Rookies Filling Major Void

The 2011 draft class has mostly been a failure, but the 2014 crop of rookies has provided a sudden impact. That was especially apparent during last week's game against New England, with Clinton-Dix's pass breakup, Adams' big game, Rodgers' touchdown and Linsley's typically strong performance. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

When a team blows most of a draft class, like the Green Bay Packers did in 2011, it needs a big draft class to fill the voids.

To the rescue has come the Packers’ Class of 2014.

First-round safety HaHa Clinton-Dix’s solid rookie season filled one of the biggest weaknesses on the team. Second-round receiver Davante Adams showed his worth against New England. Third-round tight end Richard Rodgers has become a contributor. And fifth-round center Corey Linsley has been arguably the most impressive rookie of them all in solidifying a position that was in flux after J.C. Tretter went down in the preseason.

“We’re blessed with our rookie class of guys who are really gym rats, students of the game,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said on Thursday. “Guys who put in the time and prepare well. You need to see it in practice. … I’m obviously very proud of Davante with the way he’s played. (With) Corey and HaHa, (that’s) just four of our young guys who’ve been really making a big impact for us.”

Even though he didn’t move into the starting lineup until Week 7, Clinton-Dix is third on the team with 74 tackles. He has 10 passes defensed, including the big one late in last week’s game against New England to deny a touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski, and one interception. He’s added a badly needed physical element to the secondary, and he should only get better as he tightens up his tackling and gets more comfortable in a playmaking role.

Adams, not unlike most rookie receivers, has provided inconsistent production. He’s caught 34 passes for 417 yards and three touchdowns, figures that rank 11th, 12th and tied for ninth among this year’s talented group of rookies. Of that, 24 receptions and 323 yards came in four games; he’s had five games of zero or one catches. Nonetheless, Adams proved he can deliver when necessary with his six receptions for 121 yards against a Patriots defense determined to limit Jordy Nelson.

“It’s time to stack them now,” Adams said. “It’s a little late for a breakout, I guess. In my book, I feel like I could have or should have had an early run of the season, but better late than never.”

Added Nelson: “I think he’s done a great job. I think a lot of it’s just been his amount of opportunities. He hasn’t had as many as he probably would’ve liked, and I think it showed in the New England game. He was going to have to step up for just the way they play, and he had a great matchup and made the most of it. We’ve always known (and) I think Aaron’s always known that he has the ability and talent to do it, it’s just getting him the ball and them continuing to build that chemistry. With rookies, it’s up and down because they don’t have the week in and week out chemistry, but it was big for us and hopefully he can build off that and continue to move forward.”

Richard Rodgers’ contributions have slowly increased as he works behind Andrew Quarless. In the first six games, he caught two passes for 52 yards. In the last six games, he’s caught 11 passes for 120 yards, with touchdowns each of the last two weeks. The 32-yard touchdown reception against the Patriots last week was particularly impressive, as he fought off tight coverage from safety Patrick Chung to haul in the deep throw.

“Richard had a great week of practice last week,” Aaron Rodgers said. “He made a number of catches in the cold when we went outside for a lot of our team drills. Then he gets in the game and makes a contested, over-the-shoulder catch. It’s not surprising. He’s got great hands, but his attention to deal and the preparation (are) things that separate themselves when you’re a young player.”

Linsley’s play has been noted throughout the season by opposing coaches who, unprompted, have mentioned him during the weekly conference calls. Last week, Bill Belichick told reporters in New England that the Patriots “were all over” Linsley during the pre-draft process. Watching Linsley on tape in preparation for last week’s game, Belichick came away impressed for many of the same reasons why his team is so high on its rookie center, Bryan Stork. Chief among them was Linsley’s ability to operate in Green Bay’s up-tempo offense.

“There is a lot to that position, especially the learning curve and being a rookie,” Belichick said last week. “It’s on a lot of levels, starting with things like the cadence. A guy like Aaron Rodgers or Tom (Brady) that use a lot of different cadences to try to draw the defense offside or to try to get some type of an indication of what the defense is going to be in, all the different no-huddle communication that makes everything happen just so much quicker. It’s one thing to have 40 seconds to hear the play and think about your assignment and go out there and do it. It’s another thing to cut those times in half or maybe even a third where you still have the same job to do.

“The communication, the snap counts, the decision-making on the fronts and how to treat different personnel groupings that we see on defense – nickel, dime and multiple defensive end packages and guys that are standing up and guys that are down and so forth and so on – those are all decisions that really run through the center and the quarterback and then are communicated to the rest of the line. It’s a tremendous amount of responsibility. It’s a lot of preparation time and then a lot of recognition and decision-making that happens very quickly on the field, especially when they start stemming fronts or walking guys up in and out of the line of scrimmage. Things like that really spins the wheel a lot faster. Like I said, that’s all just in addition to basic plays or snap counts.”

Linsley’s strong play will finally put the brakes on the Packers’ center merry-go-round. After veteran Scott Wells departed in free agency following the 2011 season, the Packers had Jeff Saturday in 2012 and Evan Dietrich-Smith in 2013. Rodgers, on his weekly radio show on ESPN Milwaukee a few weeks ago, promoted Linsley for the Pro Bowl. According to ProFootballFocus.com’s grades, he’s the fourth-best center in the league.

“He doesn’t make the same mistake twice,” Rodgers said when asked what stood out about Linsley. “You might think that’s an elementary fact there, but it’s pretty impressive for a rookie to be able to pick up the offense the way he has. He’s got two great guys to play next to (in guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang) as far as getting his checks and his calls down, but Corey is a very bright guy. I’m sure he’s a great note-taker, because he doesn’t make the same mistake twice, and he’s always making the correct call and adjusting. If he makes a mistake, he goes and fixes it right away. The physical part, he has all the physical tools you want, with his body flexibility, his strength, his hand placement and those type of things. But the mental part is where a center can really excel, and he’s been excellent at that.”

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


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