This is the last team preview I have to do and I saved the Packers for last for good reason, as they have the biggest unresolved quarterback situation in the league. The story is well known by now, but Rodgers overshadowed the NFL draft itself when reports leaked earlier on draft day that Rodgers was demanding a trade from the Packers. Rodgers didn’t intend the timing to coincide with the draft and reportedly asked out of Green Bay earlier this off-season, after also reportedly telling many of his teammates during last season that he thought 2020 would be his last season in Green Bay.
The situation is complex and there are undoubtedly things we don’t know, but Rodgers does have legitimate reason to be upset, despite back-to-back NFC Championship appearances with new head coach Matt LaFleur, undoubtedly an upgrade over Mike McCarthy, who Rodgers was stuck with for most of his Packers career. In 2019, the Packers got by mostly on winning close games, going 8-1 in one score games en route to a 13-3 record, and then got blown out in the NFC Championship game by a clearly better 49ers team, who also blew them out in the regular season. In 2020, the Packers were a legitimate Super Bowl contender, but that had more to do with Aaron Rodgers turning back the clock and winning an MVP, rather than improvement by his supporting cast.
With Rodgers now heading into his age 38 season and at the point in his career where any season could be his last, Rodgers just isn’t confident he can win a Super Bowl with this group. In many ways, it parallels another aging Hall of Fame quarterback’s situation from not that long ago and there is a very good chance that Rodgers seeing Tom Brady leave New England, join a team a quarterback away from a Super Bowl, and win another ring, at Rodgers’ absence no less, is a big driving factor in why Rodgers wants out of Green Bay.
Rodgers’ list of reported trade destinations includes the Broncos, Saints, 49ers, and Raiders and, while the Raiders stand out as a strange choice given the issues on their roster, the other three teams all could be legitimately considered a quarterback away. The 49ers found their quarterback in the draft, taking Trey Lance, and the Saints don’t seem to have the financial flexibility to add Rodgers’ salary, but the Broncos would seem to be an excellent fit for Rodgers as they most similarly parallel the Buccaneers team that Brady joined.
One key difference between the Brady situation is that Brady never demanded a trade from New England, but it’s possible something like that could have happened in 2019 if the situation wasn’t dealt with quietly behind the scenes, with the result being a renegotiated deal that allowed Brady to become a free agent at the end of the season. Rodgers’ situation was not dealt with quietly, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a similar resolution.
Rodgers has no real trade leverage, aside from threatening to sit out one of his last prime seasons with a roster he took within a play or two of the Super Bowl a year ago, but a renegotiated deal would make sense as a compromise. The Packers would retain Rodgers for another year and would not need to find an NFL ready starting quarterback to replace him on short notice, while Rodgers would get the opportunity to pick his next team next off-season, when the Broncos will still remain as a highly attractive destination and the Saints could be in better financial shape.
The other key difference between this situation and Brady is that the Packers used a first round pick on a quarterback just a year ago, so Rodgers is even more justified asking out of Green Bay than Brady was to want out of New England. In fact, it’s very likely the Packers’ original plan was to trade Rodgers this off-season. Not only did they use the 26th overall pick on quarterback Jordan Love, at the expense of adding a complementary piece for Rodgers that could have pushed this team over the top, but they traded up to get him, meaning they viewed him very highly.
It’s possible they were planning on sitting him for two years and trading Rodgers next off-season, but with the rookie contract structure, that wouldn’t make a lot of sense, as it would give the Packers just one season to evaluate Love before having to make a decision on his expensive, fully guaranteed 5th year option. Most likely the plan was to move Rodgers this off-season, until Rodgers threw a wrench in that plan by winning an MVP, while Love failed to develop behind the scenes, which completely turned the tables to the point where the Packers no longer want to trade Rodgers, but Rodgers doesn’t want to be with the team that was originally planning to replace him.
Given all that, it’s pretty justifiable that Rodgers wants out, though I do ultimately expect him to suit up for the Packers this season, even if it’s with an understanding that he will be elsewhere one way or another in 2022, at which point Jordan Love could be more ready to start. I’m going to write this preview under the assumption that Rodgers will be a Packer, but if he is not, I still see a veteran option as significantly more likely than Love, whether it’s by getting someone like Teddy Bridgewater or Derek Carr back in a Rodgers trade, or making a move for someone like Jimmy Garoppolo if he fails to win the starting job in San Francisco.
