Football without contact isn’t really football.
Nonetheless, if you count the rookie orientation camp, we watched all six offseason practices that were open to reporters and some players jumped to the forefront. This list won’t include any of the obvious names, such as Aaron Rodgers, Randall Cobb or Micah Hyde. Nor will it include the linemen because football without contact really, really, really isn’t football for the big guys.
Cornerback Ladarius Gunter: Gunter, an undrafted rookie out of Miami, intercepted a desperation heave into the end zone on the final two-minute drill of Thursday’s minicamp practice. It was a fitting ending to the drill because Gunter has been excellent since Day 1, which is why he was rewarded with some first-team reps. At 6-foot-1 1/2, his length and size are an obvious asset. His physicality was obvious a little later on Thursday, when he diagnosed a wide receiver screen, beat his blocker and shoved the receiver out of bounds after a minimal gain.
“I think he’s done some really good things,” coach Mike McCarthy said on Thursday. “He definitely shows he belongs. I like his physical nature. I think he’s definitely stood out on special teams. He’s aggressive to jump in there, which you obviously love as a coach. I think he’s off to a good start.”
With the worst testing performance of any defensive back at the Scouting Combine, will Gunter be able to shine when the preseason lights are turned on? And even if he does, will there be room on the roster considering first-round pick Damarious Randall’s obvious talent and second-round pick Quinten Rollins’ instincts?
Tight end Mitchell Henry: During the first week or OTAs, Henry jumped for a pass but was unable to make the catch. So what? The ball was thrown at his knees. That must have been a case of the nerves because the 6-foot-4, 252-pound undrafted rookie caught just about everything else. He clearly outplayed sixth-round rookie Kennard Backman, who dropped far too many passes.
Outside linebacker Adrian Hubbard: After going undrafted out of Alabama in 2014, Hubbard, a towering 6-foot-6, spent his rookie season on the practice squad. Now, he’s ready to compete. One play that stands out came in the third week of OTAs. On fourth-and-goal in a two-minute drill, Hubbard stormed around standout right tackle Bryan Bulaga to chase Rodgers out of the pocket. Rodgers wound up throwing a touchdown to Randall Cobb but, if it had been a real game, Hubbard might have had a drill-winning sack. On Thursday, McCarthy pointed to Hubbard for having “a heck of a spring.”
Running back Rajion Neal: Neal will enter training camp as the runaway leader to be the No. 3 running back on the depth chart. Neal, an undrafted rookie out of Tennessee last season, might have made the roster as a rookie had he not sustained a knee injury in the preseason. As it was, he was put on injured reserve, given an injury settlement and signed to the practice squad on Nov. 3. What gives Neal the edge is he’s got excellent hands. He showed them at every practice, including on Thursday, when he toasted linebacker Carl Bradford twice for big gains. It’s no wonder he spent part of his collegiate career at receiver.
Receiver Myles White: With Jeff Janis, Jared Abbrederis and Ty Montgomery joining the “Big Three,” all of the young receivers face an uphill battle in making the roster. White’s experience, however, is obvious, having caught nine passes as a rookie in 2013 and spending all of 2014 on the practice squad. Whether it’s a toe-tapping catch on the sideline or special teams, it’s clear he’s played a lot more football than any of the rookies.
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