Packers' rookie class impresses
Based upon early returns, Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson really hit the jackpot with this year's rookie class.
For the first time in five years, the Packers didn't start the season as the youngest team in the NFL, which almost comes as a surprise. The Packers didn't cut any of their seven 2010 draft choices and kept three more undrafted rookies coming out of training camp.
Avoiding the label as the league's youngest team has more to do with the rest of the roster maturing. But make no mistake, this Packer team appears to be in good hands for years to come with talented young players coming up through the ranks.
As the season hits the halfway mark after this weekend's game vs. the New York Jets, here's a look at how the first-year players have fared:
-- First-round draft choice, tackle Bryan Bulaga: It was always pretty much a given that Bulaga wouldn't start unless Chad Clifton or Mark Tauscher got hurt. But since the veteran bookend tackles are 11-year veterans, it was only a matter of time before one of them broke down.
Bulaga likely will continue to back up both offensive tackle positions. However, he should get lots of playing time, no matter what, because it's all but guaranteed that the veteran offensive linemen won't be able to stay 100 percent healthy the rest of the season.
-- Second-round draft choice, defensive lineman Mike Neal: It's a shame that Neal's season got derailed just as it was getting started. Coach Mike McCarthy acknowledged this week that Neal would undergo season-ending shoulder surgery.
Not one to have a history of injuries, Neal appears to be a victim of bad luck more than anything. His shoulder injury follows a ribcage injury that sidelined him the first two weeks of the season.
In the little bit Neal has played, he's impressed. And there's no reason to think he won't be starting material in the near future.
-- Third-round draft choice, safety Morgan Burnett: Burnett made probably the biggest immediate impact of any rookie. With Atari Bigby yet to sign a contract, Burnett was inserted into the starting lineup before training camp even began.
Notching his first career interception in just the second game of the season, Burnett looked to be a lock for the league's All-Rookie team and could regain a starting job as soon as he returns to from a torn ACL.
-- Fifth-round draft choice, tight end Andrew Quarless: With Jermichael Finley around, the rookie tight end didn't figure to play much this season. Now, with Finley sidelined for the rest of the year, it's almost as if Thompson could see into the future.
Quarless scored his first career touchdown in the win over the Minnesota Vikings and should play a larger role as the season progresses.
-- Fifth-round draft choice, offensive lineman Marshall Newhouse: Just making the 53-man roster was and probably will be the highlight of Newhouse's season. But the longer Mark Tauscher remains injured, the better the chances become of Newhouse contributing.
Daryn Colledge and Jason Spitz become free agents this upcoming offseason, which could open the door for a guy like Newhouse to play next year.
-- Sixth-round draft choice, running back James Starks: After being placed on the Physically Unable to Perform list to begin the season, Starks finally is eligible to play.
The Packers will remain cautious with their young running back, but because of the lack of depth at the position, there's a chance he could be activated at some later point.
-- Seventh-round draft choice defensive lineman C.J. Wilson: Due to myriad injuries along the defensive line, Wilson was forced into significant action in the Vikings game and performed better than anyone could have expected.
As long as Wilson continues to learn and grow as a player, he should continue to see playing time.
-- Undrafted cornerback Sam Shields: Perhaps the biggest steal of the rookie class, the Packers didn't even need to invest a draft choice into their current nickel cornerback.
Shields may lose his spot on defense to Al Harris, but that doesn't undermine what the rookie already has been able to do, and that's shut down opposing receivers.
-- Undrafted linebacker Frank Zombo: A nice find for Thompson, Zombo already has added two sacks this season after defying the odds to even make the team.
-- Undrafted offensive lineman Nick McDonald: McDonald hasn't played this season and probably won't going forward, but there's a reason the Packers have kept him around. They want him for future seasons.
Brian Carriveau is editor of Maple Street Press Packers Annual and also writes for CheeseheadTV.com
Last updated: 3:08 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012