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Rookies must grow up fast

By By Jason Wilde
Published On: Oct 15 2013 11:20:05 PM CDT
Green Bay Packers

GREEN BAY, Wis. -

Slowly but surely, they are becoming household names. OK, maybe not all of them. OK, maybe only some of them.

If you start at the top of the draft and work your way to the two of them who were promoted from the practice squad to the 53-man roster on Tuesday, the Green Bay Packers have 14 – fourteen! – rookies on their roster entering Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns at Lambeau Field:

Datone Jones

Eddie Lacy

David Bakhtiari

Johnathan Franklin

Josh Boyd

Micah Hyde

Nate Palmer

Sam Barrington

Andy Mulumba

Lane Taylor

Chris Banjo

Michael Hill

Jake Stoneburner

Myles White

The list doesn’t even include fourth-round pick JC Tretter, who is on the physically unable to perform list as he recovers from a broken ankle, or the two rookie wide receivers (seventh-round pick Kevin Dorsey and undrafted rookie Sederrick Cunningham) who are on injured reserve. And while with the Packers’ draft-and-develop philosophy one would expect most of their rookie draft picks to be on the roster, the final six names – with Stoneburner and White having been added Tuesday – belong to undrafted rookie free agents.

As of Tuesday evening, no team in the NFL had as many rookies on their 53-man roster than the Packers, whose team makeup is 26.4 percent rookies. The Browns have the next most rookies with 13, followed by New England with 12; Chicago, Atlanta and St. Louis with 11 and Miami, Jacksonville, Oakland, Dallas, New Orleans and Tampa Bay with 10. The Washington Redskins have the fewest with five, followed by Denver and Indianapolis with six and Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Tennessee, Minnesota, Carolina, San Francisco and the New York Giants with seven.

And so, as the Packers try to persevere through their latest injury crisis with a host of real household names – outside linebacker Clay Matthews, wide receiver Randall Cobb, wide receiver James Jones, outside linebacker Nick Perry, inside linebacker Brad Jones, cornerback Casey Hayward – sidelined, they will increasingly rely on their youngsters.

“The development of these players to get ready to play in these games doesn’t start this week because the guy in front of him went down. That started the day they walked in here April 15,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said, referring to the first day of the team’s offseason program. “That’s always been our plan. That’s our program. It’s worked and it will continue to work. This week we have to go out and do that against the Cleveland Browns. That’s just who we are.”

The Packers also have two first-year players (tight end Brandon Bostick and cornerback James Nixon) and six second-year players on the roster. Of those 22 players, at least seven – Lacy at running back, Bakhtiari at left tackle, Hyde as the nickel corner, Mulumba at outside linebacker, Datone Jones as a dime pass rusher, Don Barclay at left tackle and Jarrett Boykin at wide receiver – will either start or play a key role in a sub package against the Browns. In addition, Palmer is the lone backup at outside linebacker and, if Brad Jones can’t play, Sam Barrington would be the lone backup at inside linebacker.

The good news for the Packers is that most, if not all, of those injuries aren’t season-ending.

Cobb was placed on injured reserve Tuesday with the designation to return, meaning he could be back for the final three regular-season games and the playoffs, beginning Dec. 15 at Dallas. Matthews, who broke his thumb against Detroit on Oct. 6, could be back in two or three weeks; James Jones and Brad Jones have not yet been ruled out for Sunday; and Hayward could finally be cleared this week after missing the first five games. It’s unclear whether how long Perry’s broken foot, which he suffered against the Ravens Sunday and still played in the fourth quarter, will keep him out, while the statuses of running back James Starks (knee) and special teams ace Jarrett Bush (hamstring) are unclear as well.

But what is clear is this: If they all return – and if the Packers’ bad luck in the injury department ever ends – their rookies will no longer be rookies when called upon again.

“I’ll tell you one thing it does do is, you find out a lot about your young players,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “And I think in the long haul, it can help you a little later on because of the experience these guys are gaining now.

“Those guys have to do double-time in their preparation, they’ve got to feel the responsibility to the rest of the team that if they’re going to be out there, they’ve got to do their job. To this point in time, I feel really good about what the young guys did. It kind of falls in line with what we ask of them.

“We’re just going to prepare for Cleveland with that in mind. We’ve got to elevate some of those younger guys and get them more reps because they’re going to be playing a lot of football for us.”

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.

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