Tom Oates column: Draft class gets players' attention

10:13 PM, May 22, 2012  |  Comments

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The Green Bay Packers' all-defense, all-the-time draft has already achieved one of its goals.

The six rookie defenders have supplied a jolt of energy for a defense - and a team - that might have grown a little complacent after following up its victory in Super Bowl XLV with a 15-1 regular season in 2011.

The next goal will be for the six rookies to provide an influx of talent. Though that will take longer to manifest itself, coach Mike McCarthy sounded convinced when the Packers reconvened Tuesday for the first time since their shocking first-round playoff loss to the New York Giants.

"This is clearly the most experienced football team in conjunction with the most talent that I've had a chance to coach," said McCarthy, who is entering his seventh season in Green Bay. "That was my message to them this morning when we started. It's going to be very competitive."

With that statement, McCarthy set the bar for the 2012 Packers. If the current roster has more talent and experience than the team that won the Super Bowl two years ago and the one that dominated the regular-season last year, the sky is the limit.

"A lot of the guys are back; I think that's where he gets it from," wide receiver Jordy Nelson said after hearing McCarthy's lofty assessment of the team. "But at the same time, having that is not going to win any games for us. We've still got to go out and perform. Opposing teams aren't going to come in and say, 'Oh, they're deep and talented and experienced, so let's give them a win.' That's what everyone thought when we played Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl, that we didn't have experience and they did, so they were trying to hand them the win. But you've got to go out and play the game, and play it well."

To McCarthy, the key to a football team maintaining the necessary edge has always been competition from within. The Packers didn't have much of that last season, especially toward the end and particularly on defense.

The defense never could get it right due largely to an anemic pass rush, a development that heaped the pressure on quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the record-setting offense. The Packers added six defensive players they clearly coveted in the draft and two of them - first-round outside linebacker Nick Perry and second-round defensive end Jerel Worthy - played extensively with the first unit Tuesday when the team's initial OTA practice session of the offseason brought the veterans and rookies together for the first time.

The youth and speed the rookies have brought to the defense was noticeable immediately. More than anything, though, the rookies added energy.

"There's a lot more competition, so guys really have to get after it," cornerback Sam Shields said. "You saw it out there today. That was the beginning."

McCarthy certainly hopes so. So do most of the veterans, who gave their seal of approval to a draft that yielded only two offensive players, both in the seventh round. It didn't take a personnel expert to see that the Packers needed help - lots of help - on defense.

"I think everybody knew it was coming," linebacker Desmond Bishop said. "I think it was necessary."

Though the running back situation remains muddled with the team showing little interest in re-signing starter Ryan Grant, even the offensive players had no argument with the Packers using the draft to provide a six-pack of reinforcements for the defense.

"I think it's going to be good," Rodgers said. "We've got some new guys bringing some energy into that defense, so, as coach said, it's a room with a lot of talent. There's going to be some jobs on the line and some great competition once we get the pads on. The defense, they like to go pretty hard during these OTAs without pads on, but it's exciting to look across and see so many new faces."

Meanwhile, the combination of experienced players and promising rookies made for long lines at most defensive positions in Tuesday's practice. Clearly, the Packers don't plan on getting caught short-handed again.

"I think whenever you can have intrasquad competition, it makes the team better as a whole," Bishop said. "That's what we did as a team. We got a lot of young guys on defense and it's just going to help motivate other guys and raise everybody's play up to the level we need it."

If that happens, the listless, mistake-filled performance that ended last season with a premature thud will serve as a catalyst for a swift revival. The offense largely remains the same and the defense has an infusion of youth, talent and three or four pass-rushers, all of which it needed.

"This rookie class that we've been able to bring in here," McCarthy said, "has heightened the competition throughout our football team."

That was already apparent Tuesday, when the Packers officially embarked on their 2012 season.

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If you've ever answered "Who has the ball?" with "It's halftime," you might recognize The Airhead. Check out the characters in our cartoon gallery of oddball fans.

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