The journey to the NFL is different for every player; they all have a story. Some guys are high first round draft picks that make millions of dollars before they even play a down in the NFL, most guys get drafted beyond the first round and have to prove that they were worthy of that selection before they get their respect, while others take the long road as undrafted free agents and have to fight their way onto a roster and work their way up a depth chart. And then there are those remarkable stories, stories that defy all odds, and with a glimmer of hope, they turn out for the better.
The No. 1 prospect in the Packers organization is a player that started his career on the New York Giants practice squad, suffered a career-threatening injury off the field, worked as a high school football coach as he recovered from an injury, got traded to Green Bay for a sixth round draft pick and finally, due to injuries, he got his chance to shine halfway through a season and ascended into a quality starting running back in the NFL – he’s none other than Ryan Grant. Grant emerged on the scene in 2007 during a Week 8 showdown against the Denver Broncos when DeShawn Wynn went down with an injured shoulder. He finished the game with 22 carries for 104 yards. Grant completed his first season in the league playing in 15 games, starting seven and had 188 carries for 956 yards and eight touchdowns. Following that season, Grant was a free agent and cashed in on his success when he signed a four-year, $30 million contract with the Packers. In his second-year and his first year as a full time starter, Grant started the year with a hamstring injury, which affected his performance throughout the year, but he still played in every game, starting 14, and amassed 1,203 yards on 312 carries and scored four touchdowns. This year, Grant returns 100-percent healthy and is looking to get back to his ’07 form. But at 6-foot-1, 218 pounds, Grant is a bigger back who runs a bit upright and doesn’t feature much shiftiness in the open field. With that there’s always a chance of injury, and the Packers have to keep a watchful eye on Grant’s touches and give Wynn and former second round pick Brandon Jackson more opportunities.
The Packers will give 2009 first round selection B.J. Raji plenty of opportunities to be a major player on defense this season, and with his exceptional upside he breaks into the organization as the No. 2 rated prospect. At 6-foot-2, 337 pounds, the former Boston College standout offers tremendous versatility for a man of his size. Last year with the Eagles, Raji had a breakout year and displayed his athleticism recording 42 tackles, 16 for a loss and eight sacks. Raji is a big, physical lineman who commands a lot of attention. He's a good athlete who has a solid burst off the line, plays with leverage, and bull rushes opponents up the field. He has a quick first step, immediately penetrates up field and makes plays in the backfield. He displays great strength and has an advantage against the opposition with his initial push. Those qualities have the Packers coaching staff rethinking their initial belief that Raji would make a perfect nose tackle in their newly installed 3-4 defense. His versatility allows the Packers to keep the massive Ryan Pickett inside and move Raji to the outside where he can utilize his pass rushing skills. The two of them combined with Cullen Jenkins make up a huge threesome that will give the opposition plenty of problems.
Another young player that the Packers are extremely high on is 2008 second round pick, wide receiver Jordy Nelson. The Packers third rated prospect, Nelson enters his second season after a promising first year where he caught 33 passes for 366 yards and two touchdowns. The Packers will give Nelson a chance to win the No. 3 receiver position behind starters Greg Jennings and Donald Driver. At 6-foot-3, 217 pounds, Nelson has a great frame and is physical off the line making him an ideal fit in the slot. But with James Jones, who also appears in the top-ten at No. 6, returning to the fold 100-percent healthy after dealing with knee problems last year, he will look to keep his position as the third receiver. Either way, the Packers are expecting a healthy competition between the two, and it will only intensify as the preseason progresses.
After falling into the second round of the ’08 draft, the Packers thought they got a steal in highly touted quarterback Brian Brohm. But after a disappointing training camp and preseason, Brohm was beaten out for the No. 2 quarterback job behind starter Aaron Rodgers by ’08 seventh round pick Matt Flynn. Despite losing out on the backup job, Brohm’s upside is much greater than Flynn’s, which is why he’s the Packers fourth rated prospect. The selection of Brohm was widely applauded and some thought that if Rodgers struggled, Brohm was a nice insurance policy. The surprising part about Brohm’s struggles last season was that his accuracy and arm strength weren’t nearly what they were during his collegiate days. It’s believed that Brohm never adjusted to the playbook or his new surroundings, and mentally that played a part in his under achieving year. But in many instances, the cream usually rises to the top, and for anyone that believes Flynn is a better player than Brohm, they’re sorely mistaken. Last year was an aberration, so expect a much more confident and mature Brohm, who will ultimately beat out Flynn and backup Rodgers this season.
Clay Matthews was a career backup up until this past season at USC. A former walk on with the Trojans, who possessed a passion for the game and a tremendous work ethic on special teams; Matthews developed into a chiseled, solid all-around linebacker as a senior. Matthews had a quick rise up the depth chart and starred opposite Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing on his way to a breakout season where he totaled 56 tackles, nine for a loss and 4.5 sacks. His rise led him to being a first round selection and now the fifth ranked prospect in the Packers organization. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Matthews is a versatile linebacker who can play all three LB positions. He has great size and quickness and can impact a game in many ways. He’s an instinctive player who has great range and anticipation skills. He’s disruptive off the edge and makes a lot of plays in the backfield. He’s an outstanding blitzer and is aggressive at the point of attack. He’s an opportunistic defender who’s always around the ball. He’s an outstanding special team’s player and gives maximum effort. Matthews is viewed as a high risk, high reward type of player, just because he only had one season in college where he was productive. The Packers are loaded at the linebacker position, and with them switching to a 3-4 defense, you can never have enough defenders that can get after the quarterback. Matthews will compete with Brady Poppinga and Jeremy Thompson for the right outside linebacker position, and if he stays healthy this preseason, expect him to win the job.
A mixture of talent on offense, defense and special teams completes the top-ten in the Packers organization. The aforementioned James Jones and Brandon Jackson check in at No. 6 and 9 respectively, third year kicker Mason Crosby places at No. 7, fast rising cornerback Tramon Williams skies to No. 8 and pass catching tight end Jermichael Finley breaks in at No. 10.Crosby has developed into one of the most consistent kickers in the league and finished seventh in points last season with 127. The NFC has the best kickers in the NFL and as good as Crosby’s been in his first two years in the league, every year will be challenging for him to make the Pro Bowl. A former undrafted free agent, Williams has developed into an intriguing playmaker that’s emerged as the favorite to be the Packers nickel corner this season. Williams played in all 16 games last year, starting nine and broke out with 57 tackles and five interceptions. With Charles Woodson and Al Harris in their thirties, Williams is being groomed as one of their successors. A third round pick in the 2008 draft, Finley has the ability to be a dynamic offensive option, but has to become more of team player and less of a headache. At 6-foot-5, 247 pounds, Finley has impressive speed, hands and a knack for finding space over the middle. He’s currently listed as the team’s backup tight end behind Donald Lee, and will likely see plenty of action this year in two tight end sets.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999. Steuber’s features are published across the Scout.com network and on FoxSports.com. If you wish to contact Chris Steuber, email him at: email@example.com.