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Rising Stars Have Come Out of Nowhere in Packerland

Something quite unexpected has been occurring in recent weeks that must have team GM Brian Gutekunst uttering a sigh of relief. The performance of the Packers’ youthful receivers has been stunning – they are improving, literally by leaps and bounds, before our eyes.

For the most part over the last two decades, Green Bay has relied on obtaining talented players via selecting them high in the draft. All three of their top picks of 2019 are already contributing: Rashan Gary, Darnell Savage, and Elgton Jenkins. The Class of 2017 was also a good one, featuring Aaron Jones, Kevin King, and Jamaal Williams.

The Packers also invested a boatload of money on four free agents in 2019, which has turned out pretty well despite the cost.

What GM Brian Gutekunst and the team’s coaching staff have failed to do though, is turn lightly-regarded collegians into sound NFL players, much less stars. That appears to be changing, however. Undraft-and-develop is suddenly the method that’s producing dividends in Green Bay.

QB Aaron Rodgers with WR Allen Lazard

Nov 29, 2020; Green Bay, Wisconsin, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) talks with wide receiver Allen Lazard (13) during warmups prior to the game against the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Allen Lazard, who went undrafted out of Iowa State in 2018, has arrived. Though he’s missed almost two months of the season, Rodgers has targeted him at least four times in all five games he’s played, and he’s caught 19 of those 27 throws.

Lazard has continued to expand on the talent he teased us with during the second half of the 2019 season. Rodgers doesn’t hesitate to look his way in key third-down situations or when in the red zone. The offense is noticeably more dangerous when Lazard is on the field.

In the Packers’ first drive against the Bears, when faced with a third and seven, Rodgers hit Allen crossing over the middle, but four yards short of the marker. Lazard simply hurled himself into the air over two defenders and somersaulted his way to the first down. That play is going on my 2020 top-five list of effort plays for the Packers.

Lazard can run all the routes, and his athleticism and desire is apparent on almost every play. He’s also got a large catch radius. The 24-year-old would have been a worthwhile round-two or round-three pick – to get him as an undrafted free agent was a stroke of good fortune.

Green Bay Packers TE Robert Tonyan

Green Bay Packers tight end Robert Tonyan (85) celebrates scoring a touchdown against Chicago Bears free safety Eddie Jackson (39) during their football game Sunday, November 29, 2020, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis.

My other under-the-radar rising star is Robert Tonyan. It’s taken a little longer for Big Bob, who went undrafted out of Indiana State in 2017, but he’s firmly worked his way into the starting lineup this season. How far has Tonyan come in so short a time? In his two prior seasons, Big Bob had only 14 catches and he had fewer than 200 yards of production. As with Lazard, Rodgers has gone to him on many key plays. To date in 2020, Tonyan has caught 37 of the 42 balls that have been thrown his way – a remarkable percentage, especially considering that the duo has hooked up on several deep balls. Tonyan has averaged an outstanding 12.4 yards per reception on the season.

Last week Paul Noonan did a post titled “Robert Tonyan is playing like the best tight end in the NFC this season.” He proceeded to back up his lofty claim pretty well. Tonyan isn’t among the leading tight ends in terms of total yardage gained, but for those who follow “advance rankings” (I don’t), Noonan said his DYAR tight end ranking was second to Travis Kelce, and his DVOA ranking was at the top of the list.

Tonyan had what’s becoming a typical game against the Bears: five targets, five catches, for 67 yards, and including a 39-yard touchdown catch after beating safety Eddie Jackson, a first-team All Pro in 2018. Even though his playing time has been somewhat limited, Tonyan’s seven TD catches has him tied with two other tight ends for tops in the league. The guy always seems to be open, and he does indeed have a big, imposing, and muscular physique – but he’s also agile.

After three years of raining heavy criticism on Gutey for not supplying Rodgers with top-notch receivers, I’m prepared to say that the current grouping of Davante Adams, Allen Lazard, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and tight end Robert Tonyan, are among the best such foursomes in the league. It’s flabbergasting, but it’s true.

