The Packers went 13-3 and went to the NFC Championship last year, but they weren’t as good as that suggests. For one, their point differential of +63 is not only more in line with a 9-10 win team than a 13 win team, but it’s also the lowest point differential ever for a team with 13 or more wins. That’s despite the fact that the Packers had a +12 turnover margin, something they won’t necessarily be able to count on going forward, given how unpredictable turnovers are week-to-week and year-to-year.
With a quarterback like Aaron Rodgers under center who rarely turns it over, the Packers are always going to have a better chance to win the turnover battle than the average team, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be at +12 again. In fact, the Packers are just +10 in turnover margin in their previous 4 seasons combined. For a team that went 8-1 in games decided by 8 points or fewer in 2019, even a slight difference in turnover margin could have affected their win total by at least a couple games.
In terms of first down rate differential, the Packers ranked 14th at +1.15%, with their offense ranking 16th in first down rate at 35.69% and their defense ranking 12th in first down rate allowed at 34.54%. That’s actually not far off from 2018, when the Packers ranked 20th in first down rate differential at -0.81%, with their offense ranking 16th in first down rate at 36.16% and their defense ranking 16th in first down rate allowed at 36.97%, in a season in which they ended up at just 6-9-1. The Packers aren’t necessarily going to regress that much in terms of win total in 2020, but they figure to have a hard time winning as many games as last season if they don’t significantly improve their level of play.
Perhaps most concerningly for the Packers last season was how they fared against the NFC’s top team the San Francisco 49ers, who beat them twice by scores of 37-8 and 37-20, doing so the second time in the NFC Championship, en route to a Super Bowl appearance. The Packers may have won the same amount of games as the 49ers last season, but those two games showed they have a long way to go to catch the top team in the conference.
Aaron Rodgers still played at a high level in 2019, finishing 8th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, but he’s now going into his age 37 season and, if you look at his recent history, it’s clear he’s at least somewhat past his prime, finishing outside of the top-5 quarterbacks on PFF in 4 of the past 5 seasons, including each of the past three seasons. Over those past three seasons, Rodgers has completed just 62.6% of his passes and averaged 7.21 yards per attempt, down from career averages of 64.6% and 7.75.
His 67/12 TD/INT ratio over the past three seasons is still very impressive, but his passing touchdown totals of 25 and 26 over the past two seasons are the two lowest single season totals of his career in a full season and his interception rate has been kept low by being overly conservative with the ball, with an average of 2.92 throwaways per game over the past 3 seasons, including a league leading 98 throwaways over the past two seasons. Rodgers’ 0.9% interception rate over the past 3 seasons is less impressive when you realize he’s thrown 8.1% of his passes out of play over that stretch. Obviously you don’t want your quarterback forcing things too often, but it’s hard to consistently sustain drives when you throw that many passes out of play and, with as much throwing ability as Rodgers has, he should be more willing to throw into tight windows.
Rodgers should still remain an above average quarterback at the very least in 2020, but his best days are likely behind him and even the Packers seem to be thinking about life without him, trading up to use the 26th overall pick on Utah State quarterback Jordan Love. Love drew some comparisons to Patrick Mahomes as a prospect, but that’s hardly a guarantee he ever develops like Mahomes, so the Packers are taking a big risk using a first round pick on him rather than someone who can help the team win now. The same could be said of taking Aaron Rodgers originally back in 2005, but Rodgers fell into the Packers’ lap, while Love was traded up for, and the Packers actually fell to 4-12 the season after taking Rodgers.
That’s not necessarily going to happen again in 2020, but it’s clear that the Love selection was about the long-term, not the short-term. Now the clock starts to tick for Rodgers, who is guaranteed 43.55 million over the next two seasons, but theoretically could be traded at any point if the Packers like how Love is developing behind the scenes. Realistically, I would expect Rodgers to be elsewhere by the 2022 season because the Packers will want to evaluate Love under center before deciding whether or not to pick up his 5th year option for 2024, a decision they’ll have to make after the 2022 season. For now, Rodgers is a good but declining quarterback at the helm of a team that is solid, but not nearly as good as their record last season suggests.
