Biggest concern for young and inexperienced Packers: 'the unknown'

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- With no immediate plans to sign a veteran receiver or bring in an experienced quarterback behind first-year starter Jordan Love, these aren’t Aaron Rodgers' Green Bay Packers anymore.

For starters -- and among the starters -- they’re younger. Much younger.

With only two players on the roster older than 30 -- and one of them is 32-year-old punter Pat O'Donnell -- the biggest challenge and concern with this baby-faced roster is clear to coach Matt LaFleur.

“The unknown,” he said at the start of his fifth training camp in charge of the Packers.

While official rosters data with average age and experience level won’t be calculated until Week 1 rosters are set, the Packers will climb up the list of youngest teams in the league. Last year, they ranked 16th with an average age of 25.96. This year, there are nearly 30 players who could be considered good bets to make the 53-man roster under the age of 26.

While LaFleur and general manager Brian Gutekunst have refuted the notion that the Packers are rebuilding, they have embraced the idea of a young roster.

“It feels like Year 1, quite frankly,” said LaFleur, who was hired in 2019. “It feels like we’re right back where we started when I first got hired here. That’s exciting. I think there’s a lot of excitement that goes along with that. We’re going to coach these guys hard, and we expect them to show up with a great attitude every day and give everything they can.”

For those who have been around here longer like Gutekunst, a Packers scout for 20 years before he became the GM in 2018, it feels like the mid-2000s. That’s when, under the late general manager Ted Thompson, the Packers perennially ranked as one of the best teams in the league.

Every year from 2006 to 2011, the Packers’ average age was among the top-five youngest in the NFL. In three of those seasons, they were either the youngest or tied for the youngest. The bulk of those draft-and-develop rosters became the backbone of their Super Bowl XLV team.

“I mean that's our job here, right?” Gutekunst said. “To find players and develop 'em. You're always kind of keeping an eye on that while the main focus is right now, but I think if you don't keep yourself growing, you can get stagnant very quick, so I think I learned that through that period of time.”

Still, it’s harder now to be successful with younger players than it was just a decade or so ago thanks to changes in the collective bargaining agreement that shorted the offseason program, limited practice time in training camp and eliminated a preseason game.

That’s not a problem when a team has a veteran quarterback like Rodgers and veteran pass-catchers like WR Randall Cobb, WR Allen Lazard, TE Marcedes Lewis and TE Robert Tonyan. But all four of them are gone, with Cobb and Lazard in New York with Rodgers and the Jets.

It’s a bigger problem when there could be as many as five rookies among the Week 1 starters.

“We don't have as much time maybe to develop or to find out what we have,” Gutekunst said. “So some of the times that happens during the season and that can be tough. But that's the job and that's the challenge.”

Among the possible rookie starters, three are on offense: second-round TE Luke Musgrave and WR Jayden Reed plus third-round TE Tucker Kraft. The Packers hope Reed can become their slot/No. 3 receiver to go along with second-year pros Romeo Doubs and Christian Watson. Musgrave could take over for Tonyan as the primary pass-catching tight end. If not Musgrave, then perhaps Kraft. Or both in two-tight end sets.

First-round pick Lukas Van Ness could be a Week 1 starter if outside linebacker Rashan Gary isn’t back from last season’s torn right ACL.

And at this point, sixth-round pick Anders Carlson is the only kicker on the roster.

By comparison, last year’s opening day starters included just two rookies: Watson and linebacker Quay Walker. A third rookie, Doubs, played extensively but wasn’t on the field to open the game.

“This team, there’s probably a little bit more opportunity for those young guys than there has been in the past,” Gutekunst said. “So I’m excited to see what they can do.”

Some of those young guys got a head start on that. Earlier this summer, a group of eight offensive players got together in Santa Ana, California. Love organized it and included backup quarterback Danny Etling, rookie receivers Dontayvion Wicks and Reed along with Doubs, Watson and since-released receiver Jeff Cotton plus running back Aaron Jones.

And it wasn’t all football.

“We went bowling, we had a couple nice dinners out there,” Love said. “It was a good time to build those connections.”

Rarely, if ever, did groups of players organize to work out together during Rodgers’ tenure as quarterback. For Doubs and Jones, it was the second time he got together this offseason with Love to work on routes and catch passes before the offseason program began in April.

“It was us three [the first time],” Jones said. “And then me and Jordan talked and we were like, ‘Hey, we should get as many guys out there as we can. Send out the invitation. Whoever can make it can make it. If they’re busy, that’s fine, but let’s do something where we can bond as a team and get the work in.’

“Jordan spearheaded it after that and sent out the text messages, ‘Hey, these are the days. If you can make it, great. If you can’t, that’s fine. But this is what we’re going to be doing. We’re going to bond. We’re going to hang out. We’re going to get on the field and work.’”

To Jones, a seventh-year veteran, it was exactly the kind of thing a young team needs. He noted that before the session this summer, he had barely ever talked to Wicks, a fifth-round pick this year. Now, they more or less know each other’s life stories.

“Since then we’ve stayed in contact, called each other, FaceTimed, different things like that,” Jones said. “It was definitely a blessing, and I think it definitely brought us closer.”