When training camp kicks into high gear with the start of full-squad two-a-days Saturday, much of the fans' attention will likely be focused on the Packers' 2002 draft class, but GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman hasn't forgotten about the untapped potential of many of the 2001 draftees.
Headlining that group is first-round choice Jamal Reynolds, who entered training camp last season hoping to live up to the credentials that caused the Packers to trade up seven spots to take him with the 10th overall selection in 2001, but who enters camp this year just looking to prove himself after a rookie season marred by injury.
"I'm just so anxious to get out there and make some plays," Reynolds said. "It's been hard being out on the sidelines and watching everyone else have fun, but I'm back in there now so I get a chance to do it."
Last season be began training camp healthy, the reigning Lombardi Award winner as the nation's most outstanding collegiate defensive lineman, but finished it on injured reserve, hyperextending his left knee in September.
Inactive for nine of the first 10 weeks of the regular season, Reynolds appeared in the last six regular season games, picking up a pair of sacks. Still hampered by cartilage damage in the knee, he underwent athroscopic surgery in January.
Since, he's been on the outside looking in, even unable to partake in the team's 2002 mini-camps, but when rookies and first-year players took to Clarke Hinkle Field for practices Wednesday and Thursday, Reynolds was there participating in drills.
"I needed to be out here," Reynolds said after Thursday's morning practice. "(The coaching staff) didn't have to say it, I just wanted to get out here and see how my knee felt."
The early prognosis is 'so far, so good,' although Reynolds is expected to endure a good deal of soreness in the coming days and may see limited action in the early going for precautionary purposes.
"It's going to be the change of direction that's going to be the real test for him," Sherman said. "We are slowly progressing into that, hopefully by Monday or Tuesday he'll be full-go out there."
Reynolds knows he has little time to waste. With veteran Joe Johnson now the starter at elephant end and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila coming off a breakthrough season, Reynolds is the only player among the six 2001 draftees to be listed as far back as third on the depth chart at his primary position.
That said, Sherman vowed to make the 2001 draftees among his highest priorities of the preseason.
"I have to get last year's (draft) class on the field," he said. "This is not necessarily a bad thing . . . There's a direct correlation between how many rookies you play and how many games you lose.
"The fact that we didn't play our rookies and we redshirted them last year, for lack of a better term, is not a bad thing. I know one thing, they're hungry."
Reynolds doesn't have to search far for an example of how much things can improve from one season to the next. Gbaja-Biamila spent a large chunk of his rookie campaign on the practice squad in 2000, but as a second-year player in 2001 exploded for a 13.5 sack season, the most quarterback takedowns by a Packer since Reggie White in 1998.
"The biggest hurdle is probably just getting back into it mentally," Reynolds said. "Kabeer kind of pulled me to the side and talked to me a little bit. He helped me with the mental game, he said, 'You can't doubt yourself, just go out there and play hard.'"
Said Gbaja-Biamila, "I told him that he couldn't get caught up with what everyone's expectations are, all he has to do is trust his talent and try to be the best player he can be, because he definitely has the talent to get it done.
"And maybe it will be this year and maybe it will take him longer, but if he doesn't believe in his abilities it will never happen."
Touted for his speed off the end, Reynolds is aware that the health of his legs will determine when and how often he's on the field. And while the current first-round draft choice from Florida State, Javon Walker, may have captured some of the hype, for the 2001 first-rounder and former Seminole, the expectations still remain.