Part of the problem for Rodgers over the past few years has been his receiving corps, as he’s lacked a consistent pass catcher aside from Davante Adams. In that sense, it’s understandable that Rodgers would throw so many balls out of play entirely, but his offensive line is giving him plenty of time to throw, so he needs to do a better job of trying to throw guys open. Rodgers’ need for receiver help just makes the Packers’ decision to use their first round pick on a replacement for him instead all the more questionable and, on top of that, the Packers didn’t make any free agent additions outside of taking a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar flyer on Devin Funchess.
Funchess was limited to a 44/549/4 slash line in 2018 and missed all but one game with injury last season, but his 63/840/8 slash line in 2017 shows his upside, he’s earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 5 seasons in the league, and he is still relatively young in his age 26 season. Funchess was signed to a 1-year, 10 million dollar deal in free agency by the Colts just last off-season before his injury-ruined 2019 campaign, so the Packers are getting a good value by getting him for a fraction of that price.
Marques Valdez-Scantling (542 snaps), Geronimo Allison (638 snaps), and Allen Lazard (479 snaps) all saw significant action behind Adams last season, but Valdez-Scantling and Allison both struggled mightily, finishing 92nd and 97th respectively out of 101 qualifying wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, so Funchess has a good chance to earn playing time in three wide receiver sets with Adams and likely Allen Lazard, a 2018 undrafted free agent who flashed with 1.62 yards per route run in the first significant action of his career in 2019. Lazard is still very raw and unproven, but he likely has more upside than any of the Packers’ other options, with Allison signing with the Lions this off-season and Valdes-Scantling underwhelming on 1,233 career snaps (1.28 yards per route run) since the Packers took him in the 5th round in 2018.
Adams is still their only reliable pass catcher and should remain their top pass catcher. He “only” had a 83/997/5 slash line last season, but he was limited to 678 snaps in 12 games by injury and was very effective on a per snap basis, ranking 6th among wide receivers in yards per route run (2.33) and 10th among wide receivers on PFF in overall grade. Adams has only topped 1000 yards in 1 of his 6 seasons in the league, but he’s come within 3 yards of 1000 in 2 of those seasons and has only been the clear cut #1 option with a healthy Aaron Rodgers over the past 2 seasons. His 111/1386/13 slash line in 2018 shows the kind of upside he has when he and Rodgers are healthy and, overall, Adams has finished in the top-13 among wide receivers on PFF in each of the past three seasons. Without other reliable options in this passing game, Adams figures to be one of the most targeted receivers in the league this season.
Tight end is also a position of concern. Last year starter’s Jimmy Graham is gone and, even though he struggled, finishing 36th out of 44 qualifying tight ends on 622 snaps on PFF, the Packers don’t have a proven replacement for him. Marcedes Lewis remains as a dominant blocking tight end, but he’s going into his age 36 season and has caught just 18 passes over the past two seasons, so he’s basically a 6th offensive lineman more than anything at this point in his career.
Robert Tonyan played 193 snaps last season and caught 10 passes, but the 2017 undrafted free agent has played just 260 nondescript snaps in his career and is hardly a reliable option. Instead, it’s more likely that 2019 3rd round pick Jace Sternberger opens the year as the primary pass catching tight end, but he was limited to 60 snaps in 5 games as a rookie due to injury and ineffectiveness and didn’t catch a single pass in the regular season, so he’s obviously a projection to a much bigger role. The Packers also used a 3rd round pick on Josiah Deguara in this year’s draft and he could be in the mix for playing time as well. This offense will likely struggle to find a consistent 2nd option in the passing game again, but there is a little bit more talent than last year.
