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Packers’ rookies will play a vital role in second-half playoff push

Green Bay’s draft picks in all three phases will factor into the team’s ability to make the postseason, especially on defense.

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Green Bay Packers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Green Bay Packers have relied heavily on jumps from years one to two from their youngest players in order to build internally over the past decade. But if the Packers are to get back to the postseason this year, those jumps may have to speed up.

The road to clinching a playoff berth is not an easy one for Green Bay. Yet, outside of Jake Ryan and Muhammad Wilkerson, the Packers will enter play after the bye with relatively excellent health at their core starting positions. While a clean bill of health for Aaron Rodgers will always give Green Bay a shot at postseason play, this season’s playoff hopes may rest significantly on the shoulders of the team’s first-year players.

It’s fair to say that the defense’s ability to improve in situational moments will hinge on the success of its rookies. Green Bay has missed first-round pick Jaire Alexander over the past two weeks against Detroit and San Francisco, as Marvin Jones and Marquise Goodwin carved up the Packers’ secondary. Outside of a costly pass interference penalty in Washington, Alexander has been a stable piece of the secondary when on the field and actually has graded out as a top 15 cornerback in the league through six weeks according to Pro Football Focus. Together, Alexander and second-rounder Josh Jackson have an opportunity to really improve the defensive backfield in short fashion if Kevin King can also stay healthy. Outside of Green Bay’s Super Bowl run in 2010, the secondary has routinely been a deficiency as the season wears on. With full health from Alexander and Jackson, the Packers would have the ability to put all three of their young, talented corners on the field at the same time while also benefiting from a veteran in Tramon Williams. As the safety position continues to raise questions in 2018, reliable corners become even more valuable. They will be tested immediately against the high-flying aerial attack of Los Angeles.

It was only about two months ago that the hype surrounding third-round pick Oren Burks reached a fever pitch. But then the shoulder injury came and went, leaving Burks with a regular-season debut in week three. It’s been a rough start for the inside linebacker, culminating in a rather poor performance against San Francisco. However, the Packers drafted Burks for his ability to get sideline to sideline and help in pass coverage. The latter will be especially important to Green Bay as the team faces Rob Gronkowski, Trey Burton, Austin Hooper, and Kyle Rudolph over the second half of the season. In the preseason, Burks looked like the impact player in the middle that the team had lacked, even with the development of Blake Martinez. The second phase of Burks’ rookie season is now the time for him to grow into that high-caliber player.

Likewise, the offensive rookies will have their fair share of opportunities to make an impact. Green Bay’s wide receiver trio has proved to be as inconsistent as advertised after the preseason. However, there have been plenty of moments to be excited about. Marquez Valdes-Scantling has emerged as the quickest learner of the group, earning more playing time than his peers. Although Valdes-Scantling has made a few errors in route-running and getting two feet down in bounds, he has typically followed the mistakes up with textbook corrections. His straight-line speed is exceptional and he could become much more of a downfield threat as the season closes. For now, getting MVS the ball quickly in space on the outside via bubble screens and RPOs could be a dimension that helps the passing game.

Equanimeous St. Brown also should see increased opportunities even with the returns of Randall Cobb and Geronimo Allison. The Notre Dame product has flashed in spurts, catching Packers fans’ eyes with a three-catch, 89-yard performance in Detroit before a spectacular all-hands grab on Green Bay’s game-winning drive against the 49ers. The learning curve has been tougher for St. Brown and J’Mon Moore, who earned his first target and catch versus San Francisco. But the former’s recent plays may have gone a long way in earning Aaron Rodgers’ trust. The Packers have an option to bring Jake Kumerow back from injured reserve down the road, but they are in good hands, no pun intended, with the development of St. Brown as a fifth receiver.

Don’t forget the specialists.

The first few weeks were inconsistent at best for new long-snapper Hunter Bradley, while JK Scott has been a pleasantly steady performer since taking over the punter duties immediately after the draft. How each handles the cold weather in Green Bay as the winter months approach could quietly determine some outcomes. Scott’s nearly 46-yard average per punt will be tested in frigid temperatures, as will his holding responsibilities on a potentially snow-covered field after playing at Alabama. Meanwhile, undrafted players like James Crawford, Tony Brown, and Raven Greene will continue to get special teams snaps as the season progresses, but must keep penalties down for the team to keep field position in its favor. Thus far, Green Bay has struggled in that regard.

With 10 games to play, the Packers are poised to receive at least some level of contributions from eight draft picks and several other undrafted rookies. Their development and ability to play key roles will influence the direction of Green Bay’s regular season.