Packers rookie class adapted to challenging offseason

Rookie linebacker Kamal Martin proving to be a quick study

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LB Kamal Martin

GREEN BAY – The Packers' nine-player draft class arrived in Green Bay last month under the most challenging circumstances NFL rookies have faced in nearly a decade.

With the country under lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, incoming rookies spent the first offseason of their NFL careers largely behind a computer screen.

There weren't any organized team lifts, walkthroughs, OTAs, mini-camps or team-building exercises. All that was available to rookies were hours of pre-taped team meetings, video calls with position coaches and independent workouts.

Despite the difficult arrangements, the Packers' rookie class has proven to be a quick study. Through the first nine practices of training camp, the rookies have wasted little time putting months of mental preparation to good use.

"We're throwing a lot at all those guys," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said. "We're pretty fortunate, I thought (GM Brian Gutekunst) and the scouting department did a good job of making sure that we get guys in here that are intelligent, they're able to pick it up quickly.

"And it's just about getting those reps. So unfortunately it was what it was with the offseason, but we're going to count on his guys throughout the course of the season to come in and play a big part in what we do."

The rookies have been active participants in practice so far, with the one exception being sixth-round pick Simon Stepaniak, who continues to rehab after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament at Indiana last December.

Running back AJ Dillon has utilized his strong lower half and decisiveness at the point of attack to rattle a few defenders since the pads went on last week, while tight end Josiah Deguara already has flashed the versatility that made him Green Bay's third-round pick in April.

First-round pick Jordan Love has had one of the steepest learning curves, given the nature of his position. After having position coach Luke Getsy pepper him with play calls in the spring, the rookie quarterback has benefited from taking every rep during the two live-tackling periods the Packers have had.

Love showed signs of progress from last week, driving the offense down for a "touchdown" on the first series on Tuesday after the veterans had been excused from practice.

"I'd say the biggest thing lost would be reps," said Love last week. "But you've just got to find a way to learn on the go and be a great visual learner, being able to just go through plays in my head in the back when I'm not getting reps and just take mental reps."

It hasn't just been the early-round picks making their presence felt. Inside linebacker Kamal Martin, guard Jon Runyan and safety Vernon Scott each have had moments, as well.

Runyan has held his own against a few veterans in the one-on-one blocking drills, while Scott intercepted a pass intended for fullback John Lovett during the live-tackling period Tuesday.

Martin, a fifth-round pick out of Minnesota, has been a force since the pads went on. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound linebacker has made a couple emphatic tackles for loss in live tackling and been a nuisance for running backs in pass protection.

"They drafted me to come in here and work and do my job to the best of my ability," Martin said. "So that's what I'm going to continue to do, and that's what the rest of the guys are going to continue to do. ... We're going to continue to grow and be the best that we can possibly be."

Runyan, a sixth-round pick out of Michigan, is making a transition this summer from being an All-Big Ten right tackle to playing guard in Green Bay.

So far, Runyan has been in the hip pocket of veterans David Bakhtiari, Lane Taylor and Billy Turner, and is constantly bouncing ideas off his father, a former Pro Bowler with Philadelphia, and fellow rookies Jake Hanson and Stepaniak.

"We are spending a lot of time together inside the facility and moving in packs," Runyan said. "Simon being back there, being able to watch team periods going on, helping me out with some pointers is really a good thing that us three have got going along."

This offseason was a throwback to the NFL lockout in 2011, when rookies weren't allowed to have any communication with their coaches until the NFL and NFLPA agreed on a collective bargaining agreement right before camp.

Yet, that didn't stop second-round pick Randall Cobb from becoming a Day 1 contributor on both offense and special teams. Once the regular season begins, the Packers hope to find a few more rookies who will assist in a run to a championship.

"I think we're taking just one day at a time here," Martin said. "We're working and we're going to continue to work as a team, as a defense, as an offense. Our job every single day is to get better. If you're not getting better, you're not helping the team out. That's a personal thing you have to take upon yourself and make it a common goal to get better personally every single day."

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