Rookie class pro­vid­ing big re­turns so far; GB-MIN pre­view

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The Green Bay Pack­ers prob­a­bly wouldn’t be 4-1 to start the 2017 sea­son with­out the valu­able con­tri­bu­tions from this year’s rookie class.

While three of General Man­ager Ted Thomp­son’s 10 draft picks didn’t make the 53-man ros­ter and two oth­ers were hurt be­fore or dur­ing train­ing camp and haven’t made an im­pact, three rook­ies are play­ing in­creas­ingly more im­por­tant roles as the Pack­ers have sur­vived an on­slaught of in­juries to start the sea­son.

Where would the Pack­ers be with­out cor­ner­back Kevin King, safety/ inside line­backer Josh Jones and run­ning back Aaron Jones?

King’s length and ath­leti­cism stead­ied a con­stantly evolv­ing cor­ner­back group and even­tu­ally gave the Pack­ers a fight­ing chance against Pro Bowl re­ceivers Julio Jones and A.J. Green in back-to-back weeks. Jones has added quick­ness and phys­i­cal­ity as an inside line­backer in the “Nitro” pack­age. To­gether, the two have pro­vided much of what the de­fense oth­er­wise lacked: speed, play­mak­ing abil­ity and a con­ta­gious con­fi­dence that ev­ery play is a new op­por­tu­nity to make some­thing pos­i­tive hap­pen.

Aaron Jones joined the party Sun­day in Dal­las.

The rookie run­ning back re­turned to his home state of Texas and put on a show, rush­ing 19 times for 125 yards and a touch­down dur­ing the Pack­ers’ 35-31 win over the Dal­las Cow­boys. Since tak­ing over as the lead back mid­way through Green Bay’s win over Chicago on Sept. 28, Jones has rushed for 174 yards and a pair of scores.

An in­jury to start­ing run­ning back Ty Mont­gomery opened the door for Jones, and he took full ad­van­tage.

“Very proud of Aaron Jones,” Pack­ers coach Mike McCarthy said. “He earned the op­por­tu­nity to start to­day, and he pro­duced. That’s what you look for in all your play­ers, es­pe­cially your young play­ers. This was his first chance to take a big load in the run game, and I thought he played out­stand­ing. I love his run­ning style. Very pro­duc­tive. Great job.”

Jones started the game with two runs for 21 yards on the Pack­ers’ first drive. Later, he scored a 7-yard touch­down and de­liv­ered a 22-yard run, the first run of over 20 yards by a Pack­ers run­ning back this sea­son.

But it was his de­ci­sion on a carry dur­ing the fi­nal drive that caught QB Aaron Rodgers’ at­ten­tion.

Jones sliced through the Cow­boys de­fense and found his way out of bounds, giv­ing the Pack­ers 15 easy yards and stop­ping the clock with 45 sec­onds left.

“Not only does he get through the line and make a nice run, but the kid runs out of bounds,” Rodgers said. “That’s stuff you can’t coach. You love the in­stincts there. He’s a tal­ented guy. I’m re­ally proud of him. Big step to­day for him.”

Five plays after Jones’ run, Rodgers hit Da­vante Adams for the goa­head touch­down with 11 sec­onds left.

The Pack­ers could have used a longer ap­pear­ance from King, who de­parted Sun­day after play­ing only 16 snaps be­cause of a con­cus­sion. He’s still been on the field for al­most 75 per­cent of Green Bay’s de­fen­sive snaps through five games. On the first play from scrim­mage Sun­day, King di­ag­nosed a swing pass to Ezekiel El­liott and blew up the play with a flat­ten­ing tackle for a 4-yard loss.

The rookie cor­ner­back fears no one – he openly cam­paigned for op- por­tu­ni­ties to cover Green and Dez Bryant – and his in­ter­nal be­lief isn’t built on fake bravado.

“That’s the way this league works, there’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween con­fi­dence and false con­fi­dence,” de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Dom Ca­pers said. “(Cor­ner­back) is a po­si­tion you need to be con­fi­dent be­cause you’re go­ing to get chal­lenged. He’s a con­fi­dent guy and has good ath­letic abil­ity. We like a lot of things he brings.”

When King re­turns, he’ll likely re­sume his role as the de­fense’s No. 1 cor­ner­back.

Josh Jones has turned the “Nitro” pack­age from an in­ter­est­ing sub­pack­age into the Pack­ers’ de facto base de­fense. His size and speed has recharged the front seven and al­lowed the Pack­ers to still stop the run with Jones play­ing inside line­backer.

Against the Cincin­nati Ben­gals in Week 3, Jones tal­lied a pair of sacks and a cru­cial third-down tackle in over­time. He was a dif­fer­ence-maker on a day when the Pack­ers were fight­ing tooth and nail to over­come in­juries and avoid a let­down.

Not bad for a rookie learn­ing how to play two dif­fer­ent po­si­tions at the NFL level.

“We’ve put a lot on his plate,” Pack­ers safeties coach Dar­ren Perry said. “He can do a num­ber of things. To his credit, he’s han­dled it.”

While punter Justin Vogel wasn’t a draft pick, the rookie’s boom­ing, 59-yard punt in the sec­ond half was an un­der­rated play Sun­day. It pinned the Cow­boys deep, and two plays later, Da­mar­i­ous Ran­dall was gifted a pick-six on a bob­bled pass from quar­ter­back Dak Prescott. Vogel can flip the field like no Pack­ers punter in re­cent mem­ory.

More rookie re­in­force­ments could be on the way.

Third-round pick Mon­trav­ius Adams was in­ac­tive Sun­day in Dal­las, but he’s now near­ing the point where the Pack­ers should be com­fort­able giv­ing him snaps as an in­te­rior pass rusher. Adams missed nearly all of train­ing camp and wasn’t ac­tive dur­ing the first two weeks. His rein­te­gra­tion pe­riod must be near­ing its end.

The Pack­ers are also clos­ing in on the re­turn of out­side line­backer Vince Biegel, the team’s fourth-round pick who re­mains on the PUP list. He’ll be eli­gi­ble for ac­ti­va­tion to the ros­ter by next week. Like Adams, Biegel will need time to get reac­cli­mated and make up for time missed. But he’ll have a chance to earn a spot in the out­side line­backer ro­ta­tion if he comes on strong late in the year.

It’s pos­si­ble Adams and Biegel could give the Pack­ers the same kind of spark in De­cem­ber and Jan­uary that King and Jones have pro­vided in Septem­ber and Oc­to­ber.

Four other rookie draft picks re­main in Green Bay: run­ning back Ja­maal Wil­liams, re­ceiver DeAn­gelo Yancey, of­fen­sive line­man Kofi Amichia and run­ning back Devante Mays. Wil­liams and Mays are now back­ups be­hind Mont­gomery and Jones, while Yancey and Amichia are cur­rently stashed on the prac­tice squad. In­juries al­ways have the chance to cre­ate new op­por­tu­ni­ties, as the Pack­ers con­tinue to learn.

“I think of all 63 play­ers. We have a bunch of guys, mov­ing parts. We talked about it be­ing a lit­tle bit of a bumpy ride,” McCarthy said.

A bumpy ride is a good de­scrip­tion of the Pack­ers’ first five games. The valu­able con­tri­bu­tions from three rook­ies have helped steady a ros­ter that prob­a­bly wouldn’t be 4-1 with­out them.

Aaron Jones, a fifth-round pick, has filled the void left at run­ning back while Ty Mont­gomery has been out with bro­ken ribs. Jones rushed for 125 yards and a touch­down against Dal­las on Sun­day.

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