Love was a risky pick from the start, aside from the fact that Green Bay already had Rodgers, and the boom or bust pick sounds like he’s been much closer to bust than boom thus far behind the scenes, meaning he would be very likely to struggle if forced into starting action in 2021. It’s not a good sign that the team that believed in him most last year during the draft seems to be much more skeptical after having him around for a year.
Rodgers, on the other hand, disproved a lot of doubters last season, including his own team, completing 70.7% of his passes for an average of 8.17 YPA, 48 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, ranking #1 among quarterbacks on PFF, and deservedly winning the MVP award, even in a season with a lot of great quarterback play. However, there were legitimate reasons to be concerned, due to the combination of his age and his relatively diminishing play in recent years.
In 2018 and 2019, Rodgers completed only 63.0% of his passes for an average of 7.33 YPA, 41 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions combined. Rodgers isn’t necessarily going to regress back to that level in 2021, but I wouldn’t expect him to match last year’s performance either, even before you get into the fact that even if he does play for the Packers this season, it’ll likely come after skipping some of training camp, which could wind up hurting him on the field in 2021, even if only a little bit.
However, he’s still one of the better quarterbacks in the league any way you look at it and it would be an enormous blow to this team if he was replaced with a mid level passer like Derek Carr or Jimmy Garoppolo. With Rodgers, this supporting cast is good enough for the Packers to contend for a Super Bowl, but they probably wouldn’t be a playoff team without him, especially if they end up having to go to raw backup Jordan Love. With Rodgers still on the roster as of this writing though, it’s hard to give them anything other than an A grade for the position.
Even if the Packers bring back Aaron Rodgers, they won’t have quite the same supporting cast around him and it actually could have been worse if Aaron Rodgers had been believed by teammates who he told he would be leaving after the 2020 season. I’ll get into the players they lost this off-season later, but one key player they kept was running back Aaron Jones, who returned on a 4-year, 48 million dollar deal, actually taking less money to stay in Green Bay with Rodgers, even though Rodgers reportedly had told him and other pending Packers free agents that he was not going to be returning himself.
Jones returning to Green Bay is surprising for a number of reasons. Even with him taking a discount, he’s still highly paid, with the 6th highest average annual salary among running backs, for a team that has a lot of other big contracts and that had cheaper in-house alternatives. Jamaal Williams saw a significant role as the #2 running back over the past two seasons and fared well, averaging 4.27 YPC on 226 carries, despite just 7 carries longer than 15 yards, while ranking 7th and 6th respectively with carry success rates of 53% and 57% respectively.
Williams was a free agent as well this off-season, but could have been retained for much cheaper, as he ended up signing with the Lions for just 6 million over 2 years. The Packers also have last year’s 2nd round pick AJ Dillon, who could have slid in as the #2 back to pair with Williams, which seemed like the long-term plan when the Packers used a premium pick on Dillon last year rather than addressing a bigger need at wide receiver or linebacker.
Instead, Jones returns, Williams leaves, and Dillon will see a smaller role than he likely would have had the opposite happened, making Dillon look like an unnecessary pick. Dillon will still see more action than his rookie year though, at least by default, as he saw just 46 carries as a rookie. He flashed with a 5.26 YPC on those carries and the big bruising 6-0 245 pounder could be effective in a situational early down role, but he probably won’t see much more than a half dozen carries per game and he’s unlikely to be much of a factor in the passing game, after two rookie year catches and 23 catches total in his collegiate career at Boston College.
Jones at least does have a very high upside in this offense, assuming Rodgers returns. In total Jones has rushed for 5.17 YPC and 37 touchdowns on 651 carries in four seasons in the league, including 5.01 YPC and 25 touchdowns on 437 carries over the past two seasons, while finishing 5th among running backs on PFF in 2019 and 15th in 2020. Jones has never been a true feature back, maxing out with 285 touches in 16 games in 2019, but, even though the Packers are paying him like a feature back, they won’t need him to be with Dillon behind him.
Jones also has shown a lot of promise in the passing game with slash lines of 49/474/3 and 47/355/2 respectively over the past two seasons and a 1.49 yards per route run average. With Williams (31/236/1 in 2020) gone and Dillon not being much of a receiver, Jones could see a career high in targets in 2021. His projection would take a big hit if this offense no longer had Aaron Rodgers on it, as he would find a lot less room to run without the threat of Rodgers going deep, but he could easily be highly productive again if his quarterback returns. The Packers have invested a lot in this position with backup AJ Dillon being a recent 2nd round pick and Jones being on a big contract, a bit of an odd move for a team whose offensive strength is their passing attack, but the results should at least be good, as long as they don’t see their quarterback situation downgraded.
