Rookies under a microscope

Defensive tackle Justin Harrell and kicker Mason Crosby each will be tested in different ways Sunday against the Chicago Bears, says's Doug Ritchay

Since the Green Bay Packers made Justin Harrell the 16th pick in the 2007 NFL draft I've called it a mistake. He was injury-prone in college; and the Packers had depth at the position and needs elsewhere, like safety, tight end and cornerback.

But here we are, Week 16 of the NFL season and Mr. Harrell is getting his first NFL start at Chicago on Sunday. Remember, this isn't happening because Harrell can't be kept off the field; it's happening because the Packers' depth has been tested by injury.

The latest defensive lineman to fall is Ryan Pickett, who is slowed by a strained groin. The Packers doubt Pickett can play Sunday, leaving the door for Harrell to bust through.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy has said that if Sunday were a playoff game, Pickett would suit up, but with the Bears' running game ranking last with an average of 78.4 rushing yards per game, it's a good time to rest the veteran.

This also gives Harrell a chance to prove non-believers, like me, that he can play. Let's face it, if he can't play against this running offense, he might as well turn in his No. 91 jersey. This opportunity gives him a chance to make an impact and possibly reserve some significant playing time for the postseason. McCarthy was asked Friday about Harrell's progression this season.

"Justin's a young, improving player," McCarthy said. "I think you just look at his performance the last two weeks. He's like a number of our younger players, he just needs an opportunity, particularly in live reps. So he's made progress, and if Ryan doesn't play, this will be a big step for him because obviously his reps will increase."

Harrell has been a question mark since the Packers picked him. Nothing against him, he had no power in determining which team would draft him, but his arrival in Green Bay was confusing. Unless he was can't-miss prospect, why pick him? Harrell was known as much for his injuries in college as his play. If he can't hold up physically in the Southeastern Conference, how's he going to hold up in the NFL? So far he has experienced minor injuries, which is troubling since he has hardly played. A player in his position has to fight through injury and make the most of his chances.

Despite being a first-round pick, he didn't come to a team in dire need of help along the interior defensive line. Therefore, his true colors would show since nothing was going to be given to this player.

He actually showed up before training camp on the depth chart as a starter. That meant nothing, because when practices kicked off his named fell off that spot.

Harrell will be a marked man by Packers fans and coaches at Soldier Field on Sunday. The staff likely wants to see what he can offer in the postseason, if anything. This game isn't make-or-break for his career, but it could signal a starting point to a good career in Green Bay. Also, the Bears know he's starting and likely will target the rookie. If not, that's one dumb coaching staff.

If Harrell plays the way GM Ted Thompson told us he can play on draft day, then the Packers will have something to work with in the near future. However, if Harrell struggles, it's possible he won't play much at all in the postseason.

Normally, teams pick players in the first round who can help that season. Harrell has been no help so far, but that could change Sunday if he decides to become the player we've heard about, not the player we've seen.

Crosby to deal with 'elements'
Another rookie, kicker Mason Crosby, will get a chance to prove himself, yet again in inclement weather. The rookie, who leads the NFL in scoring with 130 points, has struggled kicking in the "elements" this season, which is a concern for the Packers, who will host at least one playoff game at Lambeau Field. The forecast Sunday in Chicago calls for a high of 24 degrees with possible snow and wind, which likely will be coming off Lake Michigan.

Mason Crosby (2) and Jon Ryan celebrate
Getty Images
In Crosby's last game in the "elements," he missed 2 of 3 field goals at Lambeau in a win against Oakland. The sixth-round pick was drafted because he kicked collegiately in Colorado. However, did he ever kick in December in Colorado? No.

Kicking in Lambeau, where the win swirls and the "K" balls become hard as rocks is a different thing for a rookie. I don't know if this is happening, but my suggestion would be to stroll outdoors and do some kicking while the team practices inside the Don Hutson Center.

Just like Harrell will draw the attention of people, so will Crosby if he gets a shot at a field goal on Sunday.

Doug Ritchay is a frequent contributor to and Packer Report magazine. E-mail him at

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