With the Green Bay Packers finally making their first trip to the Super Bowl in 13 years, Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy have all but silenced their critics and slain the monkey on their backs. Bringing the Lombardi Trophy back home to Green Bay would seal the deal completely, but after sending 15 players to injured reserve this year, just making to Super Bowl XLV has been more than most could have asked for.
Part of the Packers’ ability to overcome the myriad obstacles in their way was due to their skill in acquiring and coaching the right players for the job.
While nothing may compare to the drafting of defensive superstars Clay Matthews III and B.J. Raji, this year has arguably seen significant contributions by more rookies than any other year. Whether finding their way onto the gameday roster through injuries or talent, these players rose admirably to the expectations of being a Packer and wearing the Green and Gold.
Below is my ranking of the most influential rookies who helped push the Green Bay Packers into Super Bowl XLV:
For a guy who only played in two games during the regular season, the loss of defensive end Mike Neal to injured reserve was felt hard by many fans. His ability to push the pocket could be witnessed in the few snaps he took, and he even came away with one sack and a forced fumble on the season. Unfortunately, his injuries only allowed him to play two games, which means his contributions suffered on account of his availability.
Drafted as a future replacement for the aging Atari Bigby, safety Morgan Burnett became a starter sooner than any of the other rookies on the team (thanks to Bigby being placed on the PUP list during preseason). Though prone to making rookie mistakes and being seen as a little “soft,” Burnett showed a lot of promise both as a ball hawk and in his study habits. After just four games, however, Burnett was added to injured reserve with a torn ACL. Thus he was only able to amass 14 tackles and one (impressive) interception for the team while active.
As a seventh round pick, and in competition with guys like Cullen Jenkins and Ryan Pickett, defensive end C.J. Wilson probably knew what his role would be coming into the season. The thing is, he filled that role pretty darn well. With some of the injuries that hit the Packers’ defensive line, Wilson was called upon in more than a couple games to fill the holes. He played solid football, was never singled out for egregious mistakes, and even ended up with two sacks on the year. (One of those sacks was against Atlanta in the Divisional playoff round.) For this, he has certainly earned my respect.
When tight end Andrew Quarless was picked up in the fifth round of the draft, some people wondered what Ted Thompson was smoking that day. The Packers already had superstar Jermichael Finley plus a couple other solid tight ends. As fate would have it, Finley’s knee injury in Week 5 pushed Quarless into a starting role. While he performed admirably on a number of occasions – including a fantastic, yet questionable, touchdown catch against the Minnesota Vikings – Quarless seems to have fallen short of expectations. Plus, his two key drops in the NFC Championship Game did nothing to help his merely adequate season.
Just call him “Neo.” Despite being on the PUP list and not playing until Week 13 against the San Francisco 49ers, running back James Starks earned a premature reputation as the savior of Green Bay’s running game. And to be honest, he hasn’t really disappointed. It remains to be seen how Starks will hold up over a longer span of time, but during the playoffs, he has provided some much-needed balanced to a pass-heavy offense. His vision, determination, and ability to pick up extra yardage after contact have made him perhaps the best halfback on the team.
It could be a while before Green Bay Packers fans forget “The Mask of Zombo,” especially if linebacker Frank Zombo continues to find a spot on the roster in future seasons. His sack celebration – unleashed against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 12 – highlighted the pinnacle of his season. Due to the massive number of injuries at his position, the undrafted free agent saw the field sooner than many might have anticipated. And he didn’t disappoint. In 13 games, he accumulated four sacks, 38 tackles, and two forced fumbles. The down side? His knee injury has kept him out of action for the past six weeks.
Though offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga has made his share of rookie mistakes and penalties, Packers fans can be nothing but happy with the way this first round draft pick performed this season. He built his career around being a left guard/tackle in Iowa, but when seasoned veteran Mark Tauscher was sidelined with a shoulder injury in Week 4, Bulaga stepped in on the right side for the first time ever. Since that point, he has been solid in both pass protection and run blocking, and his future looks bright as a cornerstone of the offensive line. Bulaga was the only Packers player to make the NFL All-Rookie Team.
Up until this past weekend, cornerback Sam Shields was perhaps the most underrated player of the year. There’s really not much more you could ask of an undrafted free agent. His solid play as a cover corner certainly stood on its own merits; yet, it also allowed Dom Capers to utilize guys like Charles Woodson to their fullest potential. And not only did Shields make the game-clinching interception in the NFC Championship Game, he amassed four interceptions, nine defended passes, and one sack (so far) on the year. With his speed, instincts, and study habits, Sam Shields will continue to be an enormous part of Green Bay’s defense.
Punter Tim Masthay and tight end Tom Crabtree definitely deserve some attention for their roles on the Green Bay Packers team. Though neither player can technically be considered a rookie, both of them experienced their first year of real playing time in the NFL, and both made very important contributions to the team.
Tom Crabtree was originally signed by the Kansas City Chiefs as an undrafted free agent in 2009. After being waived on the team’s final roster cutdown, he was signed to the practice squad. He was subsequently released after the Chiefs’ third regular season game, only to be signed to the Green Bay Packers practice squad after Week 12.
Crabtree was hailed by many as the yin to Andrew Quarless’ yang this season. He displayed a great set of skills for blocking, while Quarless was more talented as a receiving tight end. For most of the season, Crabtree primarily played that role. But he played it very well, and his reward came in the form of his first NFL touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles in the Wild Card game (his only reception of the postseason).
Tim “Ginger Pin” Masthay was also an undrafted free agent who signed with the Indianapolis Colts in 2009. Unfortunately, he was cut during preseason and never saw even a practice squad signing for the rest of the year. Green Bay would eventually sign him to a reserve/future contract on January 14, 2010.
During training camp and the preseason, Masthay was in a full-fledged competition with the former Australian Football League player Chris Bryan. Masthay’s preseason performance as a punter and placekick holder would go on to win him the starting job. Despite some shaky performances during the year, fans saw a glimmer of excellence in Masthay during the game against the New York Jets. After that, Masthay continued to be a key factor on special teams. His most recent successes came in keeping return specialist Devin Hester at bay for the past two must-win games against the Chicago Bears.
I have no doubt that Crabtree and Masthay will both become permanent fixtures of the Green Bay Packers in years to come.——————Follow @ChadToporski