How Will the Green Bay Packers Use Their Rookies in 2014?

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How Will the Green Bay Packers Use Their Rookies in 2014?
David J. Phillip/Associated Press
Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix will be a Week 1-starter for Green Bay.

The Green Bay Packers' nine rookies may not all see a lot of snaps this season, but with unanimous praise for their skillful draft from SI.com, CBSSports.com, ESPN.com (subscription required) and Yahoo! Sports, the Packers have some sure starters in the 2014 draft class.

Some, like safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, will fill immediate holes while others, like wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, may spend some time on special teams before getting starting snaps. Still others may only provide positional depth, which is still a necessity, as Green Bay has so far re-signed just six of its 16 free agents. 

The Packers can instantly upgrade both their starters and their bench on both sides of the ball by strategically using their rookies.

 

Offense

The 2014 NFL draft saw Ted Thompson select five offensive players and four players on the defensive side of the ball. While that split in and of itself isn't notable, the number of pass-catchers Thompson selected—four—is. 

Most of Thompson's previous offensive selections have come in the form of running backs and offensive linemen. In fact, Thompson has never taken four pass-catchers in a single draft before in his tenure in Green Bay—he took three in 2011 and 2008. 

But after the Packers lost Donald Driver, Greg Jennings and James Jones, and with Jermichael Finley's neck injury potentially ending his career in Green Bay, Thompson made adding weapons for Aaron Rodgers a priority in this draft.

There's a very high chance that rookie wide receivers Davante Adams (Round 2), Jared Abbrederis (Round 5) and Jeff Janis (Round 7) and tight end Richard Rodgers (Round 3) all make the team. Green Bay has kept six receivers on the roster in recent seasons and, given what we know about them now and Thompson's and Mike McCarthy's high praise for them, it's likely those six will be Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Jarrett Boykin, Adams, Abbrederis and Janis. 

Expect Adams to be Green Bay's No. 4 receiver after Nelson, Cobb and Boykin, receiving the majority of snaps among the rookies when the Packers run four-wide sets. Aside from the high pick Thompson spent on him, he's a highly productive player who ran the full route tree at Fresno State, making him a perfect fit in Green Bay's versatile receiving corps. 

According to Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Thompson was "enamored with" Adams' ball skills. In just two seasons at Fresno State, Adams totaled 233 receptions and 3,030 yards.

He also had a total of 38 touchdowns, a whopping 24 of them scored in 2013 alone. 

Being one of many weapons for Rodgers, Adams may get only a fourth as many scores in 2014—but expect him to be an important red-zone target for Rodgers. 

Abbrederis turned out to be a steal in Round 5.

Slightly smaller than most of Green Bay's receiving corps at 6'1" and 195 pounds, Thompson likely gave Abbrederis' return skills a good deal of weight when drafting him. In his career at Wisconsin, Abbrederis returned 55 punts for 587 yards and a score, per Sports-Reference.com

He averaged 10.7 yards per return, which was better than 75 percent of NFL returners in 2013, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). 

Janis has a good chance of making the 53-man roster over Chris Harper, Myles White and Kevin Dorsey; at the very least, he could be placed on the practice squad if one of those three beats him out. Janis was the ultimate value choice in Round 7; he was projected to go as high as Rounds 3 or 4 by NFL.com.

At 6'3" and 219 pounds, Janis would be Green Bay's biggest and most physical receiver; Nelson is 6'3", 216 pounds and plays with more finesse and lighter on his feet than Janis. 

Though he played in a Division II conference, Janis was a college standout. Over his career at Saginaw Valley State, he totaled 4,305 yards and 46 touchdowns. Over just 19 games in 2012 and 2013, he amassed 3,207 yards and 13 scores.

Though his snaps may not be significant in 2014, Janis could be an excellent option for Rodgers split out wide, especially if the Packers want to continue to move Nelson around the field. Nelson found particular success out of the slot in 2013 when Cobb missed time in 10 games.

Per Pro Football Focus, Nelson ran 52.1 percent of his snaps out of the slot last season. McCarthy could get creative with his play-calling in 2014, utilizing Nelson, Cobb and the nimble Abbrederis out of the slot and taking advantage of Boykin's rapid development and Janis' size on the outside, in addition to the expected snaps for Cobb in the slot and Nelson on the outside. 

With so much talent on the depth chart, 2014 could see a spike in the usage of the five-receiver set for Green Bay. The Packers had success with the formation in their receiver-rich, Super Bowl-winning 2010 season

Of course, Green Bay won't want to keep Eddie Lacy off the field on too many plays. 

Despite his relatively high draft position, it's not immediately clear that tight end Richard Rodgers will be Aaron Rodgers' new pass-catching threat. He'll likely share snaps with Andrew Quarless and Brandon Bostick unless he blows them out of the water in training camp—or in the off-chance Finley is re-signed. 

