Analyzing the Packers’ 2011 draft class

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Every NFL draft elicits immediate reaction to each pick. Questions arise about a player’s fit, overall potential and ability to contribute early on. Getting an accurate answer, however, usually takes at least a couple years.

Two years later, some of those questions can start to be answered now about the Green Bay Packers’ 2011 draft class.

The 2011 rookies were all in a difficult situation, being drafted during a time when the NFL was in a lockout period. None of those rookie players had an opportunity to go through a full offseason workout with their new team, which was certainly a disadvantage and had to be taken into account when analyzing first-year production.

With its first-round pick, Green Bay drafted offensive lineman Derek Sherrod out of Mississippi State at No. 32 overall. It was the second year in a row in which general manager Ted Thompson decided to address that position, with Bryan Bulaga being the 23rd overall selection in 2010. Sherrod struggled in training camp as a rookie and was given a shot to beat out T.J. Lang at left guard. That didn’t work out, forcing Sherrod to spend much of his first NFL season on the bench. Late in the season, when he did get on the field, Sherrod suffered a broken leg. Recovery from that injury lasted the entire 2012 season. When Sherrod reports to training camp in July as a third-year player, he’ll get a chance to compete for a starting position, likely at left tackle against Marshall Newhouse. Sherrod’s injury makes it difficult to assess his ability moving forward, but it wasn’t long ago that he was a sought-after prospect. A broken leg and a missed season hasn’t changed that.

With the 64th pick, the Packers got one of the best steals of the draft, selecting wide receiver Randall Cobb out of the University of Kentucky in the second round. Cobb has become one of the NFL’s emerging stars and was Green Bay’s leading receiver in 2012. Cobb doesn’t have good size for a wide receiver, but he’s a great fit in the slot with his speed and smart route-running. Having Cobb on the Packers’ roster will also make the decision this offseason regarding fellow wide receiver Greg Jennings much easier. If Green Bay hadn’t drafted Cobb, the team would need Jennings to return much more than it does now. Cobb is already one of the 2011 draft’s best 10 players. Considering that Cam Newton was the No. 1 pick, 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt was the 11th pick, pass-rushing stars Aldon Smith and Von Miller were both drafted in the top seven and wide receivers Julio Jones and A.J. Green were also in the top 10, Cobb is among very good company, especially considering how many spots later the Packers were able to select him.

Green Bay’s third-round pick was running back Alex Green out of the University of Hawaii. Green could be the Packers’ starting running back in the next couple seasons, but he spent all of 2012 trying to regain full strength in his legs after tearing his ACL as a rookie. With Green Bay’s competition at running back, including James Starks and DuJuan Harris, there isn’t a clear path for Green to ever be in a featured role. However, with a major injury behind him, Green still has plenty of time to live up to his status as the 96th overall pick.

In the fourth round, the Packers drafted cornerback Davon House out of New Mexico State. House has the best size of any cornerback on Green Bay’s roster, but he’s yet to be able to make much use of it in his first two NFL seasons. Like Sherrod and Green, House has battled injuries, though his weren’t as severe. House appeared ready to emerge as a starter during the 2012 training camp, but a preseason shoulder injury halted all of his progress. As Tramon Williams enters the later stages of his career, House could become his successor. With the undersized Sam Shields playing well on one end and Casey Hayward playing tremendously well in the slot, House will eventually get a chance to prove himself. If he avoids any further injuries, he has the talent to be far better than most fourth-round picks.

Beyond the fourth round, the Packers added several good players. Thompson drafted two tight ends, D.J. Williams (fifth round) and Ryan Taylor (seventh round), and inside linebacker D.J. Smith (sixth round), all of whom have been contributing players for Green Bay in their first two seasons. However, three other late 2011 draft picks — offensive lineman Caleb Schlauderaff, defensive end Ricky Elmore and defensive tackle Lawrence Guy — are no longer with the Packers.

Overall, the two-years-later test checks out very well for the Packers’ 2011 draft class. If Sherrod becomes a solid starter at any point, it will be an even better group. If Green can overcome his knee injury and outplay Harris and Starks, it starts to look even better yet. Cobb is a star, House is too talented to remain a backup for long, Williams is a good pass-catching tight end, Taylor is very good on special teams and Smith has performed well at inside linebacker when he’s been on the field.

The Packers’ terrific record in recent seasons hasn’t allowed them to have a top-10 pick since 2009. To be drafting at the end of each round and still come out with a group of players like Thompson did in 2011 is very impressive.

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