A couple of things absolutely must happen if the Packers are going to improve on defense in 2012. One, general manager Ted Thompson must come up with an impact player in this month’s draft. And two, B.J. Raji and Tramon Williams must bounce back from disappointing seasons. Another thing that would really help – but isn’t as essential or as likely – is for one or two of last year’s little-used rookies to become contributors.
It’s impossible to know in early April whether the draft will produce another Clay Matthews or whether Raji and Williams will return to their 2010 form, but after re-watching all four preseason games from last season, it isn’t impossible to take a crack at predicting which second-year players might be ready to make a name for themselves. So with no further adieu, here are my top five young defenders to watch:
1) D.J. SMITH – Last year’s sixth-round pick started three games at inside linebacker and there was little, if any, dropoff at the position. The former Appalachian State star proved to be a breath of fresh air on a defensive unit that stunk to high heaven in 2011. Along with solid production (27 total tackles, 1 interception and 1 pass defensed), he brought quickness, physicality and energy to an otherwise slowish, soft and sluggish unit. Of course, Smith was far from perfect. He missed some assignments and he over pursued the ball too often. Still, he did enough good things to make many fans and members of media question why A.J. Hawk and his bloated base salary ($4.7M) are still around.
2) JAMARI LATTIMORE – Fellow rookie Vic So’oto got all the headlines last summer, but I liked Lattimore better from day one. The undrafted free agent from Middle Tennessee State was too small (6’2, 230) to be used at outside linebacker as a rookie, but he did enough good things to stick around on the 53-man roster all season. With a frame that probably won’t be able to carry more than 240 pounds, it wasn’t a shock to hear coach Mike McCarthy mention the possibility of giving Lattimore a look inside during the upcoming mini-camps and OTAs. His size wouldn’t be quite as big (pardon the pun) an issue there and he’d certainly be better in coverage than any of the returning vets.
3) LAWRENCE GUY - It’s easy to forget that last year’s second seventh-round pick is still on the team. That’s because the former Arizona State star suffered a concussion early in camp and was never heard from again. Guy looks the part of a 3-4 end, and he played like a legitimate prospect as a sophomore. He showed enough strength to hold the point against the run and enough quickness to be disruptive as a pass rusher. But he really struggled as a junior and then shocked everybody by coming out early. Because of the lack of depth at this position, he’ll be given every opportunity to make the team. Whether he’s still around in the fall will depend on which Guy shows up in the summer.
4) M.D. JENNINGS – Even diehard fans were surprised when the undrafted free agent from Arkansas State made the 53-man roster, but they shouldn’t have been. Jennings made plays on a daily basis in practice and he was always around the ball in the preseason games. He never challenged a struggling Charlie Peprah for playing time at safety because he lacked the size and strength needed to play from scrimmage at this level. The coaches would like him to report to training camp at between 195 and 200 pounds after finishing last season under 190. Jennings has a chance to overcome his lack of size and his small college background because he has very good insticts and a real feel for the game.
5) BRANDIAN ROSS - While Davon House figures to go into training camp ahead of Ross on the depth chart, I wouldn’t be shocked if the undrafted free agent from Youngstown St. outplays him – just like he did last summer. House is bigger and faster, but Ross was far more physical and competitive during padded practices and preseason games. And while the 24-year-old wasn’t ready for the big leagues as a rookie, he might be ready after spending over four months on the practice squad and participating in a full offseason of mini-camps and OTAs. In order to take the step, Ross will have to do a better job of anticipating and breaking on throws because he lacks top closing speed.
I left So’oto and House off this list because I have serious reservations about both players. So’oto is tight in his movements. He’s not fluid dropping into coverage, does not change directions smoothly and struggles to break down in space. These are major problems for an OLB in a 3-4. House may look like Al Harris, but he didn’t play like him last summer. He was too passive. He wasn’t aggressive in run support and he didn’t attack the ball in the air. That said, he does have enough physical ability to compete at this level. Whether he’s willing to pay the price remains to be seen.
McCarthy often talks about how the biggest jump a player makes is from year one to year two. Raji, tight end Jermichael Finley, guard Josh Sitton and tackle Marshall Newhouse are prime examples. But they were all draft choices. I can’t remember the last undrafted player to make such a leap. So it’s probably asking an awful lot to expect Lattimore, Jennings and/or Ross to go from rookie benchwarmer to sophomore contributor. But it can happen, and why not be positive in early April? Heck, in early April, even the Cubbies have a chance to win the World Series.