Without a consistent #2 passing option last season, running back Aaron Jones actually ranked 2nd on the team with 68 targets and he turned those into a 49/474/3 slash line. With not much changing this off-season, Jones figures to be relied on heavily in the passing game again. Jones also was very involved as a runner, rushing for 1,084 yards and 16 touchdowns on 236 carries (4.59 YPC), and, overall, he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked running back on the season.
A 5th round pick in 2017, Jones had always shown this kind of potential prior to last season. His 4.30 yards per target on 53 targets prior to last season was unimpressive, but he’s hardly the first running back to improve his passing down abilities after a couple years in the league, and he’s always shown promise as a runner, rushing for 5.50 YPC on 214 carries prior to breaking out in a bigger role in 2019. Jones is technically a one-year wonder and his history of conditioning and durability problems are still worth mentioning, but it definitely wouldn’t be a surprise to see him repeat his strong 2019 season.
The question now becomes whether or not the Packers will lock Jones up long-term, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal in 2020. The Packers used a 2nd round pick (62nd overall) on Boston College running back AJ Dillon, at the expense of potentially adding a wide receiver or help on defense, and, while the Packers like to rotate running backs, giving #2 back Jamaal Williams 146 touches last season, Dillon’s draft slot suggests the Packers view him as a long-term lead back, which probably makes it unlikely they’ll break the bank to keep Jones off the open market.
In the short-term, Dillon is more of a threat to Jamaal Williams’ role than to Jones’ in 2020. A 4th round pick in 2017, Williams has been underwhelming overall in his career, averaging 3.88 yards per carry and 6.04 yards per target, but he wasn’t bad last season, rushing for 4.30 YPC and 1 touchdown on 107 carries and putting up a 39/253/5 slash line on 45 targets, while earning PFF’s 11th ranked running back grade overall, so there’s no guarantee Dillon is able to beat him out for the #2 role as a rookie. This is a deep backfield, but Jones remains the clear cut lead back after an impressive 2019 season.
As I mentioned, Rodgers’ offensive line gives him plenty of time to throw, as even though Rodgers ranked 6th in the NFL with 2.92 seconds per dropback last season, he was still pressured on a below average 34.5% of his dropbacks. That was also the case in 2018, when he held the ball 2.95 seconds per dropback (5th in the NFL), but was pressured on a below average 33.0% of his dropbacks. Given that, he should have enough time to be able to throw guys open down the field.
Overall, the Packers ranked 1st among offensive lines on Pro Football Focus in pass protecting grade in 2018 and 4th in 2019 and they also fared well as run blockers in 2019, ranking 6th in that aspect. The Packers lost right tackle Bryan Bulaga in free agency and he was PFF’s 13th ranked offensive tackle in 16 starts last season, but he’s not as big of a loss as it would seem, as he can either be replaced by free agent acquisition Ricky Wagner or by pushing right guard Billy Turner out to right tackle and replacing him at right guard with experienced reserve Lane Taylor.
Taylor opened last season as the Packers’ starting left guard, where he had earned solid grades over 45 starts over the previous 3 seasons, but went down for the season with an injury after week 2 and second round rookie Elgton Jenkins, who finished 20th among guards on PFF in 14 starts his absence, seems to have locked that job down permanently. Taylor is now going into his age 31 season, but he’s an experienced starter who finished 29th among guards on PFF as recently as 2018, so if he does make it back into the starting lineup at right guard with Turner moving to right tackle, he should continue being at least a serviceable starter.
Turner playing right tackle is not a guarantee however, as he’s been a solid starting guard over the past two seasons, including a 30th ranked finish among guards on PFF in 16 starts in last season, but generally he hasn’t been as good in his 5 career starts at tackle, while free agent acquisition Ricky Wagner earned an average or better grade at right tackle in 5 straight seasons (73 starts) prior to falling to 66th out of 89 qualifiers in 12 starts last season, including a pair of seasons in the top-19 among offensive tackles (2014 and 2017). Wagner’s age is a concern in his age 31 season, but even if his best days are behind him, he could still have some bounce back potential to be a serviceable starter. I would trust him more than Turner given their histories, but it’s really possible any two of Lane Taylor, Billy Turner, and Ricky Wagner will start on the right side this season.
