When the Green Bay Packers lace the cleats on Saturday to kick off the exhibition slate, a long 202 days will have passed since they were last seen walking off the field in the NFC Championship Game.
While many of the notable names will run back through the tunnel to face the Houston Texans, there will also be plenty of fresh faces getting ready for their first live game action with the Packers. Although eyes will surely be locked on Jordan Love as he gets his first quarterback snaps as a professional, it will also be the first chance for the 2021 rookie class to make an impression, especially for the center snapping to Love: Josh Myers.
Today’s musings focus on a handful of those first-year players, outside of Myers, trying to start off their careers on a positive note.
By and large, the Packers have not had a lot of success with the development of their second- and third-day defensive line picks over the past few years. In his third season, Kingsley Keke will be one of those specific players to watch in his own right as preseason rolls along after returning to practice this week. However, Green Bay is counting on fifth-round pick TJ Slaton to be a rotational piece this fall.
One of the rarer nose tackle draft picks by the Packers, Slaton has a real opportunity to earn snaps in the middle of the defense and engage blockers enough to free up more pass-rushing chances for Kenny Clark. A massive 330-pound man, Slaton has some unique athletic traits to go with that frame. Despite inconsistencies during his college career, Slaton is still learning the position after seeing primary action on the offensive line prior to arriving at Florida, and reports from practice this past week have noted improvement with his hand technique.
The Packers do not need Slaton to become an All-Pro in year one, but showing the ability to be stout against the run and remain healthy would already help the rookie to become a better version of Montravius Adams. While it is just game one of the preseason, Slaton should receive plenty of snaps as part of the first-team defense - with Kenny Clark nursing an injury - to provide a glimpse of how ready he can be for early-season rotational snaps.
In brief moments, Family Night offered a chance to imagine Rodgers being used creatively in certain offensive packages, and with plays designed to get him the ball in space. Saturday’s game should be an opportunity for the second-round pick to receive extended playing time with more of the same. It is realistic to believe Randall Cobb’s snaps will be reduced in game one, opening the door for Rodgers to line up in the slot frequently. His route-running ability may be worth watching just as much as the formations he is a part of.
While Rodgers’ offensive potential is intriguing, so is his special teams potential - something that could not be measured during the Family Night practice periods. The early depth chart suggests Rodgers will handle starting punt return duties, while being listed second on kick returns. Could Rodgers have one of those special returns, like a rookie-season Cobb, that suggests immediate improvement in that crucial area?
The team’s other Rodgers will be one of the more interesting prospects to watch during the entirety of the preseason schedule.
Speaking of return ability, the rookie seventh-rounder Hill projects as the team’s top kick returner heading into game one. Considering Hill’s lack of experience in this area in college, his positioning on that particular role was a relative surprise but makes sense considering some of Hill’s explosion as a running back when he finds a crease. Couple that with a blend of speed, power, and pass-catching ability and perhaps Hill could be a good fit for the kick return role.
That skillet, of course, is also a big part of the Mississippi State product’s primary role in the backfield. Hill has shown a little bit of everything so far in camp and took some first-team reps in place of an injured Aaron Jones as well, revealing his current standing among a younger and inexperienced stable of backup running backs. Hill’s pass-catching could eventually make him a well-rounded third-down back if his pass-blocking develops, and his physicality and willingness to take on contact is a respected trait for a third running back on an NFL roster.
The Packers will certainly be assessing their host of internal running back options throughout the exhibition, and Hill will have a real opportunity right away as the Packers monitor Jones’ snaps.
With Kevin King first returning to practice yesterday, Stokes should expect to see a heavy dosage of playing time on Saturday. Stokes has taken a significant number of snaps on the outside during practice and taken his share of lumps in coverage against Davante Adams (like many rookie corners would). Against Houston, it will be the first chance to see Stokes line up across non-Packers receivers and see how he stacks up.
Stokes has had a tendency thus far to rely on his exceptional speed and athleticism to cover up for his immaturity in technique. The first game of preseason should not be a cause for concern if a player like Stokes struggles. However, like Slaton above, Stokes’ performance could be an indicator of his readiness for meaningful defensive snaps once the regular season begins. Will he get beat deep? How much space will a veteran opponent create against Stokes after winning a short-to-intermediate route? Will the rookie get his first penalty?
Growth from one game to the next for Stokes will be something to specifically keep tabs on during the three-game preseason.