GREEN BAY – Rookie Kendall Donnerson need only look a few locker stalls down from his own to see what a late-season opportunity can mean for a young player.
Last year at this time, the Packers elevated outside linebacker Reggie Gilbert from the practice squad to the active roster, and he finished on a strong note. A handful of impact plays propelled him into 2018, when he ultimately made the team out of training camp for the first time.
This week Donnerson, a seventh-round draft pick out of Southeast Missouri, is the edge rusher who’s been called up. That doesn’t even guarantee he’ll be chosen for the 46-man game-day roster come Sunday against the Falcons, but if there’s a safe bet in all this, it’s that he’ll be following Gilbert’s advice.
“He told me just to go every day like it’s your last day,” Donnerson said. “Now hopefully I can contribute.”
He acknowledged his initial playing time is likely to come on special teams, but he knows to be ready for his chance on defense, too.
With the Packers down to primarily three outside linebackers in veteran Clay Matthews, third-year pro Kyler Fackrell and Gilbert (with James Crawford, formerly an inside linebacker, also taking practice reps outside), Donnerson very well could rotate in sooner than later to see if the pass-rush skills that produced 10 sacks over his final two college seasons can get something done at this level.
Just to arrive at this point, Donnerson has come a long way since being chosen as the last of the Packers’ 11 draft picks this past spring. Considered a raw prospect from a smaller school – he’s the first Southeast Missouri player to be drafted since 2004 – the 6-3, 249-pounder had to transition from defensive end to outside linebacker while simultaneously making the big leap from the Ohio Valley Conference to the NFL.
He earned a shot with impressive athletic testing numbers during the pre-draft process, and physically he looks the part. Turning potential into production is the next step.
“I feel like he’s improved all around,” Gilbert said. “He’s starting to learn how to use his pad level, learn how to use his hands more in his pass-rush moves, as well as just taking the right mindset when you come into work, and being a pro. He’s made strides.”
Getting a better grasp of defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s scheme as it relates to his position transition has been coming along as well. In the four preseason games, Donnerson had one tackle for loss and a forced fumble.
“Coming in here as a rookie, there’s so much going on, and with a new playbook as well – I as a 10-year veteran was having issues with it early in the year, especially in training camp,” Matthews said. “I think the biggest progression you see around him is having confidence in the play calls, getting out there, and not being a liability. I know that sounds like it’s not a big deal, but in Mike’s system, there’s a lot of moving parts, and that’s why you’ve seen the success we’ve had at times.
“Physically he has all the tools necessary to play in the league, and now’s the time if his number gets called to show it.”
But first things first, and that’s putting together the type of practice week that gets him a helmet and a uniform on Sunday, rather than the street gear that inactive and practice-squad players both wear.
He’d love for his walk down the Lambeau Field tunnel late Sunday morning to feel a little different from his previous ones.
“It’s going to be a great experience,” he said. “Preseason I did, but it’s nothing like being on the 46, so hopefully that’s the case.”