Packers' philosophy keeps roster forever young

Pete Dougherty
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When Mike McCarthy met with the media after his Green Bay Packers defeated the Detroit Lions last week, he first summarized the game, then threw in an aside about the high number of rookies and first-year players he’d put on the field.

Packers defensive back Kentrell Brice stuffs Detroit Lions receiver Golden Tate during their game Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016 at Lambeau Field.

“Nine of them on defense, and they got a lot of opportunities,” he said, “and with that we'll be a much better team as we move forward.”

To be exact, McCarthy played 10 rookies and one first-year pro in the game, though when you remember that special teams are included in that number, it doesn’t necessarily say a lot.

On the other hand, seven rookies and one first-year pro playing seven or more snaps each on defense? Now there’s an eye-catcher.

That’s a lot of important snaps going to the youngest of players in a game that counts in the standings for a team with the highest of expectations this season.

It says a lot about the Packers’ personnel philosophy and the current state of the game. It also reaffirms a couple of age-old scouting aphorisms in the NFL.

One old saw is that there’s not much difference among most players in the NFL. If you want to take the most macro of views, a handful of players really matter; then there’s the rest.

Or a little less macro, there are the players who are Pro Bowl caliber or better, then there’s everyone else. Many have value for the role they fill with the team they’re on, but most don’t last long and are easily replaced.

There’s great truth in this view. The Packers can play all these rookies liberally and still win year after year because they have an elite quarterback plus a few other players better than the norm. There’s not much difference between these rookies and the veterans they’ve replaced.

Another truism is that football is a young man’s game. George Young, the former New York Giants general manager, likened the NFL to the Marines: The younger, the better. Young players are fresher physically and hungrier psychologically. They’re quicker, faster and trying to prove themselves.

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Ted Thompson, the Packers’ general manager and a scout’s scout, has taken this approach to heart. He consistently fields one of the youngest teams in the NFL. From 2006 through ’09, his rosters were the league’s youngest on opening day. From ’10 through this year, they ranked no lower than sixth, including third in 2011, ‘15 and ’16.

Thompson probably would add a couple of arguments for youth to his list.

One is financial. The entire league is skewing younger than ever, in large part because of budgets. Kevin Clark of The Ringer mined Football Outsiders’ snap-weighted age data and found that from 2006 through last year, the average age of the players on the field had dropped from 27.2 to 26.6.

The reasons are free agency and the salary cap. Rookie contracts are cheap and offset the cost of the handful of key veterans on each team who have lucrative deals.

Turning over the roster annually also is part of mining for good players. When you draft or sign rookies, you don’t know which ones will become keepers. Some last only a year, others two or three. A few make it through the four-year window to free agency.

Fewer still stay on for a second contract. Everyone else is replaced, usually with someone younger. It’s a constant process as teams try to find those keepers.

Thompson famously runs the most draft-and-develop (really draft/sign-and-develop) franchise in the NFL. Everyone does it, only he does it more. For his coaches, starting at the top with McCarthy, it comes with payoffs and costs.

The payoff is that young players have the potential to improve more during the season than veterans, who often stay static or even decline depending on their age and health.

The cost is mistakes that veterans are less likely to make, especially early in the year. We saw that last week when Detroit’s Marvin Jones burned the Packers with a 73-yard touchdown catch in the final 40 seconds of the first half.

Two rookies, both undrafted at that, were responsible: cornerback Josh Hawkins and safety Kentrell Brice. Hawkins gave up the completion and then missed the tackle; Brice made a bad read and was late to help, which allowed a nice gain to become a touchdown.

No, it wasn’t in the Packers’ offseason plans to rotate in seven rookies on defense in Week 3. Injuries to Clay Matthews, Letroy Guion, Sam Shields, Datone Jones and Morgan Burnett opened up a lot of playing time.

But fourth-round pick Blake Martinez (30 snaps) figured to be a regular at inside linebacker from the day he was drafted, and first-rounder Kenny Clark (42) was picked to immediately help the defensive line.

The rest were at least possibilities to get on the field when Thompson and McCarthy kept them on the final 53.

Third-rounder Kyler Fackrell (37 snaps) played a lot because of Matthews’ and Jones’ injuries. Hawkins (seven) was as an occasional fourth cornerback with Shields sidelined, and Brice (12 snaps) worked at safety in the dime because of a domino effect with Burnett out. With Guion out and Mike Pennell suspended, fourth-rounder Dean Lowry (11 snaps) and undrafted Brian Price (10 snaps) were regulars on the defensive line.

I can’t say I noticed it during the game, but with McCarthy’s comment in mind as I re-watched Monday, it was startling to see a couple of snaps in base defense featuring four rookies (Price, Lowry, Fackrell and Martinez) and a first-year pro (Christian Ringo) on the field at the same time.

But that’s the Packers, and that’s the NFL, where venerable scouting axioms and modern salary-cap concerns are skewing rosters younger than ever. Thompson and McCarthy have been smart to get on the front end of that curve, growing pains and all. Chances are in January they’ll be better for it.

— and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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