While the preseason is typically considered a dull run of practices and games featuring players we won't see much during the regular season, annually I seek a few story lines to follow in order to help keep the preseason relevant to the regular season.
Often it is suggested most rookies won't have an impact. With that being said, here are a few rookies that are worth watching during training camp and preseason games that may have an impact in the regular season.
This is a no-brainer. The punting position is 100 percent up for grabs in Green Bay.
Considering neither punter has NFL experience both are essentially rookies. The last two years have provided some of the league's worst punting figures in Green Bay. It would be terribly unfortunate to have a team that appears to be loaded with talent offensively, be hamstrung by poor punting and coverage units.
While their defense appears to have made strides last year in the 3-4, they don't appear dominant enough to be able to stop teams on short fields. Tim Masthay & Chris Bryan will be competing for the position and neither have any NFL game experience. Masthay was released last year and Chris Bryan is a former Australian football player. It should make for very interesting competition and hopefully improved results over last year.
With a ball-hawking reputation, the Green Bay Packers made Burnett their 3rd round choice of the 2010 NFL Draft.
Atari Bigby is the incumbent at the safety position opposite Nick Collins but the last two seasons Bigby has not been producing consistently. In the face of competition this year, Bigby has decided to skip all off-season team activities citing contract issues allowing Burnett 100 percent of the reps with the starters on defense.
I expect Burnett to be an opening day starter barring injury and if he can consistently remain in the lineup, could be a substantial upgrade over Bigby at least in terms of speed and availability. It will be fun to see his progress during preseason games. With a mostly veteran backfield, it seems they could afford to have some on the job training for the rookie.
The Defensive Line
With the recent suspension of Johnny Jolly for the entire season, the defensive line may be the biggest question mark facing the Packers 2010 season.
If the season started today, we would expect Ryan Pickett & Cullen Jenkins at the end positions with B.J. Raji at the nose position with potential relief from rookies C.J. Wilson and Mike Neal and second year player Jarius Wynn. I would argue that the defensive line's lack of pass rush (while stout against the run) was the most glaring weakness in the games the Packers lost down the stretch including the Arizona playoff game.
As rookies, Neal is advertised as a mountain of strength that played DT in college and now will play end in the 3-4 and C.J. Wilson is a tad lighter and expected to provide more rush perhaps in passing situations to get reps. Wilson also seems to come complete with a large chip on his shoulder due to his draft position.
Sometimes the best players are the ones out to prove every other team wrong for not taking them. Production from these two rookies could be vital in the Packers success as we can expect Pickett & Jenkins to need relief especially later in the season.
While his measurables at the combine surpassed that of the young phenom TE Jermichael Finley, he also faced question marks about his maturity and "off the field" issues while at Penn St. I for one am ready to believe he has put those issues behind him. Whereas Finley needed his rookie year to grow up a bit, it appears Quarless took his lumps in college and is ready to move on. I'm very intrigued to see what match up problems he can present assuming his knowledge of the playbook allows him some time on the field. This could be a sleeper pick much like Finley has turned out to be.
While the Packers can count on steady veteran Ryan Grant to be their primary ball carrier in 2010, I'm optimistic James Starks will get plenty of reps during relevant preseason action in order to see what he brings to the table.
They already know Brandon Jackson is a reliable third down back and Grant has two 1,000 yard seasons. So it stands to reason that they would want to kick the tires plenty on Starks. Starks missed his senior year recovering from a shoulder injury so if anything he's well rested. All accounts indicate that he may have been drafted much higher based on his physical abilities had he not missed his senior year. A larger back at 6'2" 218lbs he's supposed to have good hands and plenty of speed for his size. The Packers have lacked a good, consistent second option ala 2009 Chester Taylor in Minnesota since the late 90's of Dorsey Levens and Edgar Bennett.
This strikes me as an area of weakness as it seems so many teams can trot one of two good running backs depending on down and distance. My only concern is that he may be very similar in style to Grant as a larger, north-south type of back versus a true "change of pace" that many teams have. Again - it will be interesting to see him on the field after the coaches seemed to like his athletic ability during OTAs.
Hopefully these five rookie story lines can enhance your Packer training camp experience. We are just a few short days away from having football games on a weekly basis. NFL 2010 here we come !