The world champion Packers had a top heavy draft in 1997, but a fairly decent rookie class. In that year’s draft, Ron Wolf selected just three players who made the team: Iowa tackle/guard Ross Verba in round one, William and Mary defensive back Darren Sharper in round two and Georgia defensive tackle Jermaine Smith in round four. Verba solidified the left tackle slot and Sharper learned how to play free safety from veteran Eugene Robinson in 1997. Smith did not play much in his two years in Green Bay.
Three picks from previous years made their Packer debuts in 1997: wide receiver Bill Schroeder, a sixth round pick from 1994; defensive back Chris Darkins, a fourth round pick from 1996; and Marco Rivera a sixth round pick from 1996. Schroeder would develop into a not very reliable starter and Rivera into an All-Pro, but neither had any impact as a rookie.
Three free agents also made the squad. Runner Randy Kinder only lasted six games and defensive back Blaine McElmurry just one, but kicker Ryan Longwell beat out third round pick Brett Conway from Penn State and scored 120 points as a rookie. He eventually would score more points than any previous Packer.
So three rookies had a strong impact on the Packers returning to the Super Bowl following the 1997 season, and it’s a tough call as to who had the greatest impact. Although Longwell was consistent and dependable, I favor full-time players. Verba started 11 games and was named to the league’s All-Rookie team; Sharper was the team’s nickel corner and returned two interceptions and a fumble for touchdowns. Sharper was the more spectacular; Darren Sharper was the Packers’ top rookie in 1997.