“They act like they belong.”
Those were the words coach Mike McCarthy used to describe his group of newcomers last May during the Green Bay Packers’ rookie orientation camp.
Turns out that McCarthy could not have been more spot on.
Though the Packers under general manager Ted Thompson employ the “best available player” mantra when it comes to selecting players in the NFL Draft, the 2014 class filled needs at many of the Packers’ weakest spots, at least on paper.
At the safety and center position, the Packers not only got quality players but also significant upgrades from the previous season.
At tight end and wide receiver, in an effort to improve depth with the losses of Jermichael Finely and James Jones, the Packers got uncommon rookie production behind offensive leaders Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb.
By the end of the 2014 regular season, eight-year Packers veteran John Kuhn was praising the rookie group as one of the most mature and professional the Packers have had during his time in Green Bay. The team’s best player gave a similarly glowing assessment: “We’re blessed with our rookie class of guys who are really gym rats, students of the game, guys who put in the time and prepare well. You need to see it in practice,” said quarterback Aaron Rodgers near the end of last season. “I’m obviously very proud of Davante (Adams) with the way he’s played. Corey (Linsley) and HaHa (Clinton-Dix), (and Richard Rodgers), just four of our young guys who’ve really made a big impact for us.”
How big of an impact? Well, consider this — not since 2006 have the Packers gotten more starts out of a rookie draft class. Center Corey Linsley was the only draft pick to start all 16 games but with Davante Adams making 11 starts as the third wide receiver, safety HaHa Clinton-Dix making 10 starts, and tight end Richard Rodgers chipping in five, that combines for 42 starts. In 2006, going through a transition phase in head coaches from Mike Sherman to McCarthy, the draft class contributed 66 total starts with A.J. Hawk (16 starts), Daryn Colledge (15), Jason Spitz (13), Greg Jennings (11) and Tony Moll (10) leading the way.
By comparison, the 2013 draft class totaled 36 starts. The 2005 class had 32 and the 2007 class 31. Next up was the 2009 class with 24, then 2010 with 21, 2012 with 16, 2008 with eight, and 2011 with just three.
The general rule is that it takes four years to really judge a draft class so time will tell how the 2014 group ultimately pans out. But if the highest-profile regular season game — one billed as a Super Bowl preview — was any indication, the Packers should feel pretty good.
With the Packers clinging to a five-point lead over the New England Patriots late in the fourth quarter, Tom Brady was set up for another one of his classic fourth-quarter comebacks. The Patriots were driving, and on a second-and-9 from the Packers’ 20 with five receivers split out, first-round pick Clinton-Dix found himself one-on-one against 6-foot-6, 265-pound All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski. There was no doubt Brady was going to test the rookie safety.
After getting an initial bump off the line of scrimmage on Gronkowski, Clinton-Dix went stride-for-stride down the left sideline. As both dove in the end zone for Brady’s long pass, the rookie stayed with the play just long enough to break up what could have been another spectacular touchdown grab for the NFL’s ultimate red zone target. Two plays later, the Patriots missed a field goal attempt and the Packers would hang on for the biggest win of the season to that point.
“That was a very big play,” said safety Morgan Burnett. “The guy wasn’t afraid to compete. The guy stepped up. We preach finish and he finished through the play and made a big play for us. ... Just seeing him play and going against (Gronkowski) you see why he’s so good at what he does.”
Gronkowski caught just one of four passes going up against Clinton-Dix that day.
Only six rookie safeties played at least 25 percent of their team’s snaps by Pro Football Focus’ count, including fellow first-rounders Calvin Pryor of the New York Jets and Deone Bucannon of the Arizona Cardinals. Clinton-Dix played more than any of them, however, and was the only one to record an interception, sack and fumble recovery during the regular season. In the postseason, he added two more interceptions at Seattle and dropped a third in the NFC Championship Game.
Adams, the second-round receiver, and Rodgers, the third-round tight end, also delivered against New England. Adams caught six passes for 121 yards while Rodgers had a 32-yard touchdown.
Through typical rookie ups and downs, Adams had a better first year statistically than either of the top two Packers receivers. His 38 catches for 446 yards and three touchdowns bested Nelson in 2008 (33-366-2) and Cobb in 2011 (25-375-1). Only Jones in 2007 (47-676-2) and Jennings in 2006 (45-632-3) had more productive rookie seasons among the 11 other wide receivers selected during the Thompson era.
“Everybody’s excited about his potential as this is just the beginning,” said the quarterback Rodgers just after the Patriots game, when Adams caught six passes for 121 yards. “He’s laying the foundation for his career this season and he’s going to be a big-time player for us.”
So, too, might the tight end Rodgers. After an inconsistent start to the season, the Packers used more two-tight end sets with Rodgers and Andrew Quarless down the stretch
Quarless had 21 catches as a rookie in 2010 and Rodgers had 20 this past season (plus five more in the postseason) in a system under McCarthy that tends to shelter rookie tight ends as receiving targets. Only three rookie tight ends around the league — the Jets’ Jace Amaro, the Detroit Lions’ Eric Ebron and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Austin Seferian-Jenkins — had more catches than Rodgers.
“It’s not surprising,” said the quarterback Rodgers of the play of his fellow California Golden Bear. “He’s got great hands, but his attention to detail and the preparation are things that separate themselves when you’re a young player, and I’m proud of him.”
Finally, the Packers’ offensive line would have been in trouble without the unexpected contributions of Linsley, the first of the team’s fifth-round selections in 2014. By the end of the regular season, Linsley was a rock for the Packers and the headliner of the rookie class considering what happened in the preseason, when presumptive starter J.C. Tretter was injured and Linsley was thrown into the fire.
“The physical part, he has all the physical tools you want with his body flexibility, his strength, his hand placement and those types of things,” said Rodgers of the first rookie center for the Packers to start every game since the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978. “But the mental part is where a center can really excel, and he’s been excellent at that.”
In the regular season, nobody on the Packers played more snaps than Linsley’s 1,072 (according to Pro Football Focus). He gave up just one sack and two quarterback hits. And on running plays up the middle, the Packers averaged 4.9 yards per carry as opposed to 3.9 to the left and 4.4 to the right.
“He’s one of those guys as a rookie that came in here and you knew right away he belonged,” said McCarthy. “First day of pads, it was like, ‘Hey man, this guy, he’s a powerful young man.’ So, he fit right in. That’s why I was never worried about him.”
Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org