GREEN BAY – Mike McCarthy couldn’t help himself.
It was late last week, in advance of his team’s second preseason game, at St. Louis. The Green Bay Packers coach had just been asked about standout rookie cornerback Micah Hyde, and in a stark departure from general manager Ted Thompson’s repetitive, say-nothing He’s doing fine response, McCarthy made his excitement clear.
“Micah Hyde is a good football player,” McCarthy said of the fifth-round pick from Iowa. “I go back to the rookie orientation minicamp that we has here, and we were testing out all the players that were in the camp that day. If you remember the one drill we were doing, we had 21 guys going through the kickoff return and punt return drill, and really challenging them with the ball placement. Just to see his ability to catch the ball on the run and do different things – hell, I was tempted to put him on offense. I think he has that type of ball skill ability. He’s doing some really good things as a young player.”
A few minutes later, cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt doused those enthusiastic flames a bit by pointing out that while Hyde had undoubtedly been one of the breakout stars of training camp, he’d yet to do something very important.
“He does not have an interception in an NFL game yet, so I don’t know if he can catch one because he hasn’t done it yet. He has to show me he can do it,” Whitt said. “I’ve seen him do it in practice, but I need to see him do it in a game.”
Two days later, Hyde went out against the Rams and – you guessed it – dropped what should have been an interception late in the fourth quarter.
“And he still hasn’t caught an interception in a game,” Whitt said with an I-told-you-so smirk Wednesday.
Interception or not, though, Whitt is just as excited about Hyde as his boss is. Why? The recurring theme about the Packers’ two most consistently impressive rookies – Hyde and new starting left tackle David Bakhtiari, a fourth-round pick from Colorado – entering Friday night’s third preseason game against Seattle is this: They’ve proven they belong.
While second-round pick Eddie Lacy looked terrific in the Family Night Scrimmage on Aug. 3 and against the Rams last week, he also missed a week (and the preseason opener against Arizona on Aug. 9) with a hamstring injury and still must unseat incumbent DuJuan Harris for the title of starter. And while first-round pick Datone Jones could very well be a defensive difference-maker this season, the rookie defensive end has played exactly one snap of preseason football, injuring his ankle against the Cardinals on Aug. 9. He then reinjured the ankle in practice Wednesday and is likely to miss Friday night’s game.
Hyde and Bakhtiari, meanwhile, have practiced every day and consistently impressed. They haven’t been perfect – Hyde gave up a 57-yard completion against the Rams, and Bakhtiari let Aaron Rodgers get sacked by defensive end Robert Quinn – but they’ve steadily improved and appear headed for big things.
“The thing about him, nothing is too big for him,” Whitt said of Hyde. “When I told him, ‘You’re going to be starting (against the Rams),’ he was like, ‘OK.’ It was nothing for him. When we told him, ‘Hey, you’re going to go back there and return punts,’ (he said) ‘OK.’ The guy, you don’t shake the guy. When he gave up that big play, he didn't care. He went out there and made plays. He played football. It was good to see because at our position, you’re going to get beat. Now how do you respond to it? He responded with a very, very solid performance and a very good game in many different levels.”
Bakhtiari, of course, assumed the starting left tackle job when Bryan Bulaga was lost for the season to a knee injury suffered on Family Night. But even before Bulaga went down, Bakhtiari was making a run at the starting right tackle job, and he probably would have been the starter there had Bulaga stayed healthy.
“He’s not a surprise, if that’s what you’re asking me,” offensive line coach James Campen said.
Of last season’s eight player draft class, six players – outside linebacker Nick Perry, defensive end Jerel Worthy, cornerback Casey Hayward, defensive tackle Mike Daniels, safety Jerron McMillian and inside linebacker Terrell Manning – made the 53-man roster.
Perry (211 snaps) saw his season end after six games because of wrist surgery, but Worthy (467), Hayward (769) Daniels (280) and McMillian (614) all played at least 1/5 of the team’s 1,260 defensive snaps in 18 games (including playoffs). Only Manning, a sixth-round pick, failed to play a defensive snap.
Now, McCarthy is expecting at least as many contributions from this year’s 11-player class.
“It looks great right now,” McCarthy said of the class. “You go off of last year’s draft class, and how many reps the defensive group played last season was a huge help for us. And it looks like this year’s draft class is probably headed down the same road. That’s always encouraging because, like I told the team, to win a championship it takes a lot of people. It took 77 players in 2010. So we’re going to need everybody.”
Or, as Thompson put it, “I think they’re doing fine, as a group. It looks like they’re a representative group. We don’t know what tomorrow brings but they look pretty good so far.”
