The Green Bay Packers have followed a philosophy of drafting and developing players throughout most of general manager Ted Thompson’s tenure. As a result, Green Bay often finds itself among the youngest teams in the NFL.
Because the Packers have so many young players (of the current 90-man roster, only 18 players have been in the league for at least five years), the contributions of players on their first contracts are even more important. Much of Green Bay’s rookie class will be counted on to play a significant role in 2016, but it is often even more important for the team’s second-year players to avoid a setback and continue their development.
This so-called “sophomore slump” does not affect every player, but it definitely happens in the NFL (see Davante Adams in 2015). The Packers hope to see continued improvement from their sophomore class, but what can realistically be expected from those entering their second season? For the purposes of this analysis, the discussion will be limited to ten players: the nine who saw regular season playing time as rookies, and backup quarterback Brett Hundley.
The Packers have a pretty nice split regarding where their sophomores line up. Five of these players are on the offense, four are defenders, and one is a member of the special teams unit. Offensively, Aaron Ripkowski, John Crockett, Ty Montgomery, Kennard Backman, and Brett Hundley are all entering their second years in the NFL. Each of them will have varying levels of expectations, as well as different likelihoods of them succeeding or struggling in 2016.
To start, Hundley will almost certainly have a bigger role than he did in his rookie year, though admittedly that does not change his role as merely a backup. However, he will move up a spot on the depth chart. With Scott Tolzien departing in free agency, Hundley will become the first (and possibly only) quarterback behind Aaron Rodgers. Despite not logging a regular season snap last year, he will still have chances to demonstrate improvement. He flashed potential in last year’s preseason by posting the highest quarterback rating in the 2015 preseason. Hundley will likely see an even higher preseason workload as he is groomed to become either a possible trade chip or a strong insurance piece behind Rodgers.
Crockett and Backman are the other two second-year offensive players who will likely be less involved in 2016. The two combined for only 27 regular season snaps last season, and both figure to be third on the depth chart at their respective positions this year. Crockett, who will likely begin the year behind Eddie Lacy and James Starks, was the team’s most heralded undrafted rookie from last year, and showed in the preseason finale what he could do out of the backfield. He had 42 yards and a touchdown on eight carries and added 49 yards receiving yards on four receptions. He only ran for 21 yards in the regular season, but did jolt the running game in the team’s Hail Mary victory over Detroit in Week 13 when the rest of the backfield couldn’t get anything going. He figures to see more carries in 2016, but expectations will remain low for the likely-third-string running back.
Backman will probably fall behind Jared Cook and Richard Rodgers at tight end, and retain a limited role in the offense. Like Cook, Backman’s big advantage at the position is speed (he posted a 4.66 40-yard dash), but he will likely be limited to a special teams-heavy role again in 2016. If the Packers roll out some three tight end sets, it would likely be Backman who sneaks onto the field with the team’s top two tight ends. In the end, Backman’s role in his second season will likely be a relatively insignificant one. He, Crockett, and Hundley will all find themselves relegated to backups unless pressed into service by injuries. It’s unfair to say they will suffer sophomore slumps (given they did not really contribute as rookies), and while their production is likely to be slightly higher, it will still be relatively minor.
The two offensive players who are most likely to have an impact in their second seasons are Ripkowski and Montgomery. With the Packers’ decision to move on from John Kuhn at fullback, Ripkowski will likely be the primary lead blocker in the Green Bay backfield. His contributions in 2015 were limited to a single reception for 18 yards and only 18 total snaps, but his workload will certainly increase next season. Kuhn was on the field for 305 plays last year, and Ripkowski will pick up the bulk of those. Green Bay still utilizes the fullback position even as it continues to be phased out, which will allow him to become a more impactful piece during his sophomore season.