Along with Elgton Jenkins being locked in at left guard, left tackle David Bakhtiari and center Corey Linsley are also locked in as starters. They’ve been fixtures at their respective spots over the years and have both played at a high level. Bakhtiari has earned an above average grade from PFF in all 7 seasons in the league (106 starts), including 4 straight seasons in the top-11 among offensive tackles, while Linsley has finished with at least an average grade in all 6 seasons in the league (86 starts), including a pair of seasons in the top-7 (2014 and 2018) and a 14th ranked finish in 2019. Both are still in their primes in their age 29 seasons, so I would expect more of the same from both this season. Even with some uncertainty on the right side, this is a talented offensive line and they have three at least capable starters for two spots on that right side.
The Packers went on a big defensive spending spree last off-season, signing three outside defensive free agents to contracts worth at least 9 million annually, including a pair of edge defenders in Za’Darius Smith (4 years/66 million) and Preston Smith (4 years/52 million). Overall, the spending spree didn’t achieve the goal of making this a top flight defense, as they only improved from a 16th ranked first down rate allowed of 36.97% in 2018 to a 12th ranked first down rate allowed of 34.54% in 2019, but that’s not necessarily the fault of the free agent class and the signing of Za’Darius Smith obviously proved to be a smart move in year one, as he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked edge defender on the season and was a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
Za’Darius Smith saw his snap count increase in each of his first 4 seasons in the league with the Ravens prior to joining the Packers last season, from 407 as a rookie to 691 in 2018, and he developed into a good pass rusher as well, with a 10.5% pressure rate over those 4 seasons and 8.5 sacks, 18 hits, and a 13.1% pressure rate as PFF’s 15th ranked edge defender in pass rush grade in 2018, but Smith’s 2019 season was still a huge leap forward.
Playing a career high 872 snaps, Smith totaled 13.5 sacks, 24 hits, and a ridiculous 17.1% pressure rate, while taking a big step forward against the run, something he struggled with in Baltimore. Smith is a one-year wonder as a top level player and may struggle to repeat his career best season, but he’s still very much in his prime in his age 28 season and even if he regresses a little bit he should still be among the best players in the league at his position, at least as a pass rusher.
Preston Smith wasn’t as good of a signing. He had an impressive sack total with 12, but wasn’t as good as that suggests, as he benefited significantly from Za’Darius being consistently disruptive opposite him and finished as just PFF’s 59th ranked edge defender overall. Smith only had 4 sacks in 2018, but actually finished significantly better on PFF, ranking 22nd among edge defenders, finishing with a 11.3% pressure rate, and playing well against the run. That remains his highest graded season in 5 seasons in the league, so he’s unlikely to ever become a dominant player, but he should remain at least a slightly above average starter.
The Packers also used a first round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft on Rashan Gary, who primarily played on the edge as a rookie. He was limited to just 244 mediocre snaps though and the Packers are obviously going to be expecting more from him in his second season in the league. Not only is he a former high draft pick, but with top edge reserve Kyler Fackrell (415 snaps in 2019) no longer with the team and no other obvious option on the roster, Gary will be needed for a significant reserve role on the edge.
Gary will primarily play on the edge in base packages and he may also see some action as a situational pass rusher on the interior in sub packages at 6-4 277, if he can show he’s one of the Packers’ four best rushers. A boom or bust prospect coming out of the draft, Gary has a questionable future after a down rookie year, but could easily take a step forward and become a good rotational 3rd edge defender. Za’Darius Smith elevates this position group significantly by himself and it’s a solid group overall.
