason left and training camp and all that,” Thompson said. “But so far, the (draft) group as a whole looks pretty good and I think can come in and play and help us win some games this year.”
The rest of the draft class — tight end Andrew Quarless (fifth round), offensive lineman Marshall Newhouse (fifth round), running back James Starks (sixth round) and defensive end C.J. Wilson — would be given incomplete grades through 17 practices.
Quarless has been up and down, flashing athleticism at times and dropping routine passes at others. He doesn’t figure to play a huge role in the offense behind Jermichael Finley and even Donald Lee, but stands a decent chance to make the final roster.
Newhouse took snaps at guard during the offseason but has worked mostly at tackle during camp. Making the 53-man squad will be a challenge for the TCU product.
“Tackle, from the knowledge we have at this point, will be his best position,” offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. “Whether that could eventually be on the right or left side, it’s too early to tell. But I think he looks more natural and comfortable at tackle.”
Starks hasn’t taken part in practice because of a hamstring injury. His absence has been felt more this week because starter Ryan Grant has missed two practices with a concussion and Kregg Lumpkin is down with a hamstring injury. Brandon Jackson and undrafted rookie Quinn Porter were the only healthy halfbacks.
Starks was drafted to be in the rotation and possibly compete with Jackson for the No. 2 job.
“Hopefully it’s more frustrating for him than us,” Philbin said. “I’m sure it is. Can’t get a very sound evaluation if you haven’t seen a guy practice in pads, that’s for sure.
“It’s a little bit of a challenge we have to work through.”
Wilson hasn’t made much of a mark behind Jenkins, Pickett, Neal, Justin Harrell and Jarius Wynn. The practice squad may be his best shot.