Can the Green Bay Packers’ 2015 draft class make a jump in year two?
At this time of year, fans are salivating at the fresh crop of players that their team will select in the upcoming draft. They see obvious holes on the roster that can be instantly plugged by incoming rookies.
For the Packers, though, there is another group of players that will probably have far more impact on the team’s 2016 fortunes than the rookies: the second-year players.
Mike McCarthy preaches every year during offseason workouts that the biggest jump players can make is from their first year to their second. After a year of learning the playbook, getting live game action, and working through a full-time NFL strength and conditioning programming, second-year players are better equipped than any other group to improve by leaps and bounds.
Last year, the 2014 draft class largely disappointed. While Ha Ha Clinton-Dix became a stalwart in the defensive secondary and Corey Linsley remained rock solid at center, other players failed to capitalize on their opportunities.
On offense, none of the quartet of Davante Adams, Richard Rodgers, Jared Abbrederis, and Jeff Janis became the type of consistent playmakers that Aaron Rodgers craved after Jordy Nelson tore his ACL. After an offseason of touting Adams in particular as the most improved player on the team, a frustrated Rodgers was left with James Jones as his premier perimeter target.
Defensively, meanwhile, tackle Khyri Thornton couldn’t even make the team and Carl Bradford was relegated to the practice squad, leaving Clay Matthews to once again play inside linebacker for the majority of the year.
Green Bay will need much, much more from their 2015 draft picks this season.
Like wide receiver last year, cornerback will be the position in 2016 where the second-year players will need to make the biggest jump. Damarious Randall showed promise as a starting corner last year, but he also got embarrassed at times by players like Amari Cooper and gave up the huge overtime completion to Larry Fitzgareld in the divisional round. The continuation of his progress this season will be as vital as Adams’ maturation (or lack thereof) was last year.
Quentin Rollins is in line to start at nickel cornerback. Rollins flashed playmaking ability with three interceptions and was probably the Packers’ best tackling corner last season, but he will need to string together a lot more consistency if he is going to see the field on nearly every down.
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Jake Ryan has a chance to step up at the position that might worry Packers fans most. He was an instinctive run stopper last season, though limited in coverage. It’s probably asking a lot for him to become much more than he already is, as he’s simply a limited athlete who shouldn’t be placed in coverage on athletic tight ends or jitterbug running backs. But a marked improvement in instincts and playmaking is possible and would be greatly welcomed.
Ty Montgomery is the player that intrigues me the most. With Jordy Nelson coming back from injury and Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis fresh off of eye-opening performances in the playoffs, there won’t be too many snaps to go around at wide receiver. But I think Montgomery has a real chance to supplant Davante Adams as a starter next season.
Though he’s traditionally played more in the slot, Montgomery has a big frame at 6-foot, 221 pounds and he showed some explosiveness in space last season as both a receiver and a kick returner. Remember those quick out routes to Richard Rodgers last season that seemed to average about 0.001 yards per completion? Montgomery has a chance to actually do some damage on those plays this season.
Brett Hundley’s improvement could become absolutely paramount for the Packers if Aaron Rodgers is to miss any time at all this season. He clearly showed enough promise for Ted Thompson to allow Scott Tolzien to leave in free agency. It will be incumbent on him to make Thompson’s gamble worthwhile.
Other important second-year players will include Aaron Ripkowski, a sledgehammer who could be the heir apparent to John Kuhn, and the promising young cornerback Ladarius Gunter. Kennard Backman and Christian Ringo, meanwhile, will be hard-pressed to see significant playing time this season.
It is, overall, a promising group. Rollins and Montgomery, in my opinion, have the potential to surprise fans and become impact players. No matter who it is, though, it is absolutely essential these players show more improvement in their sophomore seasons than the 2014 draft class did.