Though the Packers might seem to lack depth after the above group (though not so much at tight end), I won’t be surprised if yet another non-drafted receiver follows in the footsteps of Lazard and Tonyan. Like his mates, Malik Taylor, who went undrafted out of Division II Ferris State in 2019, has the look of a solid professional – he too has plenty of size, good speed (4.48 dash time), and lots of athleticism.

Nov 29, 2020; Green Bay, Wisconsin, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) celebrates with wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown (19) after clinching a victory against the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field. Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Nor should we write off Equanimeous St. Brown, who has made the most of his brief appearances in the past two games: he’s caught three of three targets, for just over 20 yards gained per catch – and twice he has on his own gotten extra yardage after the catches.

Just a month ago, there were mounting calls for Gutekunst to be replaced. These were based mostly on his inability to provide his quarterback with talented receivers, and his defense with talented run-stopping linebackers.

In light of the recent play of these uncelebrated Packers receivers, however, I’d say Gutekunst’s future as GM is suddenly looking very secure. Now, if he and the coaching staff could only unearth a capable inside linebacker, or two. . .

Tags:
Rob Born

Smart drafters don’t select the best available players, they fill a team’s positions of greatest need.

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27 Comments

  1. stiggy December 2, 2020

    I loved the “Kittle route” td the packers set up for Tonyan against the bears. Its was a Supreme example of play stacking and I saw the niners do that to the packers last year.

    Reply
  2. Howard December 2, 2020

    Rob, very good. You have just made the final argument, if all other statistics are close to equal, why Aaron Rodgers will be this years MVP.

    Reply
    1. PF4L December 2, 2020

      ^^^^^^^^

      Reply
      1. PF4L December 2, 2020

        I should expand…
        It’s not just Rodgers, it’s teamwork between Rodgers, LeFleur, Hackett, and their open minds and working relationship.
        It’s team mates learning their roles, their assignments better in the 2nd year. including the O line.
        It’s partly Gute for Jenkins and Turner. It’s everything on offense coming together in the 2nd season.
        In time (next season)…teams will have tape, study it, and defend the Packers better. at that point it’s up to the offense as a whole, to adjust, and continue to prosper (add talent).

        Team defense’s in the NFL adjust to change quickly. We saw how the RG3’s of the world, Kaepernick, Lavar Houston had initial success as rb’s playing QB. But unless they can play in the pocket, and grasp the mental aspect, it’s almost always….very, very, short lived.
        .
        I’m damn proud of the Packer offense this season, accomplishing what they have, with an unexperienced, unproven group of pass catchers (sans Adams). Damn proud.
        .
        Sure…it would be nice if Rodgers won MVP. But even if he doesn’t, that’s ok, Wilson and Mahomes are deserving also.

        Reply
        1. PF4L December 2, 2020

          *Lamar Jackson….my bad
          My Black Russian addiction is going to be the end of me someday.

          Reply
  3. PF4L December 2, 2020

    WOW!…where to start…..

    Reply
  4. PF4L December 2, 2020

    Yea :)… i just can’t crown an underserving GM..part time players, players who live on IR and the injury list. Big money spent on 3 Def, free agents, although truth,,,our defense turned out being worse this season. By worse, i mean regressed. By regressed i mean the defense gives up 6 PPG more than last season despite the high priced def free agents. Maybe that’s “turned out pretty well” in your eyes. We just played the bears 31st ranked offense and gave up 25. What have we accomplished?
    Look…i’m not going to infuse the realty of truth into this discussion, it’s not my parade
    .
    So….i decided i’m not going to rain on this parade. Lets concentrate on how were going to look good beating yet, another bad team.
    But lets keep in touch, when this team shows us something in the playoffs, an improvement from a year ago, then lets chat.
    Hand out the Crowns….have a good time.
    Stay Thirsty.