Regardless of how much Rashan Gary sees action on the interior in passing situations, Kenny Clark will still be the top interior pass rusher and their top interior defender overall. A first round pick in 2016, Clark had a solid rookie year and then broke out as one of the top interior defenders in the league over the past three seasons, finishing in the top-13 among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons. Also a strong run stuffer, Clark has totaled 16.5 sacks, 12 hits, and a 10.9% pressure rate over the past three seasons and, still not even 25 until October, it’s possible he could keep getting better. Even if he has peaked, he should remain one of the top players at his position for years to come if he can continue avoiding injuries (just 4 games missed in his career).
For the first three years of his career, Clark played inside with Mike Daniels in passing situations and they were one of the better pass rushing duos in the league, even as recently as 2018, when Daniels had a 13.7% pressure rate. However, Daniels was let go in a cost cutting move last off-season and they lacked a consistent #2 interior rusher without him, which hurt this defense. Dean Lowry ranked second at the position in snaps with 637 and was an above average run stopper, but he hardly got any pass rush, with 0 sacks, 2 hits, and a 6.3% pressure rate all season. A 2016 4th round pick who has averaged 609 snaps per game over the past three seasons, last season was largely par for the course for Lowry. He’ll likely still have a big role, but he’s not the interior pass rusher they need.
Tyler Lancaster (381 snaps), Montravius Adams (187 snaps), Keke Kingsley (94 snaps) all saw action last season too, but they combined for just a 2.1% pressure rate and didn’t play well in general. All three remain though and could see similar roles. Kingsley is a 2019 5th round pick who barely played as a rookie, Adams has played just 465 snaps total since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2017, while Lancaster, probably the best by default, has shown some promise as a run stopper in 2 seasons (653 snaps) since going undrafted in 2018. He’ll probably be the primary starter in base packages with Clark and Lowry, with Gary likely working as a situational interior rusher with some regularity and Adams and Kingsley providing deep reserves. This is a generally underwhelming group, but Clark elevates this group significantly by himself.
Along with the loss of Mike Daniels last off-season, another reason why the Packers’ defense didn’t improve drastically from 2018 to 2019 despite key off-season additions is that they got a significantly down year from every down off ball linebacker Blake Martinez, as he finished 58th out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus, after finishing 17th the season before. Martinez especially struggled against the run, finishing 79th out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers in that aspect, but he struggled in coverage as well.
Despite his down contract year, Martinez got 10.25 million annually from the Giants in free agency this off-season, and the Packers will replace him with free agent acquisition Christian Kirksey. A 3rd round pick of the Browns in 2014, Kirksey was a solid player in his first 4 seasons in the league, playing part-time in his first two seasons and then every down in 32 starts in the next two seasons, topping out 28th among off ball linebackers as a part-time player in 2015 and 35th as a full-time player in 2016. However, injuries have limited him to 586 snaps in 9 games over the past 2 seasons, so, even though he’s still only in his age 28 season, he has a somewhat uncertain future. If he isn’t a diminished player after the injuries and can stay on the field, he should be a solid starter, but he was a risky signing on a 2-year, 13 million dollar deal that pays him 7 million for 2020.
The Packers frequently use three safeties at the same time with one of them lining up near the line of scrimmage as a linebacker, especially in sub packages, so they don’t have much need for other off ball linebackers besides Kirksey, but their lack of depth is concerning, especially given Kirksey’s injury history. BJ Goodson (254 snaps) and Oren Burks (57 snaps) were the only other true off ball linebackers to see any action last season and Goodson is no longer with the team, which will likely force Burks into a nominal starting role in base packages.
They won’t need much from Burks in that role, but he’s struggled mightily on 183 career snaps since the Packers took him in the 3rd round in 2018, so he could easily continue struggling, and the Packers’ only other possible alternative is 2019 7th round pick Ty Summers, who didn’t play a defensive snap as a rookie. As much as the Packers were criticized for taking Jordan Love over a wide receiver, the Packers probably would have been better off using the 27th overall pick on off ball linebacker Patrick Queen, who went one pick later, rather than taking a quarterback or a wide receiver. Without a significant investment at the position in the draft, the Packers will really need to hope Kirksey can avoid a third straight injury plagued season because they will have the worst linebacking corps in the NFL without him.