Rodgers' size is a huge plus. The 6'4", 257-pound former receiver out of Cal will be a nightmare to cover, and because his speed (he ran a 4.87 40-yard dash) is pedestrian, the Packers might choose to use him in short-yardage pass plays, such as in the red zone. 

The loss of Finley is a devastating blow to Green Bay's red-zone efficiency, which took a nosedive to 50.72 percent in 2013 after the Packers led the league in 2012 at 65.52 percent, per TeamRankings.com. Rodgers could be a weapon in those situations. 

On the line, Ohio State center Corey Linsley will compete with J.C. Tretter for the starting center job in Evan Dietrich-Smith's absence. Having a combination of smarts and brawn at the center position is especially important in Green Bay, where Rodgers audibles frequently and the offense often runs the no-huddle. 

Linsley brings toughness and physicality to the position—especially important now that Green Bay's offense will heavily feature the run. He benched 36 reps at the combine.

And though he didn't graduate from Cornell like Tretter, he made all the line calls for the Buckeyes in 2013; offensive line coach James Campen said "he's a visual and verbal guy that makes sure that everyone is in place and where they're supposed to go," per Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette

Tretter has an edge on Linsley in that he's had longer to study Green Bay's playbook, but Linsley primarly played center at Ohio State, while Tretter played tackle. Still, Tretter's longer arms (33 3/8" compared to Linsley's 32") and lighter feet could win out. This competition is one to watch closely in training camp. 

 

Defense

Everyone knows where Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (Round 1) will be in Green Bay's Week 1 matchup against the Seattle Seahawks: in the starting free safety spot opposite Morgan Burnett.

Clinton-Dix was exactly the rangy ball hawk the Packers defense has been missing since Nick Collins injured his neck in 2011. He will almost assuredly solve the safety group's biggest issue last season—not producing a single interception. 

A reliable tackler who takes correct angles and rarely shows any whiffs in his tape, Clinton-Dix will also go a long way toward correcting the secondary's issues with missed tackles in 2013. 

Clinton-Dix is a true all-purpose safety. "He's shown an ability to cover down in the slot, he's good in support, physical player. Also can play well in the back end," Thompson said, per the Journal Sentinel's Rob Reischel. "We think he's got very, very good ball skills."

Dom Capers doesn't appreciate defensive backs freelancing in his scheme, but expect him to put Clinton-Dix in position to come away with a lot of big plays in 2014. 

Khyri Thornton (Round 3) was a reach to most scouts and evaluatorsNFL.com had him going off the board in Rounds 5 or 6but Thompson clearly saw a fit for him in Green Bay's defensive scheme.

At 6'3" and 304 pounds, Thornton certainly fits in size-wise with Thompson's recent draft selections on the defensive line. Drafted by the Packers in the fifth round in 2013, Josh Boyd is 6'3" and 310 pounds and stepped up to fill in for Johnny Jolly after his neck injury in 2013. 

Drafting Thornton perhaps suggests that the Packers don't intend to re-sign Jolly or Ryan Pickett, instead opting to develop Boyd and Thornton as rotational 5-technique players. 

It's unclear if Arizona State linebacker Carl Bradford (Round 4) will eventually replace Brad Jones and line up next to A.J. Hawk on the inside. For now, the Packers plan to rush him off the edge. 

"He's been an edge guy most of his career," Packers director of college scouting Brian Gutekunst said, per Packers.com's Mike Spofford. "He's a pass-rusher. That's what he does best." 

Green Bay's bigger need is on the inside, but Bradford would be yet another pass-rushing weapon in the Packers' impressive stable, including Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, Mike Neal, Nick Perry and Mike Daniels in sub-packages. Bradford notched 20 sacks and eight batted passes in his two years starting at Arizona State. 

If Jones continues to struggle next to Hawk, Bradford's size (6'1", 250 pounds) could justify a move inside. But for now, the Packers want to let him do what he does best. 

With Green Bay's depth at cornerback—and the possibility of both Casey Hayward and Micah Hyde seeing significant snaps at nickel corner—will Demetri Goodson (Round 6) see many snaps in 2014, or even make the roster? At 5'11" and 194 pounds, with a 4.52 40-time, Goodson doesn't bring much more to the table than Hayward (5'11", 192 pounds, 4.57 40). 

Even so, cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt likes Goodson's man-to-man skills and says that's what the Packers will do with him, according to the Journal Sentinel's Tom Silverstein. Whitt noted that Goodson "can play outside and control verticals." 

After a well-balanced draft between both offense and defense and need and value, Green Bay's rookies fill in some necessary holes for 2014. There's a realistic chance that all nine could make the roster or the practice squad.

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