One area the Packers could have invested in rather than the running back position is their offensive line, which has been one of the better ones in the league for years, but is starting to show cracks. The big loss was center Corey Linsley, who was PFF’s #1 ranked center in 2020 and ended up signing with the Chargers this off-season on a 5-year, 62.5 million dollar deal that is similar in average annual salary to the contract the Packers kept Jones on. The Packers also did not bring back veteran Ricky Wagner, who only started 9 games at right tackle last season, but played well, finishing 25th among offensive tackles on PFF. Meanwhile, on the left side David Bakhtiari will be in a race against the clock to be ready for week 1 and might not be quite the same upon his return, after suffering a torn ACL late last season.
The Packers used a trio of draft picks on offensive lineman, taking Josh Myers in the 2nd round, Royce Newman in the 4th round, and Cole Van Lanen in the 6th round, but that mostly just replenishes depth, as Myers is the only one who is a real candidate to start in week one and, if either of the other two are forced into action when an injury hits, which is a strong possibility, they would likely struggle. Even Myers is not a lock to play well in his rookie year, but the Packers might not have a better alternative than to plug him in as their starting center in place of Linsley.
The other alternative would be to move left guard Elgton Jenkins inside to center and then to plug 2020 6th round pick Jon Runyan into the starting lineup at left guard, but there are problems with that plan. For one, while Jenkins is versatile, making five of his 30 careers starts at center and also seeing some reserve action at both left and right tackle, he’s seen most of his action at left guard and has played well enough there in two seasons since the Packers selected him in the 2nd round in 2019, ranking 25th and 20th respectively among guards on PFF, that it would be risky to have him make a permanent position change, as he might not be quite as good.
Jenkins still has the upside to have his best year yet in year three, but I would like him better if he stayed at left guard. On top of that, while Runyan is probably the best of the Packers’ holdover reserves, he was underwhelming across 160 rookie year snaps and could easily struggle in a season long role, even if he takes a step forward in year two. The Packers will have players compete for roles, but starting Myers at center and keeping Jenkins at guard seems better than the alternative.
The rest of this line is locked in, with Bakhtiari at left tackle, Lucas Patrick returning at right guard after making 15 starts in 2020 (12 on the right side and 3 on the left), and utility offensive lineman Billy Turner (6 starts at right tackle, 4 at left tackle, and 4 at right guard last season) now locked in at right tackle, but Bakhtiari of course has the injury concern, while Patrick and Turner being locked in is more a sign of their lack of depth than anything positive, as both Patrick and Turner are middling starters at best.
Patrick was PFF’s 38th ranked guard in 2020, but the 2016 undrafted free agent was a complete one-year wonder, playing just 634 mediocre snaps across his first four seasons combined prior to last season. He could remain a solid starter, but it’s much more likely that he declines than it is that he takes another step forward. Turner, meanwhile, is more experienced, having made 41 starts over the past three seasons, after struggling early in his career as a 2014 3rd round pick, but Turner has only been about a middling starter in those three seasons, he’s probably been at his best as a guard (27 of 41 starts), and he was significantly worse in 2020 than departed veteran tackle Ricky Wagner.
Now going into his age 30 season, Turner is unlikely to be better going forward. Turner and Patrick could continue holding up on the right side, but both are shaky starting options and they don’t have a good alternative aside from inexperienced young players. Left tackle David Bakhtiari should remain their best offensive lineman and help keep this offensive line as an above average unit overall, but that of course depends on him being healthy and not taking a significant step back, in his age 30 season, coming off of a significant injury.
At his best, Bakhtiari is arguably the best left tackle in the league, finishing in the top-11 among offensive tackles on PFF in 5 straight seasons, including three top-2 finishes, so even if he does decline, he should be one of the better left tackles in the league, but if he’s not quite as good as he’s been, it could hurt this offense noticeably and, if he misses any time, the Packers would be in big trouble, as they lack a proven swing tackle and would likely have to shift Turner to left tackle and plug in someone inexperienced at right tackle. This group has the upside to still be a strong offensive line, but that would require them staying healthy across the board, as their depth is very limited.
