Dezman Moses smiled as he watched from afar Friday morning. He knew the feeling.
A year earlier, the Green Bay Packers now second-year outside linebacker had experienced that same amalgam of excitement and nerves and fear of the unknown that comes with the annual post-draft rookie orientation camp.
It had been Moses, an undrafted free-agent signee from Tulane, who’d made the best first impression during last year’s camp, outshining even the team’s draft picks while kick-starting what would be an impressive rookie year – a year that not only saw him make the 53-man roster but start six games and play 504 snaps on defense, recording four sacks, five quarterback hits and 12 hurries.
And it all began with his first four days at Lambeau Field, during a camp that is part football, part freshman orientation.
“I was excited to be here. It was a great day, the first chance for the coaches to get a look at you in person and show some of your skills,” Moses recalled as he watched this year’s rookies prep for their first practice. “Especially for guys who are maybe undrafted or late-round guys who really want to make the team, it was essential for me from Day 1 to make an impression on the coaches with my work ethic and knowledge of the game – just make plays and have fun.”
The Packers opened Friday’s practice with nine of their 11 draft picks under contract, and nine more undrafted free-agent signees. (Only first-round pick Datone Jones, a defensive end from UCLA, and second-round pick Eddie Lacy, a running back from Alabama, had not come to terms.) The team also had 27 players taking part on a tryout basis, a longshot route that has led to contracts for several players over the past few years.
“Comparing today’s work to prior years, we’re a little bit ahead as far as what we’ve accomplished – and that’s a tribute to this group of players,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said after the first practice ended around 6 p.m. Central time. “It seems like I’m asked this question yearly: This camp isn’t set up to bring guys in and look at your draft picks. This camp is about giving everybody an opportunity because we’ve been very successful at that.”
“This is an opportunity for competition. That’s the theme of the weekend, and I expect every one of them to grab a hold of that opportunity.”
In an interesting twist, tor the first time since McCarthy took over as coach, the rookie orientation camp coincided with the veteran players’ work during Phase II of the offseason program, meaning the rookies and veterans crossed paths during the course of the day.
Former NFL MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers was in the equipment room as rookies came in after meetings, just as rookie fourth-round pick J.C. Tretter, an offensive lineman from Cornell, was coming into the locker room.
“You grow up watching the NFL and you’re happy about it and excited about it and then you have to realize now you’re just like him. You’re in an NFL locker room and you have to produce just like he does,” Tretter said.
A few minutes later, four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Clay Matthews came through as rookie outside linebacker Nate Palmer, the team’s sixth-round pick, was leaving for another meeting.
“I walked past him but I don’t think he knew who I was. I didn’t want to seem like a fan,” Palmer said of Matthews. “I’ll let time mellow before I go over and introduce myself when I see him again.”
McCarthy estimated that the camp is “40 to 50 percent about culture/orientation” and “50 to 60 percent about football,” with the more football-focused organized team activity practices and the mandatory full-squad minicamp looming in the next six weeks. Because the camp coincided with the veterans’ on-field IPW work (individual position workouts), it made for an interesting day, McCarthy said.
“Frankly, for the coaches it was like coaching two teams today,” he explained. “We had the (veteran) offensive players in the weight room at 7:30 (a.m.) and then we had our practice on the field at 8:30, and then the defense was in the weight room and we had the practice with the defense after that. Then we had flip and turn around and had the team meeting with the rookies and had to do it all over again.
“So having the veterans in the morning, I was interested in seeing the interaction because I think it’s important to see those guys interact. I definitely like this format better than last year.”
Although they were unsigned, both Lacy and Jones are able to participate in the rookie practices, and Jones went in with a distinct advantage over his fellow rookies: The defense he played in at UCLA under coach Jim Mora and defensive coordinator Lou Spanos was strikingly similar to the Packers’ scheme. Spanos spent 15 years as an assistant with the Pittsburgh Steelers, including during Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ tenure there in the mid-1990s.
“Coach Spanos took a lot of Dom Capers’ defenses. So today, when I’m looking at the playbook, I see pretty much all our installs from when I went to UCLA to here,” Jones said. “Coming here, it’s now like, ‘Let me go to install four and five because I know the first three installs off the top of my head. Let me start learning what other guys do on the field and play faster.”
Said McCarthy with a chuckle: “Datone hit the lottery in a number of different ways.”
That wasn’t the case for many of Jones’ new teammates. Lacy, who was considered by many to be the best running back in the draft, fell to No. 61 due to durability and injury concerns. He got his first look at the Packers’ offensive playbook when he arrived in town Thursday and called it “the biggest playbook I’ve ever had in my life.”
Lacy said he wasn’t bothered by recent news that both the Denver Broncos and Pittsburgh Steelers had passed on him in the draft because of health concerns, including toe fusion surgery he had before his final season at Alabama. Lacy played in all 14 of the Crimson Tide’s games last season, rushing 204 times for 1,322 yards and 17 touchdowns while also catching 22 passes for 189 yards last year as a junior.
“I just feel like everything happens for a reason and even though I didn’t get picked where I was supposed to, I fell to Green Bay and even though it was the second round, I feel like it’s the perfect place to be,” Lacy said. “I’m not knocking (those teams) for feeling like that, but I feel like I’m in a great situation and I’m just going to move on from there.”
Lacy does enter the NFL with low college mileage – he only had 355 career carries at Alabama while playing behind past first-round picks Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson – and he may not be an every-down back with the Packers. The team drafted UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin in the fourth round last month, and the staff also remains high on DuJuan Harris, the lead running back at the end of last season.
But Lacy is aiming to be the starter, knowing that the Packers desperately need more production from the run game to prevent defenses from focusing solely on quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the passing game.
“We’re all going to see when the season comes around. I still have to go through practice and the playbook and a whole lot of stuff before I even think about that,” Lacy said of starting. “The defense won’t be able to stack the box up because we have a great quarterback and we have great weapons on the outside. It leaves a lot of room for the running back to be able to run through the middle.”
In the short term, though, Lacy and his fellow rookies will focus on getting used to life in the NFL.
“We’re just starting to get acclimated now, just adjusting to the pro level, understanding the playbook. That’s the biggest key thing,” fourth-round pick David Bakhtiari, an offensive lineman from Colorado, said before practice. “I want the organization to be able to trust me and I need to be trustworthy by knowing what I’m going to do.
“This is a new day. I’m not saying they’re bad nerves or almost like anxious nerves, good nerves. So I’m just excited to see what I’ve got.”
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.