GREEN BAY — Exactly how much the Green Bay Packers’ 2021 rookie class has benefited from a near-normal offseason program is hard to quantify.
But there is absolutely no question the group is better off than their counterparts were last year, when those rookies spent their first NFL offseason entirely in the virtual realm thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and they didn’t set foot on the grass of the team’s Clarke Hinkle or Ray Nitschke practice fields until training camp kicked off in August.
This year’s crop is ahead of the game in every way, including … with first-round draft pick Eric Stokes’ sleep schedule?
“Coming from college to here, there’s just a lot more time that I’ve got on my hands,” the rookie cornerback from Georgia replied when asked how his transition to professional football has been different from his collegiate experience. “So I’m just getting used to that, getting used to my schedule — when I can do this, when I can nap. All that good stuff. You’ve got to throw in a nap sometimes and get adjusted to that.”
While last year’s rookies had plenty of chances to catch up on their rest — for all anyone knows, maybe one or two even fell asleep in a Zoom meeting with his camera off, right? — this year’s group is obviously better prepared for when training camp kicks off on July 27.
Although this year’s offseason program did begin with Zoom videoconferences during the first two weeks, the youngest members of the roster did get a post-draft rookie minicamp last month (which allowed them to get the lay of the land in their new football home), a full complement of organized team activity practices (the last of which is set for Thursday morning but is closed to outsiders) and three days of mandatory full-squad minicamp practices (with one notable absence).
And all that in-person, on-field time should help prepare a group that appears more likely to contribute immediately than last year’s class.
“It’s helped me a lot, just being able to come from Clemson and how they coached me there, teaching me details of the game, teaching coverages, stuff like that,” said wide receiver Amari Rodgers, the team’s third-round pick. “That’s really it — just learning the offense, getting those reps so I’m familiar with it so (when) camp comes, I can go out there and just play fast and not have to worry about learning the offense and knowing what to do.”
Last year’s draft class was made up mostly of future-based selections, starting of course with Utah State quarterback Jordan Love, whom general manager Brian Gutekunst traded up in the first round to select with the No. 26 overall pick. Love, certainly, was chosen as the heir apparent to three-time NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers, who skipped the offseason program for the first time in his 17 NFL seasons to demonstrate his unhappiness with the team’s front office.
Gutekunst followed the Love pick with Boston College running back AJ Dillon in the second round, a pick made with an eye on the reality that the team’s top two running backs, Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams, were both in the final year of their contracts. The Packers ultimately re-signed Jones (four years, $48 million, $13 million guaranteed) and let Williams walk in free agency (signing with the Detroit Lions) to put Dillon in position to be part of a 1-2 backfield punch this year.
Third-round pick Josiah Deguara was in line for extensive playing time at tight end before a torn ACL sidelined him, and Gutekunst gave up the team’s fourth-round pick to move up to select Love. After that, inside linebacker Kamal Martin (fifth round) did find his way to the starting lineup, but the three offensive linemen selected in the sixth round — Jon Runyan, Jake Hanson and Simon Stepaniak — were all developmental picks, though Runyan did see spot duty when injuries struck last season.
This year’s class, meanwhile, appears to have immediate-impact opportunities aplenty.
Stokes, who worked behind starting cornerbacks Jaire Alexander and Kevin King in minicamp, should at the very least be part of sub packages in new defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s system. Second-round pick Josh Myers spent OTAs and minicamp at center with the No. 1 offensive line, and the coaches clearly plan to give him every chance to be the opening-day starter Sept. 12 in New Orleans. Rodgers’ diverse skill set should give him a meaningful role offensively, and he will be in the mix in the return game, too — much like his mentor, Randall Cobb, was as a rookie second-round pick a decade ago.
After that trio, several third-day picks — fourth-rounder Royce Newman (offensive lineman from Mississippi) and fifth-rounders T.J. Slaton (defensive tackle from Florida) and Shemar Jean-Charles (cornerback from Appalachian State) — could play their way into key roles with strong training camp showings.
“They’re going to get opportunities,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said last week. (LaFleur is slated to address reporters again after Thursday’s final practice.) “Everybody’s going to get an opportunity, and it’s our job to figure out how to get the best 11 out there.
“It’s way too early to tell how they’re going to contribute this year, but we are excited about the guys.”
The biggest beneficiary of the extensive offseason work will likely be Myers, who would be stepping in for the NFL’s All-Pro center if he does indeed start as a rookie, just as predecessor Corey Linsley did in 2014. Linsley, a fifth-round pick from Ohio State, started all 18 games (including playoffs) as a rookie on a team that reached the NFC Championship Game.
“It means a lot to me to get those reps and to get to play with some of those older guys and see how the process goes and learn my way throughout this thing,” Myers said. “I’m trying not to look ahead too far right now and just take it day-by-day. I know it’s a cliché, but right now there’s so much going on between my ears, learning this offense, that I’m just taking it day-by-day. I’ve taken very big steps forward since we started this thing with our offense and just understanding it, feeling more comfortable, and the game’s even starting to slow down already.
“The more I’ve gone through it, the more I’ve had mental breakthroughs where I’m like, ‘Oh, this is why,’ throughout our offense — just understanding the full picture better on a lot of different things more frequently.”
Photos: Packers’ 2020 season in pictures