First-Class Rookies: Picks Make Sudden Impact

GM Ted Thompson hit the jackpot with his April draft. B.J. Raji, Clay Matthews III and Brad Jones enjoyed strong performances for the NFL's top-ranked defense on Monday night against Baltimore. This trio just keeps getting better.

Any personnel man worth his salt will tell you that it takes at least three years to judge the success of a draft.

Nonetheless, 25 months seems like an awfully long wait to proclaim that general manager Ted Thompson put together a masterpiece of a draft in April. That was apparent in watching B.J. Raji, Clay Matthews III and Brad Jones spearhead the top-ranked defense's effort against the Ravens.

"You look at the production they had, I think those guys are all getting more comfortable," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said after the Packers' 27-14 victory on Monday night. "I think we've seen B.J., since he's gotten healthier and gotten more reps in there, you've seen him show up in every game to where he makes a key play. Both of our outside linebackers had sacks tonight, so that was good to see. And I thought that they did a pretty good job against the run." Whether Thompson made the right decision by drafting defensive lineman Raji with the ninth overall pick rather than receiver Michael Crabtree is a debate that will have to wait a couple years, but with each game, it's clear that Raji is every bit as good as advertised after a dominant career at Boston College.

Whether Thompson made the right decision by eschewing his conservative draft philosophy and sending a second-round pick and two third-round selections to New England to move back into the first round to grab Matthews is another debate that will have to wait a couple years. But after the relentless Matthews dominated the Ravens with two sacks, it's clear that he didn't ride his famous dad's coattails into the NFL.

Whether Jones will someday blossom into the defense's version of Donald Driver as a superstar seventh-round pick will be determined with the passage of time, as well. But what's clear is that the Packers' defense isn't going to crumble just because they lost veteran standout Aaron Kampman.

With those three picks playing central roles, the Packers extended their winning streak to four games. Green Bay held the Ravens to 185 yards. The Packers notched three sacks, forced three turnovers and stopped yet another running game in its tracks, with the Ravens' running backs managing 50 yards on 18 rushes. Throw out Ray Rice's meaningless 21-yard run on a draw play with the Packers up 13 and 1:52 remaining, and the Ravens' backs were held to 29 yards on 17 carries.

Raji remains a part-time player through no fault of his own, and the depth he's providing allows starters Cullen Jenkins, Johnny Jolly and Ryan Pickett to stay fresh. Raji isn't just eating up snaps, though. Against the Ravens, he tallied a pair of tackles, including one in which he demolished standout guard Ben Grubbs and raced down the line of scrimmage to drop the runner for a 2-yard loss. It was an eye-popping display of strength and athleticism.

Matthews was brilliant. Of his six tackles, three were behind the line of scrimmage. He had two sacks, forced a fumble that killed a Ravens drive that had reached the Packers' 16-yard line and broke up a pass. With seven sacks, he's tied with Washington's Brian Orakpo for the NFL rookie lead, and he's responsible for five turnovers. His three fumble recoveries were tied for the league lead. He's been spectacular at times, but more importantly, he's playing more consistently as the season has progressed.

The undersized Jones hasn't been exploited in any of his three starts, all of which have come against physical offenses. On Monday, he tallied his first career sack.

"As rookies, we think we're a little close with each other just because of the fraternity. We're all coming in here new to the team and new to one another," Matthews said. "We definitely take pride in the fact that we're able to come in here and as rookies come into the NFL and make an impact. Brad had his first sack, I had a pretty good game, B.J. made some plays out there, Jarius (Wynn) was in there. We definitely like to take pride in the fact that we can come out there and really make an impact in the game."

"We try to encourage each other," Raji said. "All of the rookies, this is our first go-around, so we just sort of hang together and stay together and hold each other up. We're all capable of making plays and tonight, when a play came to us, we made them."

Of the Packers' eight draft picks, Matthews and Jones are the only starters, but Raji keeps getting better, and the sixth-round picks, cornerback Brandon Underwood and defensive lineman Jarius Wynn provided depth vs. the Ravens. Plus, T.J. Lang (fourth round) looks like the right tackle of the future and Quinn Johnson (fifth round) has a promising future as a real hammer at fullback. Only fifth-round pick Jamon Meredith, now with Buffalo, isn't on the roster.

Added together, this group of rookies is paying more first-year dividends then maybe all of Thompson's first-year draft classes combined.

"They're all contributing," coach Mike McCarthy said. "They're getting more and more playing time. They fit right into the plan. We talk about winning football games, playing December football. That's the way we want to play, the way we played tonight here at Lambeau Field. Those guys, they're improving, they're getting better, they're getting quality reps, they're producing. And you just cannot have enough of those guys. We're happy with the progress we're making with our rookie class."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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