The weakest group on this Packers offense is this receiving corps, where they lack consistent targets behind Davante Adams and only added 3rd round pick Amari Rodgers to the mix this off-season. Rodgers could easily earn a significant rookie year role, with his top competition for playing time being Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Allen Lazard, who functioned as the #2 and #3 wide receivers respectively in this offense last season.
Valdes-Scantling had an impressive 20.9 yards per catch average, but his 33/690/6 slash line really left something to be desired when you consider he played a significant role in an offense led by Aaron Rodgers and he averaged just 1.48 yards per route run on the season. He definitely caught some deep balls, but he also only caught 52.4% of his targets, with a 17.5% drop rate on catchable balls, and he ranked just 106th among 112 eligible wide receivers on PFF on the season. A 5th round pick in 2018, Valdes-Scantling has earned below average grades from PFF in all three seasons, while averaging just 1.48 yards per route run, and is unlikely to be much better in 2021.
Lazard, on the other hand, showed more upside, albeit in more limited action, playing just 470 snaps in 10 games due to injury. He averaged 1.74 yards per route run, leading to a 33/451/3 slash line, which is in line with how he played in 2019, when he played 479 snaps in 16 games and averaged 1.62 yards per route run, leading to a 35/477/3 slash line. Lazard went undrafted in 2018 and is a projection to a larger role, but he’s shown plenty of promise so far and could easily have his best year in 2021 if he can stay healthy and Aaron Rodgers sticks around. He should be considered the favorite for the #2 wide receiver job over Valdes-Scantling, who ideally would lose playing time to the rookie Amari Rodgers and become only a situational deep threat.
It’s an underwhelming group beyond Davante Adams, but it would be hard for them to be worse than 2020 and Adams elevates this group significantly by himself. Last season, he led all pass catchers with 2.96 yards per route run, leading to him posting a 115/1374/18 slash line in just 14 games, and he was also PFF’s #1 ranked wide receiver overall. It was the best year of his career, but he was PFF’s 10th ranked wide receiver and averaged 2.33 yards per route run in 2019 and ranked 9th and averaged 2.12 yards per route run in 2018, so he’s hardly a one-year wonder. His production would take a hit without Rodgers obviously, but he’s one of the best wide receivers in his own right, and he would be a strong candidate to lead the league in receiving in 2021 if Rodgers returned.
Tight end Robert Tonyan had a solid 52/586/11 slash line this season, but benefited significantly from playing a significant role with Aaron Rodgers as his quarterback and his 1.58 yards per route run average ranked just 12th among tight ends, which is not all that impressive when you consider the he was playing with the best quarterback in the league last season. He’s also an underwhelming run blocker and a one-year wonder as a receiver, as the 2017 undrafted free agent had played just career 260 snaps prior to last season. Even if Rodgers returns and Tonyan repeats last season’s level of play, his touchdown rate is likely to regress and he could be the one who would be hurt the most by Rodgers’ departure.
The Packers will need Tonyan to keep playing well because the rest of their receiving tight end options are inexperienced. They used 3rd round picks in 2019 and 2020 on Jace Sternberger and Josiah Deguara, but Sternberger has played just 301 mediocre snaps in two seasons in the league and is now suspended for the first two games of 2021, while Deguara played just 31 snaps as a rookie before tearing his ACL, who obviously makes his long-term projection more questionable.
The Packers do still have blocking tight end Marcedes Lewis and, even though he is in his age 37 season, he was smart to bring back as a #2 tight end. He’s not a receiving option at this stage of his career, averaging just 0.83 yards per route run in 2020, but he stayed in to block on 68.1% of his 422 snaps last season and was still one of the better blocking tight ends in the league. It’s possible he falls off in 2021, which would be a blow to this offense, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the big 6-4 268 pounder continue being an above average blocker. Davante Adams elevates this receiving corps by himself significantly, but this group still has the same problems as last year unless one of their young receivers takes a big step forward.
Two off-seasons ago, the Packers made some big moves to overhaul their defense and the results have been a mixed bag. The Packers finished the 2018 season 16th in first down rate allowed, which improved only slightly to 15th in 2019 and then actually fell to 18th in 2020, although they did rank 12th once schedule adjustments were taken into account. No position was overhauled more than the edge defender position, a position which also exemplifies the mixed bag nature of some of their moves that off-season.
Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, and Rashan Gary played almost all the edge defender snaps last season, with no other edge defender playing more than 85 snaps, and all three of those players were ended in big investment moves two off-seasons ago. The two Smiths signed deals worth 66 million over 4 years and 52 million over 4 years respectively and then the Packers used Gary with the 12th overall pick for good measure.
Preston Smith has been the biggest disappointment of the bunch, which is not a surprise because he was an overpay from the start, only managing a 9.7% pressure rate in four seasons with Washington before signing that big deal. Smith had 12 sacks in year one in Green Bay, but that was largely the product of being in the right place at the right time, as he ranked just 37th among edge defenders on PFF in pass rush grade. That was still a career best, but his 2020 campaign ended up being a career worst, as he managed just 4 sacks, 8 hits, and a 6.5% pressure rate, while ranking 108th among 124 edge defenders on PFF.
Smith was kept this off-season only after agreeing to a pay cut down to 8 million, so it’s very possible he’ll see a reduced role in 2021 in favor of Rashan Gary, who is now going into his third season in the league. Gary hasn’t been a bust thus far, but he also hasn’t shown much yet either, playing just mediocre 244 snaps as a rookie, buried on the depth chart and dealing with injuries, before taking a step forward and earning a middling grade from PFF across 456 snaps in 2020. He still has the upside to be an above average starter and, only in his age 24 season, could easily take a big step forward in year three. He and Preston Smith could form a productive rotation, but Smith has never been as good as the Packers originally paid him to be, while Gary’s upside is not a guarantee he’ll break out.
Fortunately, one of those edge defender moves really did pay off as, even though Za’Darius Smith is the 11th highest paid edge defender in the league, he’s been well worth it through two seasons in Green Bay. Smith wasn’t a big name at the time he signed with the Packers, but he flashed a lot of potential in his previous two seasons as a rotational player with the Ravens, totaling 12 sacks, 32 hits, and a 12.4% pressure rate in 30 games despite being a part-time player.
He was still a projection to a larger role that the Packers took a chance on, but if anything he’s been more efficient in more extended playing time, totaling 26 sacks, 38 hits, and a 13.2% pressure rate, while playing all 32 games. Defending the run has never been his strong suit, but even his run defense has improved in Green Bay and, overall he’s finished 2nd and 15th among edge defenders on PFF over the past two seasons respectively, including 6th and 7th respectively in pass rush grade. Still in his prime in his age 29 season and fully established as an elite edge rusher, I wouldn’t expect that to change in 2021.
Both Smiths played all 16 games last year, while Gary missed just one game, allowing this trio to play almost every edge defender snap combined between the three of them, but they might not be as lucky in 2021, which would expose their lack of depth. Jonathan Garvin, a 2020 7th round pick, and Randy Ramsey, a 2019 undrafted free agent, played 85 snaps and 75 snaps respectively last season and both struggled in their first career action. Either one would be likely to struggle mightily if forced into extended action, but that is a possibility if an injury strikes out of their top-3. They particularly can’t afford to lose Za’Darius Smith, who elevates an otherwise underwhelming group by himself.
The Packers didn’t make any major additions at the interior defender position two off-seasons ago when they overhauled their defense, but they did move on from long-time Packer Mike Daniels, a talented, but aging player, and then extended the younger Dean Lowry on a 3-year, 20.325 million dollar extension ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal in 2019, an extension that was followed up the next off-season by the Packers locking up Kenny Clark on a 4-year, 70 million dollar extension.
Clark slipped a little bit to 30th among interior defenders on PFF in his first season after signing the extension in 2020, after ranking 10th in 2017, 9th in 2018, and 13th in 2019, but the 2016 1st round pick is still only in his age 26 season and already had a pretty impressive career, especially over the past four seasons, when he has totalled 18.5 sacks, 16 hits, and a 10.2% pressure rate across 57 games, while playing the run at a high level as well. He should remain an above average starter at least in 2021 and has the upside to bounce back and be better in 2021 than he was in 2020.