Along with the two Smithes on the edge that they added last off-season on big free agent deals, the Packers also added safety Adrian Amos from the divisional rival Bears on a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal. That’s a lot of money, but it’s arguably a bargain when you compare him to similar safeties, as Amos made 56 starts in 4 seasons in Chicago and earned an above average grade from Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, including a 3rd ranked finish in 2017 and a 10th ranked finish in 2018.
Amos didn’t disappoint in his first season in Green Bay, finishing 17th among safeties on PFF, and, still in his age 27 season without much injury history (4 of 80 possible games missed in 5 seasons in the league), Amos is likely to continue playing at a similarly high level in 2020. He’ll continue starting in base packages next to Darnell Savage, who was also added last off-season in a significant investment, going 21st overall in the 2019 NFL Draft, and he also didn’t disappoint, making 14 starts and earning a slightly above average grade on PFF (44th overall). Now going into his second season in the league, with a high upside, he could easily take a step forward in his second season in the league.
The Packers also used a first round pick in 2018 on a defensive back, taking Jaire Alexander 18th overall. Despite his youth and inexperience, he’s been the Packers’ top cornerback in two seasons in the league (27 starts), finishing 32nd among cornerbacks in 2018 and 26th in 2019. Still only in his age 23 season in his 3rd season in the league, he could easily keep getting better and develop into one of the top cornerbacks in the league a few years down the line.
The only questionable one of the Packers’ four every down secondary starters is #2 cornerback Kevin King. King was drafted high in the 2nd round in 2017 (33rd overall), but he missed more games than he played in his first 2 seasons (17 of 32 games missed) and, while he stayed relatively healthy last season (805 snaps in 15 games), he was pretty underwhelming, finishing 72nd out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF. Still only going into his age 25 season, King has upside, but there’s no guarantee he’ll improve or even stay healthy.
Reserve roles are also up for grabs and there should be plenty of reserve snaps to go around, given how often the Packers are in sub packages. Tramon Williams played 761 snaps as the 3rd cornerback last year and excelled on the slot, but wasn’t brought back ahead of his age 37 season. Chandon Sullivan flashed on 350 snaps in the first significant action of his career last season, after going undrafted in 2018, playing both on the slot and some safety. Josh Jackson also saw snaps as a hybrid player last season and, though he only played 102 snaps last season after struggling on 721 snaps as a rookie (102nd out of 131 qualifying cornerbacks), he’s a 2018 2nd round pick who still has some upside, so he could easily earn a role. Bringing back Tramon Williams is also an option, though he’d also be a question mark even his advanced age.
Sullivan and/or Jackson could also see some action at safety, where Will Redmond (271 snaps) and Raven Greene (70 snaps) also remain as reserves. Redmond and Greene have struggled throughout their careers, Redmond on 276 snaps since going in the 3rd round in 2016 and Greene on 115 snaps since going undrafted in 2018, but they should be in the mix for snaps for lack of another option. The Packers have some talented players in this secondary, but their questionable depth is a concern, especially given how often they’re in sub packages.
The Packers were not as good as their record in 2019 and don’t seem to be noticeably more talented than last season, failing to address significant needs in the receiving corps and at linebacker. They won’t need to win 13 games to win the NFC North again and they’ll definitely remain in the mix for a wild card spot even if they can’t win the division for the second straight season, but I would put New Orleans, San Francisco, and even Dallas and possibly Tampa Bay ahead of the Packers right now. Given that, it’s going to be a tough path out of the NFC to a Super Bowl appearance. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.
Final Update: The Packers are unlikely to win 13 games again, but I still have them as the top team in the NFC North. Outside of the division, the Packers will have a tough run through the NFC to the Super Bowl, but they’re borderline contenders, even after an underwhelming off-season.
Projection: 11-5 (1st in NFC North)