With that in mind, here’s a player-by-player look at where the 2013 draft picks stand entering Friday night’s game against the Seahawks:
Jones’ ankle injury isn’t his fault, and he’s not the first first-round pick the Packers have had miss time in training camp. Four years ago, the same thing happened to No. 9 overall pick B.J. Raji, who suffered an ankle injury in the preseason finale and missed the first two weeks of the regular season. Still, it’s disappointing that Jones, who came in with a leg up on the rest of his draft class because the UCLA defense is a lite version of the Packers’ scheme, hasn’t been on the field. He was injured on his first snap against Arizona and had just come back to practice this week before aggravating the ankle injury in practice Wednesday. While it’s not considered serious, it’s still a setback.
“Obviously, it’s not good, but it’s kind of similar to B.J. he kind of did his ankle in the last preseason game (in 2009). He’ll be OK,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. “Obviously it’s not the best situation to miss practice time, but everything within the realm that he can do right now, he’s doing. You know, speaking from a guy that had some ankle injuries in my career, it just takes time. You just have to fight through it.”
Against the Rams, Lacy carried eight times for 40 yards, caught one pass for 11 yards, showed off his patented spin move twice and certainly looked like a difference-maker. He also was impressive on Family Night, parlaying a strong week of practice into a debut against live tackling that showed off what a 5-foot-11, 230-pound back can do with his combination of power and agility. Although he missed the game against the Cardinals with a hamstring issue, he has the look of a special player – arguably the most gifted back the Packers have had since franchise all-time leading rusher Ahman Green was in his prime. He and DuJuan Harris could form a phenomenal 1-2 punch and give quarterback Aaron Rodgers all kinds of help with a respectable running game and effective play-action fakes.
“I’m just excited about the production he put out there in his first game,” running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said. “It brought some life to the offense, I think – especially the offensive line. Guys that run that way and break tackles and do the things he did Saturday night brings something to the offensive side of the ball. As far as continuing success, we’re just working one day at a time right now, just getting ready to play the Seahawks this week and hopefully we can get the same production from him and the running game.”
The first thing that was obvious about Bakhtiari was that he was mature well beyond his 21 years of age. When the pads came on on July 28, he elevated his game. He has very good feet, has room to add bulk to his 300-pound frame and had one mental error during the eight installations of the offensive playbook. While he’ll undoubtedly have some growing pains playing left tackle as a rookie, the Packers’ goose could’ve been cooked when Bulaga went down, and as of now, it appears they will survive.
“The thing with him is he’s very similar mentality-wise as Bryan was when he was young,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “Very studious with the game, willing to try things, very good at implementing something in an individual period and then doing it in a team period and then learning from it and correcting it going forward. They’re very similar from that standpoint. As far as his expectations and what we had for him from the beginning to now, they haven’t changed. He’s a hard worker and keeps getting better and better every day.”
The Packers had big plans for Tretter, who projected as a possible center before suffering a broken ankle on the first day of organized team activity practices May 20 while participating in a fumble recovery drill. Smart and athletic, he might’ve made things interesting as an inside option behind guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang and center Evan Dietrich-Smith. He’s still moving around on crutches and is likely headed for injured reserve, although he would be eligible for the physically unable to perform list if the Packers think there’s a chance he could help them late in the year.
“He’s in all the meetings, of course, and continues to get the mental reps. He’s part of the group, and he answers questions just like everyone else in the room, takes the test and does all that stuff. For him, right now it’s get well and get back on the field,” Campen said. “J.C.’s a very studious kid, very smart, so he’s taking the mental reps every day watching the tape – the practice tape, the games. We prepare him just as if he’s playing. … He’s a very headstrong kid. He’s going to be a good football player.”
With nine carries for 23 yards (2.6-yard average) and a long run of 4 yards, Franklin has not impressed through two games. He’s also shaky catching punts, which he’d never done before, and botched a punt return against the Rams when he failed to field a kick and then didn’t make the “Peter” call to notify jammer Brandon Smith to get out of the way, leading to a turnover. That said, the Packers love the idea of Franklin earning the third-down back job, currently held by fullback John Kuhn. While Kuhn knows the offense as well as Rodgers and is the best at picking up blitzes, he offers little as a receiver or ballcarrier. Franklin would change that.
“I think (with) Johnathan, the first part of Family Night and the first game, he was trying to feel his way into the system,” Van Pelt said. “He’s still very talented. He hasn’t had a lot of clean looks to run through. Eddie had some really nice looks where somebody’s going to get through that hole regardless of who the back is. Johnathan just hasn’t been fortunate enough to get any of those good, clean looks yet. When they come, you’ll see his explosiveness, his ability to make guys miss.”
Hyde has been so good that second-year cornerback Casey Hayward, who was activated from the training-camp PUP list this week, has to earn his spot back from the rookie. With veteran Tramon Williams sidelined with a bone bruise in his knee, Hyde leapfrogged Davon House after the Arizona game and is at No. 2 on the depth chart at corner alongside Sam Shields. He’s also injected himself into the punt return conversation after a 13-yarder against the Rams. Having done the job as a junior and senior at Iowa, he’s much more natural than Franklin and could be the alternative the Packers seek to get Randall Cobb off returns.