The Lowry deal, meanwhile, made some sense at the time it was made, as the 2016 4th round pick was coming off of a solid season, in which he played 698 snaps, ranked 28th among interior defenders on PFF against the run, and added 3 sacks, 4 hits, and a 7.8% pressure rate as a pass rusher. However, Lowry has dropped off significantly in each of the past two seasons, falling all the way to 91st out of 139 eligible interior defenders across 601 snaps in 2020, making his 2018 campaign look like an obvious outlier in his 5-year career. He could bounce back a little bit from arguably the worst year of his career in 2020, but I wouldn’t expect him to be more than a middling starter at best. Both he and this defense could benefit from Lowry having his role scaled back, but that would require another player stepping up.
The Packers didn’t address their interior defender group until the 5th round of the draft, when they selected Tedarrell Slaton, who is unlikely to make an impact in year one. Instead, their most promising young interior defender option is 2019 5th round pick Kingsley Keke, who was the Packers’ highest ranked interior defender aside from Clark last season. He still only earned a middling grade across 414 snaps, but that was mostly because of his struggles against the run, as he flashed as a pass rusher with a 8.6% pressure rate. He played just 94 snaps as a rookie and is very inexperienced overall, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him remain an effective situational pass rusher and he could take a step forward in year three as well.
Tyler Lancaster is the fourth Packers interior defender who returns after seeing somewhat significant action, in a position group that is largely unchanged from last season. Lancaster is only a situational run stuffer and has a very underwhelming 3.5% pressure rate in three seasons since the Packers signed him as an undrafted free agent, but he’s not a bad run defender. He played 352 snaps in 2020 and has averaged 335 snaps per season in his career. I would expect a similar total from him in 2021, due to his limitations as a pass rusher. This isn’t a bad group, but it’s the same group that had some issues last season, and, while it’s possible that a couple players are better than they were a year ago, they also could have more injury issues than they had a year ago.
The one group that has been completely neglected in the Packers’ defensive overhaul has been their linebacking corps, which has been a big part of the reason for the Packers’ defensive struggles over the past two seasons. As much criticism as the Packers have deservedly gotten for ignoring their receiving corps with early draft picks, they’ve ignored the linebacker position even more and it shows. Once again, they waited until the 6th round to select a linebacker, taking Isaiah McDuffie, who is unlikely to be a positive factor in year one.
McDuffie was their only major addition to a group that was arguably the worst in the league last season and, in fact, they lost their snap leader, Christian Kirksey (548 snaps), although he won’t really be missed, after finishing 85th among 99 eligible linebackers last season. More importantly though, they lost safety Raven Greene, which might seem like it’s unrelated, but he frequently played as a coverage linebacker in sub packages last season and without him, the Packers could need more snaps out of traditional linebacker, especially in coverage situations. Greene was a middling player, but by default he was probably their best linebacker last season, even if that wasn’t technically his position.
With Greene and Kirksey gone and only a late round rookie added, the Packers will be counting on more from young holdovers Krys Barnes (421 snaps), Kamal Martin (190 snaps) Oren Burks (96 snaps), Ty Summer (176 snaps) who all saw some action last season, even if it wasn’t much. Martin looks like the most promising of the bunch, as the 2020 5th round pick flashed across his admittedly limited playing time as a rookie, impressing both against the run and in coverage, but he’s still a projection to a larger role. I would consider him the favorite to earn something resembling an every down role and he could have a mini breakout year in that role, but that’s far from a guarantee.
Oren Burks was the highest pick of the bunch, but the 2018 3rd round pick has been a wasted draft selection thus far, as injuries and ineffectiveness have limited him to just 279 snaps in three seasons in the league, during which he has been exposed both against the run and in coverage. Ty Summer was just a 7th round pick in 2019 and struggled mightily in his first career action in 2020, after not playing a defensive snap as a rookie.
Kyrs Barnes saw the most action of the bunch last season, but the 2020 undrafted free agent did not fare well, finishing 86th among 99 eligible linebackers on PFF. It’s possible even Isaiah McDuffie could see playing time in this group by season’s end, but that would likely say more about this group’s play than McDuffie’s development. Their youth gives them some upside, but this group also has a very low floor and could easily be the worst linebacking corps in the NFL this season.
Safety is another position that got a big investment two off-seasons ago, with the Packers signing Adrian Amos from the division rival Bears on a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal and then trading up to use the 21st overall pick to select Darnell Savage to play alongside him. The pairing has worked out very well. Savage was only a middling starter as a rookie in 2019, but Amos ranked 17th and in 2020 they both took a step forward, with Savage ranking 10th and Amos ranking 2nd. Savage has the upside to be one of the best safeties in the league long-term and, while development is not always linear and he’s not a guarantee to be better or even to not decline in 2021, he should still remain at least an above average starter with the upside for more.