Ty Montgomery was the most productive offensive rookie last season, but he was limited to just six games because of a lingering ankle injury. In limited action, he recorded 15 receptions for 136 yards and a pair of touchdowns. If he recovers as expected from that injury, he should be ready for the 2016 season and would play a significant role on the offense. Montgomery is a versatile athlete who can thrive as a slot receiver and also present a threat out of the backfield. Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb are locks to be ahead of Montgomery on the depth chart, but Montgomery has a legitimate shot to climb ahead of Davante Adams and Jeff Janis to be the number three receiver. Montgomery has the highest potential of the team’s second-year players, and with that potential comes high expectations. The hope is that Montgomery can become a multidimensional weapon that elevates the entire passing game. If healthy, he has a real chance to do just that.
As discussed more in depth in an article last week, the Packers’ secondary will be heavily reliant on its year two players in 2016. Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins will likely be the anchors in the defensive backfield for years to come. Randall was tied for the team lead with three interceptions, while Rollins added two of his own. Both of them displayed very good coverage skills in their rookie campaigns. Rollins allowed the lowest opponents’ passer rating among qualified rookies, while Randall recorded an impressive 14 passes defended. Randall started nine games last year, and barring injury he will be a full-time starter in 2016. Both Randall and Rollins set the bar incredibly high for themselves with strong rookie seasons, but having the highest expectations also means that they will have the hardest time meeting those lofty marks. Based on the impressive starts to their respective careers, both cornerbacks are capable of meeting—and possibly exceeding—the marks they set in 2015. They will just be under the most scrutiny and pressure to do so.
Also in the secondary is LaDarius Gunter, who along with Crockett was arguably the Packers’ most impressive undrafted rookie of 2015. Despite rarely appearing during the regular season, he had a solid preseason that included eight tackles, five passes defended, and an interception. When pressed into action in the team’s playoff game against the Redskins, he responded admirably. Gunter racked up 31 defensive snaps, far surpassing his combined total from the entire regular season (8). He should continue to contribute on special teams, but can blossom into another ascending member of the team’s young secondary. Similar to some of the offensive players, it is hard to deem Gunter’s play in 2016 a “slump,” (regardless of how he ultimately performs). He should see more of the field than he did as a rookie, and has an arrow pointing upward as he prepares for year two.
The final defender who will be looking to assert his role on the defense is linebacker Jake Ryan. Taken in the fourth round of 2015 to address one of the team’s biggest needs, the fourth round pick got off to a slow start before getting hot near the season’s end. Through the Packers’ first 11 games—nine of which Ryan appeared in—he recorded just 14 tackles, 10 of which came in a single game against the Panthers. But from Week 13 through the end of the season, he really turned things around. He started all five games to end the season, and posted 36 tackles in those contests. He really stood out against the run and was great in pursuit of the ball carrier, though he still needs to work on pass coverage. Ryan, like Randall, should start 2016 as a starter and will have numerous opportunities to prove himself. If he can match and exceed his production at the end of his rookie year, his second season will be deemed a success. The Packers expect Ryan to continue his growth; reverting back to his early-2015 production would be a disappointment for Green Bay.
Brett Goode’s ACL injury last year forced Green Bay to bring in a new long snapper for the final two games of 2015. The Packers called in Rick Lovato to fill the void, marking the first time since 2007 that someone other than Goode played the position for Green Bay. Long snappers do not get much recognition in the NFL, and are only really noticed if they do their job poorly. Lovato had no glaring issues in his brief playing time, so the Packers may elect to stick with him because he is younger and is not coming off a significant injury. As long as Lovato is not atrocious with snapping the ball, he will be a capable replacement snapping the ball for the team’s punter and kicker.
Overall, the Packers are very reliant on their younger players to help elevate the team to the next level. Each of the ten second-year layers discussed here has plenty of potential, and all ten have arrows that are pointing upward. Some, like Randall, Rollins, and Ryan, will be counted on more than others to develop quickly and avoid slumping in their sophomore season. Others have the “luxury” of lower expectations and will be under less scrutiny, so even a less-than-stellar season will be deemed a success. The only way to judge the Packers’ second-year players is to see how they respond to the added pressures that come with another year of professional experience.——————
Sean Blashe is a Packers fan who grew up in Bears territory and is currently a journalism and history major at Marquette University. Sean is a writer with PackersTalk.com and you can follow him on twitter at @SeanBlashe .