"I really do think they got a first-day guy in the seventh round if he stays healthy," Rick Trickett told Packer Report last year.
Finally healthy and at full strength after a series of shoulder injuries doomed his draft stock and left Datko laboring on the practice squad last year, he's ready to make a run at a roster spot — and potentially more.
"Oh, yeah, definitely," Datko said at the Packers' rookie camp last week. "The shoulder's not even a problem anymore. I've got nothing to worry about. I'm 100 percent and ready to go. I'm going to go full speed, 100 percent every day, and leave it up to the coaches."
Datko had surgery on his left shoulder as a junior at Saint Thomas Aquinas High School in Weston, Fla. The procedure scared off recruiters but not Florida State. An undersized Datko moved from high school guard to ACC left tackle and started the final 12 games of his true freshman season and was a consensus Freshman All-American.
"I remember Everette Brown, who was a second-round pick, Datko only weighed about 275 or whatever as a true freshman, and every damn pass rush, the first thing that hit the ground would be the back of Datko's head," Trickett recalled. "Everette never took it easy on Andrew. But he got better and better and started dominating his junior year."
Datko started all 13 games as a sophomore, when he decisively won his matchups against future NFL players Derrick Morgan of Georgia Tech, Robert Quinn of North Carolina and Willie Young of North Carolina State. Heading into his junior season of 2010, Datko aggravated his shoulder during fall camp and wound up missing three games when he injured it again during an early-season clash against Oklahoma. Datko returned and started 11 games. He was superb while playing at far less than full strength, allowing one sack all season while facing the likes of Oklahoma's Frank Alexander, Miami's Allen Bailey and Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers.
Datko (Jeff Hanisch - USA Today Sports)
Entering his senior season, Datko was seen as a first-round prospect.
"I think everybody felt that way," Trickett said.
Instead, while working out in May 2011, Datko tore the labrum in his right shoulder. He had surgery on both shoulders but the left shoulder didn't heal properly. In retrospect, Datko said, he came back too soon. He was shut down during fall camp and tried to answer the bell when the season kicked off, but the coaches shut him down after the fourth game and Datko had surgery again in November.
And with that, Datko's hopes for a banner senior season — not to mention his draft prospects — sunk like a stone.
Datko never challenged for a roster spot as a rookie and was stuck on the practice squad while undrafted rookie Don Barclay emerged as a starter and another undrafted rookie, Greg Van Roten, was promoted to the active roster. Nonetheless, Datko's first year in the league was a success.
"Last season, about I'd say Week 4, the confidence in my shoulder really came back, then during the whole season, it was just getting better and better," Datko said.
"During the season, my pop really came back. You saw it with Derrick Rose (of the NBA's Chicago Bulls). He might be healthy but you've got to be healthy in the mind first before going out there. Even when people come back, that mind's got to be right. You see with people with (torn) ACLs, they favor the leg when they come back. It's really another process to coming back from injury."
Offensive line coach James Campen saw Datko play better and more confidently as the season progressed.
"He's getting better and better, more comfortable and stronger with his shoulder and more confident in it," Campen said late last season. "He's done a nice job. He's improving."
At the one practice reporters were allowed to attend last week, Datko lined up at left guard. Datko could make a push to be the No. 1 left-side backup, and could earn a shot at the wide-open race at right tackle.
Datko didn't feel up to the challenge as a rookie, when he wasn't confident enough or strong enough. That's changed. He says he's stronger than ever and his mind-set is to thrive rather than survive.
"You're always trying to chisel down that wall," Datko said. "It's never a one-practice thing. ‘Oh, I've got it again.' You've got to break down that wall and, finally, you don't even think about it anymore. That's the point where I'm getting to."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.