GREEN BAY – Mike McCarthy has preached the gospel of the importance of second-year players making significant strides forever. Given the Green Bay Packers’ draft-and-develop philosophy, seeing last year’s rookies develop into this year’s key contributors has been an annual hope for the now ninth-year head coach.
But with two of those Year 1-to-Year 2 guys – left tackle David Bakhtiari, and defensive back Micah Hyde – things are slightly different than the run-of-the-mill hope that a non-factor will suddenly blossom into an impact player.
A scan of the roster reveals plenty of second-year players who fit that bill. Center JC Tretter, who didn’t play a single snap last season, is penciled in as the starter there. Defensive end Datone Jones, the team’s first-round pick a year ago, contributed little after a training-camp ankle injury. Lesser-known players like defensive lineman Josh Boyd, inside linebacker Sam Barrington, outside linebackers Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer are all guys who, with growth, could go from being invisible to being valuable role players. There are even several third-year players from the 2012 draft class – Nick Perry, Jerel Worthy, Casey Hayward – who’ve been bothered by enough injuries that probably still qualify.
And then, there are Bakhtiari and Hyde. Unlike most of those aforementioned players, whose contributions were minimal last year, they were counted on – heavily – as rookies.
“Yeah, I did a little bit,” Bakhtiari said with a chuckle Tuesday, following the first practice of the team’s three-day mandatory minicamp.
A fourth-round pick from Colorado, Bakhtiari started all 17 games (including playoffs) at left tackle last season after disaster seemingly struck with Bryan Bulaga’s season-ending knee injury. Hyde, a fifth-round pick from Iowa, played in every game and was vital as a slot defender in the team’s nickel and dime packages with Hayward missing most of the year, and he also assumed the return duties and wound up ranked fifth in the league in punt return average (12.3 yards) with a big touchdown at Minnesota in October.
While rookie running back Eddie Lacy had a huge season – the second-round pick was named the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year – his contributions were hardly surprising. Bakhtiari’s and Hyde’s were ultra-pleasant surprises.
“The second year players that we usually talk about are guys who didn’t do a whole lot,” McCarthy confessed Tuesday. “With David and Micah, their production in Year 1 was really exciting. Now the biggest challenge for those two guys is the opponents know about them. They have video on them. There’s video on Micah playing defensive back as well as returner. A little bigger challenge is, now they’re a known commodity.”
Hyde has the additional challenge of switching to safety – he’s worked with the starters there all spring, ahead of first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix – but seems completely unfazed by it. His expectations are so high, he refuses to accept the idea that he could be keeping the seat warm for Clinton-Dix, and sees last year’s success as less-than-impressive.
“My honest answer with that is, I feel like I could have played a lot better than what I did last year, especially early,” said Hyde, who did surrender the nickel job to veteran Tramon Williams – the Packers would slide Williams into the slot and bring Davon House off the bench to play outside – before taking the job back at midseason. “The first couple games, I made a couple mental errors and coach would take me out.
“At the time, I was pissed about that, because I felt like I should have been playing. … I set my expectations high, but I felt like I didn’t meet – and I think it’s a good thing – my expectations of last year. And that’s why I feel like going into this year that I can play way, way, way better.”
With Bakhtiari, meanwhile, it isn’t an exaggeration to say he saved the season by taking over for Bulaga and never acting like a rookie. He wasn’t perfect – Pro Football Focus had him allowing 10 sacks (including two in the playoff loss to San Francisco), five QB hits and 29 QB hurries in 1,191 snaps – but he also realizes he wasn’t perfect and isn’t acting as if he has everything figured out.
“I had a great rookie year. That’s how I look at it. I had a great rookie year; I had an OK year as a player,” Bakhtiari said. “But I don’t have that tag this year. I want people to be like, ‘He had a good year as a football player.’ Not rookie, not second-year, any of that. Throw all that out. He was a good player. He’s a guy we want on our team. I want the organization to want me here – want me at left tackle. Not just, ‘Oh, he’s here.’”
In an effort to do that, Bakhtiari added about 10 pounds to his listed 6-foot-4, 300-pound frame, with most of it muscle. He’s also been working to refine his techniques and develop secondary and tertiary moves to combat teams having film on him and knowing his tendencies.
“He had a very good season for a rookie. We expect him to make that next step and have a very good season,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “[Opponents] have got 17 games on him now, so he’s got to work and take a look at the things – and we will help him, as we help all the linemen, to say, ‘OK, you’re 80 percent (of the time) doing it this way. You have to find a secondary way.’ We’ve worked through all these things, and that’s something he’ll have to perfect as he goes along.”
Both Bakhtiari and Hyde have another thing going for them beyond their experience from last year: Both have behaved like veterans from Day 1. Neither one ever acted like anything was too big for them – and now that innate maturity should serve them well.
“Was I nervous? Yeah. But, was I as nervous as people think? Probably not,” Bakhtiari said. “I wasn’t overthinking my position. I was just playing football. If you want to block a player, just go out in the game and do it. Don’t think about the variables – that it’s Aaron Rodgers that I’m blocking for, or that I’m going against Aldon Smith or DeMarcus Ware or Julius Peppers or on and on and on – I just said, ‘If I do what I do, then I can block anyone.’ That is what I do know. That’s what my coaches know, that’s what the GM knows. That’s why they drafted me. They wouldn’t have drafted me if they didn’t think I could play.
Added Hyde: “Even when I was little, I’ve always just been a football player. I’ve never been the fastest, strongest, tallest. I was always just a football player, and I like it that way. I know if I go out there on Sundays or Mondays, whatever day it is, I’ll be prepared and just go out there and play football like I know how to.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.