Ask most general managers which draft pick will make the biggest impact and he'll likely tell you, "last year's draft picks."
Case in point: The Green Bay Packers' Class of 2008.
Combined, the Packers' nine draft picks started eight games. Receiver Jordy Nelson (two) and tight end Jermichael Finley (one) started three game in situational roles. Jeremy Thompson started three games at defensive end because of Cullen Jenkins' season-ending injury. Guard Josh Sitton started one game when the line was shuffled due to Chad Clifton's illness and another when the Packers shuffled the line for the finale.
Compare that futility to this: The Bears landed star halfback Matt Forte in the second round. The Vikings sacrificed first- and third-round picks for stud defensive end Jared Allen. Third-round picks Kevin Smith and Cliff Avril had productive rookie seasons for the Lions.
For a team inclined to build itself through the draft, the Packers fell far short in comparison to their division rivals last year. But the story will be much different in 2009.
At least one player — Sitton at right guard — figures to be in the starting lineup. Three others — Finley at tight end, Thompson at right outside linebacker and Breno Giacomini at right tackle — will enter training camp as strong possibilities to win starting jobs.
Here's a player-by-player look at where the Class of 2008 stands ahead of next week's minicamp.
Jordy Nelson — With James Jones hampered by on-again, off-again knee problems, Nelson ranked fourth on the team and fifth in the league among rookie receivers with 33 receptions. He dropped one pass all season, and that was more of a mental than physical error. The coaches will say there's no such thing as a No. 3 receiver, but the numbers don't lie. In the last four seasons, the Packers' third-ranked wide receiver had 17.8 more catches than the fourth-ranked receiver. With Jones apparently healthy again, quarterback Aaron Rodgers has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal. So, Nelson could be a better player but have diminished stats.
Brian Brohm — Brohm spent all 16 games as the inactive third quarterback. He looks better mentally and physically thus far and he'll challenge for the No. 2 job.
Pat Lee — Lee was drafted for his bump-and-run prowess but his high level of play at Auburn failed to translate last year. He played in only five games — breaking up one pass — and was put on season-ending injured reserve with a minor knee injury. On one hand, he's shown signs that he could challenge Will Blackmon to be the fourth cornerback. On the other, if rookie sixth-rounder Brandon Underwood shines and Lee falters, Lee's roster spot could be in jeopardy.
Jermichael Finley — Through 14 games last season, the tight end had three catches for 10 yards. He finished the season strong, and that seems to have translated to this offseason. He's been practically unstoppable during the four spring practices open to reporters. Finley remains behind Donald Lee on the depth chart, but that figures to be one of the hottest battles during training camp. "He's got all the tools you could want: speed, athleticism, hands," Rodgers said this week. "Mentally, he's just got to understand what we're trying to do on offense and be in the right place and not make any mental mistakes. If he does that, you can't help but want to get him the ball."
Jeremy Thompson — Thompson was given a golden opportunity last season with Jenkins' injury, but his own bumps and bruises took a toll. The change in defensive schemes has benefitted Thompson more than anyone. An outside linebacker must be able to rush the passer and play coverage. The Packers drafted Thompson in part because they thought there was a good pass rusher lurking inside of a player who was asked to play a lot of coverage in college. He'll enter training camp as the starter ahead of 2009 first-rounder Clay Matthews III.
Josh Sitton — Sitton was on pace to start last year until a knee injury sustained in the third preseason game at Denver. At this point, Sitton is a relatively safe bet to be the Week 1 starter at right guard since last year's starter, Jason Spitz, is challenging Scott Wells at center. Sitton is a big, tough guy in the mold of Mark Tauscher.
Breno Giacomini — Despite not playing a meaningful snap last season, Giacomini was considered the favorite to replace Tauscher at right tackle. But offseason ankle surgery has forced him to watch from the sideline as 2007 fourth-rounder Allen Barbre has put a grip on the position. Coach Mike McCarthy has talked frequently of picking a starting five and sticking with it, so it's hard to say how much of an opportunity Giacomini will get during training camp. No doubt, McCarthy will give him a chance, but only if it's warranted.
Matt Flynn — Based on sheer talent, Brohm has Flynn beat. But Flynn won a national championship as a senior at LSU, and that has to count for something. Flynn had a strong preseason, and while it came mostly against second- and third-string defenders, it also came with second- and third-string teammates. Flynn doesn't have anything resembling a big-time arm but he's got a knack for making things happen.
Brett Swain — Swain looked overmatched mentally and physically at receiver last year and wound up spending the season on the practice squad. You'd be challenged to find a more improved player on the roster now. He knows the offense, is quicker and stronger, and is catching everything thrown his direction. He has a real chance of knocking off No. 5 receiver Ruvell Martin.
All nine of last year's draft picks have a chance to be a contributor this year. That's a heck of an accomplishment, and it's much better than what the Class of 2007 figures to provide. But that's a story for another day.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.