Green Bay Packers: Biggest Game Changers Under Age 25

Dave Radcliffe@DaveRadcliffe_Contributor IIIAugust 1, 2012

Green Bay Packers: Biggest Game Changers Under Age 25

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    The Green Bay Packers build through the draft.

    Take the 2012 NFL draft, for example. All eight picks the Packers made were signed and most of those rookies—if not all of them—figure to make it through the final roster cut.

    General Manager Ted Thompson and Head Coach Mike McCarthy have gone on the record saying that should it come down to cutting a veteran or a rookie, they would err on the side of youth. As a result, the Packers have one of the most inexperienced rosters in the NFL when it comes to age.

    At the beginning of the 2011 season—the season following their Super Bowl victory—Green Bay was the second youngest team in football.

    That's what makes this list of game changers so compelling. A lot of teams might not have many players under 25 who can contribute, let alone have any kind of impact on a game.

    This isn't the case in Green Bay.

    Each of the ten players on this list will see plenty of time on the field for the Packers this season. Without further ado, let's begin the countdown.

Honorable Mentions

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    First, let's take a look at a few of the guys who just missed the cut.

    Cornerback - Sam Shields (24)

    Shields' poor play last season and his early struggles in training camp are a concern. He's not only been pushed by Jarrett Bush for the No. 2 corner slot, but at this point, it's hard to even guarantee him a spot in Dime or Nickel coverage packages.

    Offensive Tackle - Marshall Newhouse (23), Derek Sherrod (23)

    Neither player is qualified to protect Aaron Rodgers' blindside. Newhouse allowed 41.5 pressures last season, most by a Packer since 1998. Meanwhile, Sherrod struggled quite a bit before suffering a broken leg. Both are players the Packers aren't even close to giving up on.

    Safety - MD Jennings (24), Jerome McMillan (23)

    The release of Charlie Peprah would have opened the door for "The Doctor" to assume the role of starting strong safety, but it now looks like Charles Woodson will be taking the majority of snaps at that position. The second year man could still see some time at SS, but rookie Jerome McMillan is step-for-step with Jennings.

    Tight End - DJ Williams (23), Ryan Taylor (24)

    Williams is a pass-catching tight end and we'll get a chance to see how (allegedly) wrestling cows in the offseason improved his game. He's a good young talent, and then there's Ryan Taylor, who has received a ringing endorsement in the past from none other than Aaron Rodgers. 

10. RB Alex Green (24)

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    Alex Green's rookie season was abruptly ended by a week seven knee injury and he only appeared in four games. But with Ryan Grant out of the backfield equation, Green automatically assumes a larger role in 2012.

    He passed his physical at the beginning of training camp despite the severe injury, so he appears primed and ready to perform behind James Starks as he closes in on full health. His combination of size and good hands will make him a perfect option on third downs. 

    Offensive coordinator Tom Clements and quarterback Aaron Rodgers had plenty of good things to say about Green last week to Packers' beat writer Jason Wilde.

    “It’s great to see Alex out there," Rodgers said. We know what kind of a player we have in Alex. I think what you saw last year was a guy who started a little slow in camp, but really picked it up and everybody got real excited...if he can stay healthy, I think he can be a good part of our offense.”

    Green's big-play potential should keep the heat on Starks and Brandon Saine. Look for him to officially arrive this season.

9. CB Casey Heyward (22)

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    Casey Hayward was a second round pick out of Vanderbilt and he has already been making some noise around Packers training camp.

    Hayward has reportedly looked like the team's best rookie thus far and is getting a lot of reps at the slot. With the uncertainty surrounding the Packers cornerback situation aside from Tramon Williams, Hayward has a chance to see significant playing time this season, especially considering how Green Bay will often use up to six defensive backs.

    Hayward's 13 interceptions over his last two years of college showed off his ball-hawking skills and all early indications are that he is translating these skills to the pro level nicely. He was also shown to have the ability to tackle well in the open field playing in the toughest conference in college football.

    If Hayward can continue to make a big impression on Mike McCarthy, I don't see why he couldn't see time at the No. 2 corner position alongside Williams. He's that good.

8. OL Bryan Bulaga (23)

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    The Packers drafted Bryan Bulaga with the intention of grooming him into the team's long-term solution at left tackle once Chad Clifton's playing days were over.

    Well, Bulaga still isn't there, but he is well on his way.

    In fact, it appears that Bulaga is in position to take over the blind side role, but Mike McCarthy knows he has a good thing going over at right tackle and isn't ready to move Marshall Newhouse.

    McCarthy recently said Bulaga was on the cusp of being one of the game's best right tackles.

    Injuries and poor play forced Bulaga into more playing time than he probably should have seen over the course of his first two seasons, but I think he's ready to take the next step and become a better-than-average offensive lineman.

    And if the Packers are smart, they will waste no time in flipping him to the left side of the line should Marshall Newhouse continue to concede pressure. Even Aaron Rodgers doesn't have eyes in the back of his head.

7. CB Davon House (23)

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    It was a difficult decision on who to rank higher between Hayward and Davon House, but with a year under his belt, I gave the nod to House.

    Suffocated on the depth chart last season, we didn't get a chance to see what House can do.

    Now we will.

    House is in serious contention for the No. 2 cornerback position, if not at the very least the No. 1 guy in the Nickel. Like Hayward, House has been getting a lot of positive feedback so far during training camp and just worked with the starters on Tuesday.