Amos, meanwhile, has proven himself over several seasons. He was just a 5th round pick in 2015, but he became a starter as a rookie and has earned an above average grade from PFF in all 6 seasons in the league (88 starts), including 4 straight seasons in the top-17 and two finishes in the top-3. Even if he isn’t quite as good in 2021 as 2020, he should still be one of the better safeties in the league, still in his prime in his age 28 season. He and Savage have the potential to be the best safety duo in the league and, even if they aren’t, they should be one of the better ones.
Their depth is a concern, however, with Raven Greene no longer around (324 snaps) and Will Redmond (340 snaps) being their only experienced reserve. A 3rd round choice of the 49ers in 2016, injuries cost Redmond all of 2016 and 2017 and he played just 5 snaps in 2018, before struggling in limited action over the past two seasons, finishing 83th out of 99 eligible safeties across 271 snaps in 2019 before finishing 70th out of 99 eligible, again in limited action in 2020. He’s likely to continue struggling in a reserve role in 2021 and would likely struggle even more if forced into an extended starting role.
The Packers also have a dominant #1 cornerback Jaire Alexander. A first round pick in 2018, Alexander was impressive in his first two seasons as well, finishing 32nd and 26th among cornerbacks on PFF, but he took his play to another level in 2020, finishing 1st among cornerbacks on PFF and allowing a 48.6% completion percentage and 4.68 yards per attempt, despite frequently matching up with #1 wide receivers. Alexander might not be quite as good in 2021 as he was in 2020, especially since cornerback is probably the toughest position to play at a high level year after year, but he’s proven enough in his career that he should be considered one of the top cornerbacks in the league and he’s still only going into his age 24 season, so his future is as bright as anyone’s.
As good as Alexander was though, opposing passing attacks could just pick on the Packers’ other cornerbacks last season, as all of their other cornerbacks finished below average on PFF on the season. Kevin King was the worst of the bunch, missing 5 games with injury and finishing 85th out of 136 eligible cornerbacks on PFF across 664 snaps. A 2nd round pick in 2017, that has largely been the story of King’s career, as he has missed 25 of 64 possible games and has never earned more than a middling grade from PFF. The Packers still brought him back this off-season on a 1-year, 5 million dollar deal, but they aren’t committed to him long-term and drafted his likely future replacement Eric Stokes with the 29th overall pick.
Stokes could also push #3 cornerback Chandon Sullivan for his job, although he wasn’t terrible last season, earning a middling grade across 729 snaps. The 2018 undrafted free agent is largely unproven, but he did flash on 350 snaps as a situational slot cornerback in 2019 as well, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him continue being a capable slot cornerback. Stokes’ addition at least gives the Packers more upside and another starting option, even if he has growing pains in year one.
The Packers also still have 2018 2nd round pick Josh Jackson, but he struggled across 721 rookie year snaps and has played just 433 snaps in two seasons since. With Stokes being added, Jackson is probably more likely to not make this final roster than to earn a significant role, barring injuries ahead of him on the depth chart. This is mostly a top heavy secondary, but you can’t deny how good Jaire Alexander, Adrian Amos, and Darnell Savage are and first round pick Eric Stokes has the upside to be that caliber of a player long-term, even if he could struggle as a rookie.
The Packers overall struggled on special teams last season, ranking 25th in special teams DVOA. The only aspect in which they finished above average in DVOA was place kicking, which is not surprising as it’s the only aspect that is driven primarily by one player, with other special teamers making minimal impact, which is important because the majority of the Packers’ special teamers struggled in 2020.
Kicker Mason Crosby didn’t get a lot of field goal opportunities on this explosive Packers’ offense, but he made all 16 of them, including 4 from 50 yards or more, and he hit 59/63 on extra points as well, leading to him finishing 8th among kickers overall on PFF. He’s also a relatively consistent veteran who has hit at least 80% of his field goal attempts in seven of the past 8 seasons, while hitting a total of 86.2% of his field goals over that stretch, including 67.6% on 50+ yard field goals.