    Reply
  5. Dennis Dervetski December 2, 2020

    ILB has never been a prioty or addressed by the Packers.

    Reply
  6. Ferris December 2, 2020

    Fuller on the Roids! Image if they traded for him.

    Reply
  7. Skinny December 2, 2020

    You’ll get my response on where this team is going after the Titan game in three weeks.

    Reply
    1. JustNorthOfTheWall December 3, 2020

      Let’s hope they are resting Henry for the playoffs by then!

      Reply
      1. PF4L December 3, 2020

        I’m not so sure it will be a good test for the Packers if they sat Henry.
        .
        I’m going to stick with my game plan. We’ll see what we have in this team, in the playoffs, when it matters.

        Reply
  8. Mick December 3, 2020

    Not only has ILB not been addressed but, also D-linemen. Other than Clark, what do they have? Keke, Lowry, Lancaster, M. Adams! None of those 4 can hold up against the run adequately. Let’s hope the 2 big guys, Rush and Wynn; can bolster the run defense and that would benefit the ILB’s as well. I think Martin and Barnes are better tacklers, and offer more speed than Kirksey. Keke is young and have shown flashes but, Lowry and Lancaster have been around long enough to prove themselves. They are just average;;;; at best. M. Adams can’t stay healthy, and is only average. Pettine loves pass rushers and he has plenty of them; however, playing OLB’s/ pass rushers on the line of scrimmage, against the run, is inviting the other team to run, run, and run some more. Edge rushers playing inside on the line of scrimmage, opens up the outside running lanes and puts even more pressure on the ILB’s and secondary. Hey Gute, fix the obvious problems on the defense!!!!!!!!

    Reply
    1. PF4L December 3, 2020

      It all comes down to one simple question.
      .
      Is this years defense better than last years defense?
      .
      I don’t see many fans offering their opinion on that. Maybe it’s a question nobody wants to answer.

      Reply
  9. PF4L December 3, 2020

    I look at some of the names in this article, worthy of a pat on the back i guess.
    .
    Rashan Gary was going to be given more playing time, so he could better exhibit his skills and 2nd year leap.
    It’s held true…so far this season he has played in 306 snaps (and counting). Last year he got 244 snaps total.
    He has surpassed his sack total with those extra snaps. 2 sacks in 2019. 2.5 sacks so far this season
    Solo tackles are on about the same pace…13 last season, 9 this season, but with 62 more snaps this season. FF’s are the exact same…zero
    The good news…his PFF score did improve…54.1 in 2019…..58.9 in 2020. I’m ready for that 3rd year leap.
    Sometimes…(especially with the #12th pick of the draft) you have to ask yourself…does this guy move the needle. I’m sure if you listen to Pettine or Gute, he’s on the verge of being All-Pro.
    …………………………………………………
    Kevin King is playing for a contract, so you know he’s stepping it up.
    When available, King has blessed the Packers with 3 passes defended and zero picks. Last season he had 1 sack, 1 FF, 5 picks
    PFF grades….2019 – 62.5……2020 – 61.7
    Yes..i know he was injured. But again…the question is….is this years defense improved over last years defense?
    Frankly, i didn’t see much drop off with Sullivan
    ……………………………………………………………….
    I’m not going blast on Kenny Clark, but his production is nowhere near the last 3 seasons, which got him that FAT new contract.
    Time to start earning. Nothing is worse…than watching a guy’s play fall, after getting paid. See Nick Perry
    ………………………………………
    Now, moving on…Preston Smith…Z Smith, Lowery. Improved play over last season?
    Look, lets stop this madness…i’d go through the numbers. but i’m getting tired of typing and i think we all know where this is going and frankly….it’s depressing.
    ………………………………………..
    I’m going to go out on a limb and publicly announce that i don’t think their is any magic potion that this defense could take to magically make them a viable Championship defense in the playoffs.
    Can the improvements made in the offense make up for the regression of the defense? Usually not in the playoffs.
    A win over the Titans doesn’t change any of these facts.
    …………………………………………………
    Next time we get an article clouting the 2019 draft, and Ted’s 2017 draft, lets not leave out the 2018 and 2020 draft. After all…we did get one good player out of those 2 drafts.
    …………………………………………..
    In closing…The only guy who looks like a genius this season is LaFleur. One could argue he’s also responsible for the defense as Pettine is under his rule. But we all know that isn’t true.
    Pettine will be the fall guy right after the playoffs, and i’m sure Murphy will act like he had nothing to do with Pettine.

