The generally apocalyptic feeling around Packer Nation after two straight losses makes it easy to believe the 2015 NFL season, if not all meaningful life on earth, is over. But in fact we’re only halfway through and, as Mike McCarthy might say, there’s still a lot of football left to be played.
A good portion of that football, once again, has been and will continue to be played by rookies. Under draft-and-develop general manager Ted Thompson, the Packers have managed an enviable level of success while continually relying on major contributions from inexperienced players. For years, they’ve been among the league’s youngest teams, and this season is no different: The Packers have an average age of 25.5, which is third-youngest in the NFL.
Green Bay has nine rookies on its active roster – seven players it selected in April and two undrafted free agents. Several of those are playing key roles, for better and for worse, on the 6-2 Packers, who are suddenly tied with the Vikings atop the NFC North.
The first-year players probably thought they were done with this stuff when they left school, but too bad. It’s midterm time in Green Bay. Here’s how the Packers’ rookies, listed in order of draft position and with snap totals courtesy of Football Outsiders, grade out halfway through the season:
Damarious Randall, CB
Draft info: First-round pick (30th overall) from Arizona State
Stats: 8 games played, 462 total snaps (405 on defense, 57 on special teams), 31 tackles, 10 passes defensed, 2 interceptions returned for 4 yards
Glimpse of promise: Two fourth-quarter interceptions in the past two games showed Randall’s confidence and capacity to create opportunities for his team in the clutch. Both picks kept the opponent from further bleeding the clock and crucially got the ball back to the Packers’ offense, though they still lost both games.
Glimpse of problems: Prior to the interception in each game, Randall gave up lots of yardage. Against Carolina, Randall had perfect coverage against Devin Funchess, running step for step with him, but at the last moment failed to make a play on the ball, resulting in a 52-yard reception. He was also beaten on deep balls against both the Chiefs and 49ers.
Quinten Rollins, CB
Draft info: Second-round pick (62nd overall) from Miami (Ohio)
Stats: 6 games played, 132 total snaps (48 on defense, 84 on special teams), 9 tackles, 2 passes defensed, 2 interceptions returned for 48 yards and 1 touchdown
Glimpse of promise: Easily, Rollins’ high-water mark so far was Week 5 against St. Louis, when he had two interceptions, the first of which he effortlessly returned 45 yards for a touchdown. Opportunism is golden in Green Bay’s secondary. He’s also been a willing, aggressive tackler, both on defense and special teams. Against the Broncos, Rollins made an excellent tackle in punt coverage – right place, right time, right execution.
Glimpse of problems: There's been little to dislike here, except for a few instances of appearing slow to diagnose and react. Rollins missed the Carolina game with a shoulder injury, but, like Randall, he’s quickly become an important part of the defensive backfield.
Ty Montgomery, WR
Draft info: Third-round pick (94th overall) from Stanford
Stats: 6 games played, 262 total snaps (242 on offense, 20 on special teams), 15 catches for 136 yards (9.1 average) and 2 TDs, 3 rushes for 14 yards (4.7), 7 kick returns for 218 yards (31.1)
Glimpse of promise: On a third down in the Week 5 win over the Rams, Montgomery lined up to the right, cut in and got open across the middle of the field, catching the pass from Aaron Rodgers and running it in for a 31-yard touchdown. Montgomery’s been mostly dependable, with 15 receptions on 18 targets, and he runs with great strength.
Glimpse of problems: That 31-yard score is Montgomery’s only catch of more than 20 yards this season, which isn’t enough for a supposed playmaking wide receiver in an offense that's starved for big plays.
Jake Ryan, LB
Draft info: Fourth-round pick (129th overall) from Michigan
Stats: 6 games played, 155 total snaps (44 on defense, 111 on special teams), 14 tackles, 1 tackle for loss
Glimpse of promise: Replacing Nate Palmer briefly against the Broncos and for good against the Panthers, Ryan has come on strong of late. In Sunday’s loss at Carolina, he had 10 tackles – including one for loss – making great reads and being eagerly physical. He plays smart, fast and aggressively. He’s a constant on special teams.
Glimpse of problems: It’s been a small sample size for Ryan, playing from scrimmage only the last one-and-a-quarter games, but he appears to be another hit in Green Bay’s 2015 draft class. Aaron Ripkowski is his roommate, and Ryan said the rookies go over both their bruises and understanding of the playbooks with each other off the field.
Brett Hundley, QB
Draft info: Fifth-round pick (147th overall) from UCLA
Stats: 0 games played, 0 total snaps (0 on offense, 0 on special teams)
Glimpse of promise: According to plan, Hundley has remained on the sidelines. But we still have his preseason, when he finished as the NFL passing leader with a 129.7 QB rating.
Glimpse of problems: Nothing to report here, as Hundley has avoided issues on the practice field and in the locker room.
Aaron Ripkowski, FB
Draft info: Sixth-round pick (206th overall) from Oklahoma
Stats: 8 games played, 156 total snaps (10 on offense, 146 on special teams), 1 catch for 18 yards
Glimpse of promise: Last week Ripkowski ran a bootleg route out of the backfield in the first quarter and hauled in an 18-yard pass from Rodgers on the left flank, relishing the chance to finish the play by trucking a couple Panthers defenders. He’s alert, an ace on special teams and loves delivering punishment, which is all you can ask for at his position.
Glimpse of problems: It’s hard to find one. Assuming you don’t consider a fullback to be a wasted roster spot, Ripkowski has been very good.
Kennard Backman, TE
Draft info: Sixth-round pick (213th overall) from Alabama-Birmingham
Stats: 2 games played, 6 total snaps (6 on offense, 0 on special teams)
Glimpse of promise: In the preseason, Backman caught seven passes for 64 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown that showed off his athleticism (4.65 seconds in the 40-yard dash).
Glimpse of problems: He hasn’t been put on any special teams units, where the Packers typically like to use the size, speed and strength of young tight ends (think Brandon Bostick and Ryan Taylor), and position coach Jerry Fontenot has hinted in interviews at Backman's lack of experience and understanding.
Alonzo Harris, RB
Draft info: Undrafted from Louisiana-Lafayette
Stats: 5 games played, 54 total snaps (6 on offense, 48 on special teams), 4 rushes for 19 yards
Glimpse of promise: In the first quarter of the Week 3 win over the Chiefs, Harris took a second-down handoff, made a couple cuts and burst off the left edge for 16 yards. The run showed power and acceleration and matched Eddie Lacy’s longest carry of the season.
Glimpse of problems: Besides the 16-yard gain, Harris has been ordinary on offense, with his other three rushes going for three yards. He also hasn’t really stood out on special teams, where he's playing about 20 percent of the snaps.
LaDarius Gunter, CB
Draft info: Undrafted from Miami
Stats: 4 games played, 34 total snaps (5 on defense, 29 on special teams)
Glimpse of promise: The training-camp wunderkind hasn’t had many defensive opportunities thus far, but he’s still not far removed from that impressive preseason, when he displayed natural ball-hawking instincts and playmaking ability.
Glimpse of problems: On Sunday against the Panthers, Gunter got 18 snaps on special teams, a huge increase. But he committed two penalties, including a costly illegal block in the last minute that brought back a punt return. As a defender, Gunter doesn’t have the speed to make up for mental mistakes.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.