The Green Bay Packers probably wouldn’t be 4-1 to start the 2017 season without the valuable contributions from this year’s rookie class.
While three of General Manager Ted Thompson’s 10 draft picks didn’t make the 53-man roster and two others were hurt before or during training camp and haven’t made an impact, three rookies are playing increasingly more important roles as the Packers have survived an onslaught of injuries to start the season.
Where would the Packers be without cornerback Kevin King, safety/inside linebacker Josh Jones and running back Aaron Jones?
King’s length and athleticism steadied a constantly evolving cornerback group and eventually gave the Packers a fighting chance against Pro Bowl receivers Julio Jones and A.J. Green in back-to-back weeks. Jones has added quickness and physicality as an inside linebacker in the “Nitro” package. Together, the two have provided much of what the defense otherwise lacked: speed, playmaking ability and a contagious confidence that every play is a new opportunity to make something positive happen.
Aaron Jones joined the party Sunday in Dallas.
The rookie running back returned to his home state of Texas and put on a show, rushing 19 times for 125 yards and a touchdown during the Packers’ 35-31 win over the Dallas Cowboys. Since taking over as the lead back midway through Green Bay’s win over Chicago on Sept. 28, Jones has rushed for 174 yards and a pair of scores.
An injury to starting running back Ty Montgomery opened the door for Jones, and he took full advantage.
“Very proud of Aaron Jones,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “He earned the opportunity to start today, and he produced. That’s what you look for in all your players, especially your young players. This was his first chance to take a big load in the run game, and I thought he played outstanding. I love his running style. Very productive. Great job.”
Jones started the game with two runs for 21 yards on the Packers’ first drive. Later, he scored a 7-yard touchdown and delivered a 22-yard run, the first run of over 20 yards by a Packers running back this season.
But it was his decision on a carry during the final drive that caught QB Aaron Rodgers’ attention.
Jones sliced through the Cowboys defense and found his way out of bounds, giving the Packers 15 easy yards and stopping the clock with 45 seconds left.
“Not only does he get through the line and make a nice run, but the kid runs out of bounds,” Rodgers said. “That’s stuff you can’t coach. You love the instincts there. He’s a talented guy. I’m really proud of him. Big step today for him.”
Five plays after Jones’ run, Rodgers hit Davante Adams for the go-ahead touchdown with 11 seconds left.
The Packers could have used a longer appearance from King, who departed Sunday after playing only 16 snaps because of a concussion. He’s still been on the field for almost 75 percent of Green Bay’s defensive snaps through five games. On the first play from scrimmage Sunday, King diagnosed a swing pass to Ezekiel Elliott and blew up the play with a flattening tackle for a 4-yard loss.
The rookie cornerback fears no one – he openly campaigned for opportunities to cover Green and Dez Bryant – and his internal belief isn’t built on fake bravado.
“That’s the way this league works, there’s a difference between confidence and false confidence,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “(Cornerback) is a position you need to be confident because you’re going to get challenged. He’s a confident guy and has good athletic ability. We like a lot of things he brings.”
When King returns, he’ll likely resume his role as the defense’s No. 1 cornerback.
Josh Jones has turned the “Nitro” package from an interesting subpackage into the Packers’ de facto base defense. His size and speed has recharged the front seven and allowed the Packers to still stop the run with Jones playing inside linebacker.
Against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 3, Jones tallied a pair of sacks and a crucial third-down tackle in overtime. He was a difference-maker on a day when the Packers were fighting tooth and nail to overcome injuries and avoid a letdown.
Not bad for a rookie learning how to play two different positions at the NFL level.
“We’ve put a lot on his plate,” Packers safeties coach Darren Perry said. “He can do a number of things. To his credit, he’s handled it.”
While punter Justin Vogel wasn’t a draft pick, the rookie’s booming, 59-yard punt in the second half was an underrated play Sunday. It pinned the Cowboys deep, and two plays later, Damarious Randall was gifted a pick-six on a bobbled pass from quarterback Dak Prescott. Vogel can flip the field like no Packers punter in recent memory.
More rookie reinforcements could be on the way.
Third-round pick Montravius Adams was inactive Sunday in Dallas, but he’s now nearing the point where the Packers should be comfortable giving him snaps as an interior pass rusher. Adams missed nearly all of training camp and wasn’t active during the first two weeks. His reintegration period must be nearing its end.
The Packers are also closing in on the return of outside linebacker Vince Biegel, the team’s fourth-round pick who remains on the PUP list. He’ll be eligible for activation to the roster by next week. Like Adams, Biegel will need time to get reacclimated and make up for time missed. But he’ll have a chance to earn a spot in the outside linebacker rotation if he comes on strong late in the year.
It’s possible Adams and Biegel could give the Packers the same kind of spark in December and January that King and Jones have provided in September and October.
Four other rookie draft picks remain in Green Bay: running back Jamaal Williams, receiver DeAngelo Yancey, offensive lineman Kofi Amichia and running back Devante Mays. Williams and Mays are now backups behind Montgomery and Jones, while Yancey and Amichia are currently stashed on the practice squad. Injuries always have the chance to create new opportunities, as the Packers continue to learn.
“I think of all 63 players. We have a bunch of guys, moving parts. We talked about it being a little bit of a bumpy ride,” McCarthy said.
A bumpy ride is a good description of the Packers’ first five games. The valuable contributions from three rookies have helped steady a roster that probably wouldn’t be 4-1 without them.
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