Crosby also fared well as a kickoff specialist, while punter JK Scott ranked 4th among punters on PFF and led the league with 4.57 seconds of hang time per punt, but the Packers finished below average in kickoff and punt DVOA, showing how much the majority of the Packers’ special teamers struggled in 2020. Scott also played well in 2019, finishing 2nd among punters on PFF and 6th in hang time at 4.46 seconds, after a more middling rookie year in 2018, so he’s not a one-year wonder and should remain one of the better punters in the league in 2021. The Packers need to support them better, but they have a good kicker and punter.
The Packers especially struggled in the return game last season, finishing with the 2nd worst kickoff return average at 18.9 yards and the 3rd worst punt return average at 4.8, and their return specialists were a big part of the problem. Rookie wide receiver Amari Rodgers returned 68 punts in college and will probably take over that role for the Packers in 2021, but his 7.8 yards per punt return average is underwhelming for a collegiate player and he only ever returned 2 kickoffs, so he’s unlikely to be a candidate for that role.
Instead, Malik Taylor, the only one of the three kickoff returners who saw significant action last season that is still with the team, is likely to be the primary kickoff returner. His 18.6 yards per average on just 9 returns last season was very underwhelming and that is the only return experience of his career, so I wouldn’t expect much out of him in 2021, especially if the Packers don’t improve around him. The same should be true of Amari Rodgers, whose return game was underwhelming at the collegiate level.
Despite the Packers’ special teams issues last season, they didn’t add any experienced special teamers this off-season. They brought back their top-13 from last year’s group in terms of snaps played, but none of them cracked PFF’s top-100 special teamers, so continuity isn’t a good thing here. Oren Burks (334 snaps), Ty Summer (326 snaps), Will Redmond (237 snaps), Randy Ramsey (203 snaps), Vernon Scott (184 snaps), Malik Taylor (182 snaps), and Ka’Dar Hollman (166 snaps) are likely to remain as their top special teamers in 2021, but they all have underwhelming histories, in addition to having underwhelming seasons in 2020.
The Packers changed special teams coordinators this off-season, relieving Shawn Mennenga of his duties after two disappointing seasons with the team, and replacing him with Maurice Drayton and that coaching chance could lead to at least somewhat better play out of this group in 2021 and it’s possible they could get a big contribution from their rookie class, but there isn’t much reason to expect this group to be anything more than middling even in the best case scenario and it’s very possible they will continue to struggle, significantly hurting this special teams unit as a whole.
If the Packers bring back Aaron Rodgers, they should remain Super Bowl contenders, but there are reasons to expect this team not to be as good on either side of the ball in 2021. Their offense has lost some key players from a year ago, especially on the offensive line, and they might not quite get an MVP caliber year from Rodgers even if he does return. They still have some top level talent on that side of the ball, with Rodgers, left tackle David Bakhtiari, wide receiver Davante Adams, and running back Aaron Jones among the best in the league at their positions, but Bakhtiari is coming off of a serious injury, they lost stud center Corey Linsley, and their supporting cast isn’t significantly improved from a year ago, making this is a very top heavy offensive unit and one that would likely see a big hit if one of their stars went down for an extended period of time.
The Packers are also top heavy on defense, led by edge defender Za’Darius Smith, cornerback Jaire Alexander, safeties Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage, and interior defender Kenny Clark, which is a concern for a group that had just the 4th fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the league in 2020 and were still just a middling group. The five aforementioned players combined to miss just 5 games in 2020 and their lack of defensive depth could easily be exposed in a significant way if one or several of those players miss extended time. This is still one of the better teams in the league, but it’s at least concerning that Aaron Rodgers doesn’t seem to think he can win it all with this team and, even if he does return, there would be several teams that have a better chance at winning the whole thing. I will have a final prediction for the Packers at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.
8/8/21 Update: The Packers have resolved the situation with Aaron Rodgers for the time being and have added needed veteran depth at wide receiver and on the offensive line with Randall Cobb and Dennis Kelly. However, their below average special teams are more important than I originally realized, so they are still outside of the top contenders.
9/4/21 Update: The Packers figure to be a playoff team in 2021, but I would expect them to take a step back from 2020 unless Rodgers can repeat one of the best couple seasons of his career. It took an MVP performance from Rodgers to get them to 13 wins last season and the Packers’ offensive line is much more of a concern this season due to depth issues and the absence of left tackle David Bakhtiari for the first 6 weeks of the season. I have them losing the division on a tiebreaker to a Vikings team that should be much improved defensively in 2021.
Prediction: 11-6 2nd in NFC North