    Right now, the only thing keeping House from the No. 2 spot is experience, which is one thing an improving Jarrett Bush has on his side, but don't expect that to last long.  

    I expect House to win out as the guy opposite of Tramon Williams in the slot when it isn't Woodson doubling back to his old roots.

    The fierce corner competition figures to leak into the preseason and even the regular season between House, Bush, Hayward and a regressing Sam Shields.

    Packer fans are hoping to hear "House takes it to the house" for many years to come.

6. OL TJ Lang (24)

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    Because we are ranking "game changers" here, it's hard to put an offensive lineman any higher than this, but that's no knock on TJ Lang. He is still a player who plays an important role for the Packers.

    What's strange to me is that Lang is still a guy under 25, as it seems he has been around a lot longer. Green Bay tried for awhile to keep Lang out of the left guard position, but his strong performance was one that could no longer be ignored.

    While some may consider Bulaga—or even Sherrod—more of a talent than Lang, his job security at left guard is what puts him higher on the list, giving him the best chance to affect a game.

    The Packers' run protection was actually better than its pass protection, and with Lang lining up on the inside along with Jeff Saturday and Josh Sitton this season, expect Green Bay to be more effective running the ball.

5. DT Jerel Worthy (22)

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    It's no secret the Packers were lacking in a big way at getting pressure on the quarterback in 2011.

    Green Bay only brought the quarterback down 29 times, and only six of those sacks came from the defensive line.

    Enter Jerel Worthy, the second rookie to appear on this countdown. Selected 51st overall in the second round, Worthy appeared to be a steal for the Packers, and so far it's playing out that way.

    Just like the aforementioned House, Worthy is working with the first team defense and figures to start alongside mainstays BJ Raji and Ryan Pickett on the defensive line. His explosiveness should specifically help in pass-rushing situations.

    Of course, Worthy is just a rookie, so we need to court our excitement, but should he turn out to be anything like Raji, the Packers are in for a treat—and a much-improved pass-rush. 

4. ILB DJ Smith (23)

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    For a sixth round pick in 2011 and a guy who only started three games last season, some may think this seems a little high to place DJ Smith.

    To those people, I say: agree to disagree.

    Smith has shown Packer fans a glimpse into the future—a future that has Smith and Desmond Bishop manning the middle of the field together on defense. Hopefully that future begins sooner rather than later.

    Knocked for his size and over-aggressiveness at times, what I saw in Smith last season was an NFL-ready linebacker who deserves a shot at a starting job in 2012. He is always zoning in on the ball carrier and even showed a glimpse of his ability to drop into coverage with an interception last season.

    Hawk didn't have a pick in 2011, and he knows better than anyone that Smith is breathing down his neck.

    The fact that Smith has the talent to be a starter, is looking strong in training camp and played in all 16 games last season at such a young age should have fans looking forward to what kind of season he can put together.

3. OLB Nick Perry (22)

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    For as unproven as he is at the pro level, it's easy to see that Nick Perry will have an immediate impact on the Packers defense this season.

    Consistently working with the No. 1 defense as expected, Perry is working as the outside linebacker opposite of one of the NFL's best pass rushers, Clay Matthews. Under the tutelage of linebackers coach Kevin Greene and Matthews, Perry should make the conversion from defensive end to linebacker just fine.

    With that adaptation comes the learning curve of dropping back into coverage, but I don't see Perry doing much of that as he was strictly brought on to help the Packers' almost non-existent pass-rush.

    At 6'3" and 250 lbs, Perry has the "motor" the team was looking for to come off the edge with Matthews. 

    Again, like with Worthy and Hayward, Perry is only a rookie and no one is expecting a second coming of Matthews, but Perry is going to contribute right away and create some havoc in the backfield.

2. S Morgan Burnett (23)

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    The fear that a season ending injury his rookie season would stunt Morgan Burnett's growth quickly died after seeing how he performed in 2011.

    Starting all 16 games, Burnett was second on the team in tackles and had three interceptions to go along with two forced fumbles. 

    Yes, Burnett was a member of the secondary that was a large part of the Packers' dead-last pass defense, but playing alongside Charlie Peprah and an injured Tramon Williams didn't exactly make for a walk in the park.

    His open field tackling ability combined with his instincts when the ball is in the air makes Burnett a player to watch this season, and Mike McCarthy feels the same way.

    Burnett is now the leader of the safety unit at just 23 years of age, even with Woodson expected to make the move to strong safety. Working alongside Chuck will only aid in the development of one of the best young players on the Packers roster.

    But there's one better game changer under the age of 25 in Green Bay.

1. WR/KR Randall Cobb (21)

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    When Randall Cobb made what was perhaps the NFL's play of the year last season on opening night, Packer fans knew they had something special.

    Never mind that Mike McCarthy was less than pleased that Cobb returned the ball from eight yards deep in the end zone—Cobb showed was an explosive talent, and now he will get more chances to show that talent in the passing game.

    The Packers will look to utilize Cobb more as a wide receiver with Donald Driver only getting older and James Jones slowly falling out of favor in Green Bay.

    Barely old enough to buy a beer, he is almost a unanimous bet to breakout in 2012.  

    That might scare some people, but Cobb will gain consistency with more reps. He will be getting more looks from Aaron Rodgers, he has big-play ability no matter if it's returning kickoffs or catching the football, and he's only 21.

    Never mind that he is the youngest player on the team. Randall Cobb will be the biggest game changer for the Green Bay Packers this season.