McCarthy specifically points to the second-year players as making "the biggest improvement." For the Packers to rise back to the level of serious championship contenders, McCarthy also will need his third-year players to take another step forward. That list is eight players strong, with six members of the 2011 draft class (first-rounder Derek Sherrod, second-rounder Randall Cobb, third-rounder Alex Green, fourth-rounder Davon House, fifth-rounder D.J. Williams and seventh-rounder Ryan Taylor) and two undrafted free agents from 2011 (M.D. Jennings and Jamari Lattimore).
The end of Sherrod's rookie season and all of 2012 were ruined by a broken leg. When he went down in that Week 15 game at Kansas City, offensive line coach James Campen said Sherrod was just starting to turn the corner after not playing consistently enough to earn a starting job at training camp.
Depending on when Sherrod is cleared to practice, he could emerge as the starting right tackle. After the draft, McCarthy said he's "really counting on Sherrod to be a factor." However, when training camp begins, it will be about 19 months since Sherrod has seen any live, full-pads action.
"It's very important" for Sherrod to get to work, Campen said recently. "He's champing at the bit. All the signs have shown to be positive. I'm excited to get him back out there."
While the Packers really have no idea what, if anything, Sherrod will ever contribute to the club, there are no such doubts about Cobb. All he did last season was set a franchise record with a league-high 2,342 total yards. He led the team with 80 receptions and 954 yards. He also averaged 13.2 yards per rush, 25.4 yards on kickoff returns and 9.4 yards on punt returns. Without Greg Jennings, Cobb's value on offense is obvious – making it equally obvious why the coaches would like to get him off of returns.
"He definitely has a lot more growth in front of him, and it's exciting, for how productive he's been as a young player," McCarthy said.
As with Sherrod, the jury is out on Green. He lost the starting job in the backfield twice, once to retread veteran Cedric Benson and later to practice-squad find DuJuan Harris. He led the team with just 464 rushing yards. He averaged a paltry 3.4 yards per carry, and averaged at least 4.0 yards in just four of his 12 games. In Green's defense, he was coming off a torn ACL that ended his rookie season after just four games and three carries, so the coaches probably haven't seen Green at his best.
"I think we've got flashes and glimpses from before the injury," running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said. "I'll tell you, that's a tough kid in room. The guys worked his butt off through all that stuff last year and came back and didn't play at 100 percent and never complained one time. I know I've got a hard worker. I'm excited to see him another year healthier and his explosion and everything he brought to the table before the injury."
House just needs to stay healthy. He was on pace to be the No. 2 corner last season before a shoulder injury sustained in the preseason opener at San Diego. In two seasons, he's played in only 11 games. If healthy, he'll challenge Sam Shields and Casey Hayward to be the No. 2 cornerback, and he'll challenge Shields as the third corner when Hayward moves inside in nickel and dime.
Williams has been a disappointment. One of the best pass-catching tight ends in the nation at Arkansas, Williams has contributed nine receptions for 70 yards in 26 career games. He was sensational at training camp frequently last summer but it didn't carry over to the regular season. Even with the passing game struggling in Greg Jennings' absence, Williams had a nine-game stretch without a reception.
With the return of Andrew Quarless, the signing of Matthew Mulligan and Brandon Bostick and Jake Stoneburner vying for receiving roles, Williams might not make the team. Or, he might have a breakout season.
"I feel like everyone in our room has that ability," Williams said. "It's so competitive in that tight end room. Some people may get stressed out with that much competition, but we just feed off of it and help each other."
Joining Williams in the crowded tight end battle is Taylor. He's caught two passes in 31 career games but has 18 tackles on special teams. Taylor and Lattimore are among the core players on special teams. Lattimore, who with Jarrett Bush was a special-teams captain for the playoffs, had 10 tackles on the kicking units last year.
M.D. Jennings didn't play a snap on defense as a rookie but was a staple of the defense last season, especially after Charles Woodson's broken collar bone. Jennings started 10 games and had 46 tackles, one interception and six passes defensed. He's a pretty solid favorite to retain the starting role.
"He's a taller safety and taller guys have to work a little harder at staying lower," safeties coach Darren Perry said. "His confidence level should be pretty high. He did some good things last year."
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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.