    Reply
    1. Dean December 3, 2020

      It seems to me that Rashan Gary is getting double teamed allot — maybe even more than Clark or Smith when Gary is playing. Can anyone who watches the film several times comment on this?

      Reply
      1. Howard December 4, 2020

        I don’t see Gary getting double teamed that often. It may appear that way because the Bears did chip Gary two or three times with backs and TEs when going out on routes. In the Bears game a guard peeled back once or twice and hit Gary, but guards are trained to do that when they are not engaged. I think the Bears were just nervous of their linemen in pass pro across the board. I will say Gary can quickly move back tackles with a bull rush. I wish the Packers would let Gary put his hand on the ground more often. To me Gary gets off the ball faster in a three point stance and engages with lower pad level.
        .
        One interesting thing about the bears pass protection against the Packers. On both of Trubisky’s interceptions the Bears kept in seven blockers. This allowed the bears to only put three receivers in routes. It was no wonder Trubisky looked like he was throwing into double and triple coverage on the interceptions. Trubisky makes slightly better decisions when he has more options. ;-)

        Reply
    2. Dean December 3, 2020

      Best thing to help our defense is to score a bunch of points early and force the the other team to pass the ball all the time. In other words, a scoring shootout. GB is well suited for that type of game.

      Reply
      1. PF4L December 4, 2020

        Jan. 12th 2013
        Reporter: Mr. Capers…what needs to happen for the defense to play better next season?
        Dom Capers: The offense needs to score more points

        Reply
  10. Mick December 4, 2020

    Do you mean….. “mr play not to lose Capers” ? Seems that virus is still in the air at 1265 Lombardi and Pettine has caught it!

    Reply
    1. Howard December 4, 2020

      I would compare Pettine more to 1st Lieutenant Norman Dike (band of brothers) than Capers. When Pettine needs to move forward or remain aggressive he has to sit down by a pile of hay, and determine if his troops are to remain in place, or fall back.
      .
      LaFleur needs to find a Captain Spears to relieve Dike of his command. The problem is there is no Spears available at this time of year to replace Dike. For the remainder of this year LaFleur would need to take more command and yank Dike away from that pile of hay, or Dike’s troops take command and leave Dike behind.

      Reply
      1. PF4L December 4, 2020

        My guess is Murphy takes the training wheels off and LeFleur gets to pick his own Coordinator (soon).

        Reply
  11. Stickman December 4, 2020

    I would play 54 & 51 as much as posible this year and change to a 4-3 D next year. Find a new good D-coach and let’s win a couple.

    Reply
  12. Mick December 5, 2020

    Yup LaFleur should be able to select his own coaches/coordinators. After all he knows more about football and the teams’ needs than Gute. Want proof? Look at this past draft I rest my case! Also, I agree 54 and 51 should be playing more; they are better athletes than Kirksey and Summers. But, can they stay healthy and be disciplined enough to be trusted? Only playing time and experience fixes that—– as we all know.

    Reply
    1. PF4L December 6, 2020

      “……. knows more about football and the teams’ needs than Gute.”
      .
      And Murphy…the ultimate decision maker.

      Reply
  13. Mick December 6, 2020

    Amen! Murphy the ultimate decision maker? Now that’s a sobering thought.

    Reply
    1. PF4L December 7, 2020

      This can’t be new news to you.
      .
      You are aware, it’s how it is, it’s realty.

      Reply

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