Six rookies have combined for 27 starts this seasonWes Hodkiewicz
GREEN BAY - If there's been one silver lining to all the adversity the Packers have faced this season, it's been the promising returns they've received straightaway from a deep and talented 2022 draft class.
With injuries mounting at several key spots, much of the Packers' rookie class already has been pressed into action this season. Through 11 games, nine rookie draft picks have combined for 1,980 snaps (908 offense, 885 defense and 186 special teams) over 67 games, including 27 starts.
First-round pick Quay Walker accounts for 10 of those starts and has only continued to pick up steam while relaying the defensive play calls for the past three weeks in the absence of All-Pro linebacker De'Vondre Campbell, who remains out with a knee injury.
The 6-foot-4, 241-pound linebacker currently paces the Packers' defense with 80 tackles, which also leads all NFL rookies. What's more, Walker has added four tackles for loss, three quarterback hits, two forced fumbles and a shared sack with Preston Smith. As Walker gains experience, the 22-year-old rookie continues to make more and more plays.
The Packers gave the rookie perhaps his biggest assignment to date last Thursday against Tennessee when Walker was charged with occasionally playing off the edge in the defense's "Bud" package consisting of four defensive linemen. Green Bay was in the alignment when Walker crashed hard off the weakside to stop Derrick Henry for a 2-yard loss on fourth down inside the Green Bay 5-yard line.
"I think it's been a great time of growth for him in terms of shouldering that responsibility," said Head Coach Matt LaFleur of Walker stepping up in Campbell's absence. "Anytime that you're the guy that's spitting out the play calls, you're the quarterback of the defense. There's a lot of responsibility that goes along with that, making sure that you communicate clearly the calls and also being able to help everybody out."
While Walker's Georgia teammate and fellow first-round pick Devonte Wyatt hasn't had as many opportunities, the 6-foot-3, 315-pound defensive lineman's workload grew over the past month. Wyatt batted down a pass at the line of scrimmage in Detroit and was part of that "Bud" personnel package that helped contain Henry.
On the edge, rookie fifth-round pick Kingsley Enagbare has assumed more responsibility in the aftermath of Rashan Gary's season-ending knee injury. The 6-foot-4, 258-pound linebacker has 17 tackles, four QB hits and two sacks. He played a career-high 62 defensive snaps in his first NFL start against Dallas, finishing with five tackles and a hit of Dak Prescott.
Conversely, fourth-round pick Zach Tom has been the next man up at practically every position on the offensive line this season. After making spot starts at left tackle and left guard in back-to-back weeks, Tom saw action at both right guard (13 snaps) and left tackle (32 snaps) against Detroit after Jon Runyan and David Bakhtiari left due to knee injuries, respectively.
"That is definitely the challenging part because I don't know where I'm going to be, what's going to happen," said Tom of the sixth offensive lineman role. "It's a lot, but I take my preparation pretty seriously. I think the more you prepare, the more confident you can be - wherever they put you. So that's the main thing I try to do."
Perhaps more than any other position, however, the Packers have asked the most of rookie receivers Christian Watson, Romeo Doubs and Samori Toure. Green Bay went into the season thinking the trio would serve as the understudies to Allen Lazard, Randall Cobb, and Sammy Watkins.
That was until Watkins (hamstring) and Cobb (ankle) suffered injuries that landed them on injured reserve, and Lazard missed a pair of games due to ankle and knee injuries. With Watson battling his own hamstring issues, Doubs shot up the Packers' depth chart. After catching three passes for 73 yards and a TD in Green Bay's 14-12 win over Tampa Bay in Week 3, the fourth-round pick became the first Packers player to be named NFL Rookie of the Week in five years.
Unfortunately, Green Bay just hasn't been able to get Doubs and Watson together on the field very often this season. After Watson returned from a concussion sustained in Buffalo, Doubs exited after the first play in Detroit with an ankle injury that's sidelined him for the past two games.
Watson shined against the Cowboys and Titans, though. In a span of five days, the second-round pick out of North Dakota State caught five touchdown passes from quarterback Aaron Rodgers and now leads all rookie wideouts in the category. It also made Watson, Doubs and Toure the first trio of Packers rookies to catch touchdown passes in the same non-strike season since Max McGee, Veryl Switzer and Joe Johnson did it in 1954.
After a rough start to his NFL career, Watson is grateful to finally have the opportunity to show what he can bring to Green Bay's offense. As the Packers look to keep their playoff hopes alive this Sunday in Philadelphia, Watson hopes more individual production will translate to more team wins.
"Thankful, for sure. I know I'm going to be a lot more thankful when we're winning some more football games," Watson said. "But if we do everything we need to do going forward, I think we're gonna win a lot more football games through the rest of the season."
The six rookies who have started for the Packers this season
LB Quay Walker (11 games, 10 starts, 536 defensive snaps): 80 tackles, three QB hits, two forced fumbles, ½ sack
WR Christian Watson (8 games, 5 starts, 224 offensive snaps): 18 receptions, 243 yards, five TDs
WR Romeo Doubs (9 games, 7 starts, 412 offensive snaps): 31 receptions, 314 yards, three TDs
OL Zach Tom (4 games, 2 starts, 195 offensive snaps)
LB Kingsley Enagbare (11 games, 2 starts, 253 defensive snaps): 17 tackles, four QB hits, two sacks
WR Samori Toure (5 games, 1 start, 77 offensive snaps): 4 receptions, 75 yards, one TD