“Micah has shown the ability to come in and play with the play speed that we’ve been looking for, the toughness. He’s done a lot of things correct,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “Like I told the room, he’s deserving of where he is right now. He wasn’t there at the beginning of camp. He was probably the seventh guy in the room coming into camp. He has been deserving of his opportunities because of the way he has practiced, the way that he’s played when it mattered. The other guys are going to have to do what they have to do to be deserving.”
Boyd has yet to do much to draw attention – other than get yelled at by Trgovac on a regular basis in practice. While he has good size – 6-foot-3, 310 pounds – he’s adjusting to a new system and with the resurgence of veteran Johnny Jolly after a three-year absence, Boyd may be ticketed for the practice squad.
“He’s got a lot of good ability. Just like any rookie that’s coming in from a different system, and transitioning into our system, he’s working,” Trgovac said. “He’ll see it faster the more reps he gets. But I think Josh is going to be a good football player. It’s just a matter of time and just you see it. In this defense, it takes a little bit longer. You see a lot of those Pittsburgh D-linemen, those guys are good players but it takes a little bit of time to pick this system up because it’s not just flying off the ball, getting off the ball and going to it. You have some different responsibilities.
“If it just came natural and easy to him, they wouldn’t need me to coach him. That’s my responsibility for him to be second nature in that regard, and I’m not going to back off him. I’m going to stay on him. I told him, you know, ‘You’re going to hate me for a couple months here, but someday you’re going to love me.’”
Despite plenty of opportunity at a surprisingly thin position, Palmer looks like he’ll need more time under position coach extraordinaire Kevin Greene. So far in camp, it’s been undrafted rookie free agent Andy Mulumba and second-year man Dezman Moses, an undrafted rookie a year ago, running behind starters Clay Matthews and Nick Perry. The practice squad seems likely.
“I think he’s growing, he’s progressing. Like all kids do in this position,” Greene said. “There’s so much to this position that you’ve really got to see and have reps in the cleats on the grass, and I think he is progressing naturally. He’s a smart kid, I quiz him every day, put defenses up on the board, I flash video at him, I tell him to call his own pressure, he’s the defensive coordinator, and he’s pretty much spot-on. He’s a smart kid. I think he’s tracking.”
Johnson, out since the first week of training camp with a knee injury, finally returned to the practice field on Wednesday. But with undrafted rookie free agents Tyrone Walker of Illinois State and Myles White of Louisiana Tech both having had solid camps, it may be too little, too late for Johnson. He missed almost all of the OTAs with a knee injury, too, and there’s a good chance he won’t play in a game until the Aug. 29 preseason finale in Kansas City.
“(We need to) see him play, see if he’s able to go out and play fast, has a clear understanding of what’s asked of him,” head coach Mike McCarthy said. “Charles is at a disadvantage. He doesn’t have the timing and the reps down with the quarterbacks as far as throwing him the ball. Really, for a young man to go out there in his first live action, you just want to see him play, play fast, play with confidence and try to do the best he can. He definitely has a lot of ability. That’s why we drafted him and hopefully he can go.”
Like Johnson, Dorsey has barely played. He too missed almost all of OTAs (his injury was a hamstring) and then he reinjured it two days into training camp. While Dorsey got on the practice field last week, he wasn’t cleared for game action against the Rams and will make his debut against the Seahawks. Unless he sets the world on fire in the final two preseason games, the best he can hope for is the practice squad.
“I can tell you what we saw on tape from our study coming into the draft, I can tell you about some of the practices we saw those guys participate in, and I can tell you how those guys are in the classroom,” wide receivers coach Edgar Bennett said of both Dorsey and Johnson. “I think they have a good grasp of our offense, our concepts, what we do. But unfortunately, a big part of what we do is taking it from the classroom and going out on to the practice field and working our fundamentals to improve. And that’s the area that unfortunately due to injury they haven’t been able to take full advantage of. Will they get some opportunities in these next two preseason games? We’ll see.”
Barrington incurred McCarthy’s wrath on the first day of pads when he put an unnecessary shot on an unsuspecting ballcarrier. But that’s been Barrington throughout camp: Tough, physical. He’s on the No. 1 kickoff return and punt return units, which is a sign that he could be ticketed for the 53-man roster even though he’s worked with the third-string defense behind starters A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones and primary backups Robert Francois and Jamari Lattimore.
“Sam’s been positive in camp. I think he’s taken the most of his opportunity,” inside linebackers coach Winston Moss said. “We’ve given him a lot of reps, he’s very diligent, he’s very professional, he’s all work, he doesn’t say a lot. So what’s shown up on the field has been effort. If he makes a mistake, he tends not to make that mistake again. It’s very cliché, you’ve heard that before, but he’s very diligent about correcting his mistakes. He plays hard, he has a little bit more speed than I anticipated, and he’s really working to get all his technique down, his pads low. I’m pleased every single day he goes out. he’s very serious, he doesn’t want to take a step back, and he always wants to move forward.”
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.