GREEN BAY – When they first arrive, they all take up residence at the same hotel, from the bonus-baby high draft picks to the undrafted rookie free agents. The hotel has changed over the years – it used to be a place near Lambeau Field; now it’s out by Austin Straubel International Airport – but it’s never been the Ritz-Carlton. (Not that there’s one of those in Green Bay, anyway.) They’re not roughing it, by any means, but it’s not like the Green Bay Packers’ rookies are living in the lap of luxury, either.
“We were all there,” undfrafted rookie outside linebacker Dezman Moses said. “When you’re a rookie class, you tend to spend a lot of time together – you’ve got meetings together, events you have to attend together – and you just naturally create a bond.
“The older guys when you first come in, they’re handling their business, not really too concerned with bringing the young guys along at that point because they don’t know who’s going to be there and who’s not (when the season starts). So you’re really looking to your rookie teammates and leaning on each other.”
It’s during that time in May and June that friendships are formed, through the common experience and uncertainty of the NFL careers that lie ahead. Some will be brief – which is why they’re in the hotel in the first place, instead of seeking long-term housing options – while others are embarking on lengthier stays. They’re trying to pick up the Packers’ playbook during the rookie orientation camp, organized team activity practices and the mandatory minicamp, while also competing with each other for the coaches’ attention.
And it’s that environment – part competition, part shared experience, part friendship – that is paying off big for the Packers defense these days, according to the young guys involved.
“It’s definitely a competitive-type relationship that we all have,” said Moses, who’s expected to make his second straight start in place of injured star Clay Matthews Sunday night at the New York Giants.
“We all get along great, but at the same time, we kind of challenge each other to make plays. Just joking around, seeing who can do what as teammates, challenging each other. I think it’s good to challenge each other. We all know what we do well. It helps the team overall. When you challenge an elite athlete, they usually step up.”
And that’s exactly what’s happened. That competition is among players at every level of the defense – on the line, at linebacker, in the secondary – and it’s fostering an environment of improvement.
Of course, the fact that the Packers are playing so many young players – in part out of necessity, in part by design – on defense hardly qualifies as news. In the Packers’ draft-and-develop approach to their roster, it’s simply how they do things around here.
That said, to be getting the quality of play they’re getting from their young’uns, well, now that is newsworthy.
"Our young guys are stepping up big-time,” 12-year veteran defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said. “It's exciting for an older guy to see the young players come in and make the impact they're making. They're giving this defense a big-time boost. They're making plays. They're playing like vets."
At one point in last Sunday’s victory at Detroit, the Packers had six rookies on the field: Moses, safeties Sean Richardson and Jerron McMillian, defensive linemen Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels, and cornerback Casey Hayward, who with his team-leading five interceptions is stating a very strong case for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year consideration. (Rookie outside linebacker Nick perry, the team’s first-round pick, is on season-ending injured reserve following wrist surgery.)
“Our whole focus coming into this season was to be a more athletic football team, to be a more well-rounded football team, and I feel like we’ve definitely accomplished that from a personnel standpoint, and you’re seeing that come together as a football team,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy, whose team used its first six draft picks on defensive players after finishing last season ranked dead last in the 32-team NFL in yards allowed.
“I thought our young players have played extremely well. Casey Hayward was extremely productive (against the Lions). McMillian, he played very well. I thought Dezman Moses played extremely well in his first opportunity at outside linebacker playing a full game, the number of snaps that he had. Defensively, we graded out very well. It clearly was a strength of our performance.”
For the season, Hayward, who has taken over as a starter at cornerback since Sam Shields, who was also playing well, went down with a sprained ankle Oct. 14 at Houston, has a team-high 16 pass breakups, 35 tackles and one forced fumble to go along with his five INTs, one of which came against the Lions. Moses has two sacks and also forced a fumble against the Lions. Daniels and Worthy each have two sacks. (Daniels also recovered the fumble that Moses forced at Detroit.) McMillian has one interception (he had another one wiped out at Seattle Sept. 24 by a penalty), recovered a fumble/lateral against the Lions and ranks third on the team in pass breakups with 11.
“The new guys view it as an opportunity. They know that they’ve got to take advantage of it,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “That’s what this game is all about: When the opportunity presents itself, you’ve got to be ready, you’ve got to go out and perform. We’ve had a number of young guys that have done that.”
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.