If you read my post detailing how badly forecasters underestimated the Packers going into this season, you saw that there was a preseason perception the team had failed to improve upon the 2019 roster. The Packers were in for a “regression,” because they just didn’t have enough talent, enough firepower, enough stars to be a top-notch group.
The forecasters failed to take into account a bunch of things. For one, this was a young team, with many players just entering their prime years. For another, the coaches continued to install new plays, schemes, and strategies in 2020 – both offensively and defensively.
Most observers agree that things coalesced – seemingly both on offense and defense, in the second half of the 2020 season. Some point to the final six regular-season games, which all went into the win column; others note that when December weather arrived, the Packers were at their most competitive – four of those final six games were played in Green Bay, and a fifth was played in the cold at Soldier Field.
The following is my list of the team’s most improved players of 2020. To provide for some debate, I’ve rated them according to which players’ improvements resulted in the most overall improvement to the team.
The improvements between Rodgers’ previous season and 2020 are enormous: completion % – 70.7 vs. 62.0; yards per attempt – 8.2 vs. 7.0; touchdowns – 48 vs. 26; sacks 20 vs. 36; and passer rating of 121.5 vs. 95.4 – a ridiculous 26.1 point gain. Aaron’s consistency was also fabulous: he had only two games with passer ratings below 107. And if there were a statistic for clutch QB play, such as based on third down conversions and touchdowns when reaching the red zone, I’m sure Rodgers would be the hands-down winner there too.
2020 was either Rodgers’ best year ever or essentially tied with his MVP year of 2011. In just being named AP first-team All Pro quarterback, he captured 46 of the 50 votes (2 went to Josh Allen and 2 to Patrick Mahomes). A magnificent resurgence for the 37-year-old!
He belongs in a group with Robert Tonyan and Allen Lazard: though they had wonderful college careers (Krys at UCLA), each was somehow overlooked in the draft. The Packers gobbled him up and surprised everyone by starting him at inside linebacker in the season opener. Given the absence of preseason games and the limited team practices, it’s astonishing that he could beat out the competition in this way. Because Barnes was an NFL rookie, I could only compare him to his final year of college.
Though Kris missed four games due to being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list in November, he came roaring back to finish the season strongly against the Panthers, Titans, and Bears, with a total of 27 tackles in those three wins. On the year, he had 80 tackles (just 3 behind Amos for the team lead), five tackles for loss, and one sack. He was instrumental in slowing down Derrick Henry and the Bears’ David Montgomery, the league’s number 1 and 5 ground gainers, in the final two games. All season long Packers coaches raved about his instincts, how much ground he covers, and his toughness.
Similarly to his quarterback, the seventh-year wide receiver reached new heights in 2020, surpassing his efforts of 2018, his best previous campaign (he played in 15 games in 2018, 12 in 2019, and 13.5 in 2020): catches – 115 vs. 111; catches per target – 77.2% vs. 65.7%; receiving yards – 1,347 vs. 1,386; and touchdowns – 18 (league-leading) vs. 13. Adams was just named to the AP All Pro team, receiving 49 of 50 first-team votes. His highest previous personal honor was being named four times to the Pro Bowl team. We all knew how talented Davante was – now the whole planet knows.
Corey skyrocketed from no Pro Bowl or AP All Pro accolades during his first six years to first-team All Pro – not bad for a fifth-round draft choice. Corey received 18 votes, with no other center getting more than eight. Pro Football Focus graded him 89.9 on the season, almost 10 points ahead of the next-best center. Linsley is in the final year of his contract.
Amos caught fire in his second year with the Packers. After a steady season in 2019, and like so many of his teammates, Adrian busted out in the latter half of the year. I recall watching him go from average to climbing up the ladder of PFF’s player grades. Around the beginning of December I believe he was at around 14th or 16th. All of a sudden, at year’s end he was behind only the Bengals’ Jessie Bates on the player grades list. Amos, who stayed healthy all year, was one of those most responsible for the Packers allowing the following passing yardage over the final five games: 161, 242, 249, 104, and 248.
Big Bob came out of almost nowhere to tie superstar Travis Kelce for the most touchdown receptions by a tight end in 2020. After missing the season opener, Tonyan had one or more catches in each of the final 15 games. On the year, and despite sharing the tight end chores with others, he totaled 52 catches for 586 yards. As remarkable as his TD production, those 52 catches came from being targeted just 59 times, for a catch rate of 88.1%. Tonyan’s breakout season is a major reason the Packers scored touchdowns on 80% of the times they reached the red zone.
After being the 18th pick in the 2018 draft, Jaire has played well from the outset, but 2020 was the first time he was recognized as a Pro Bowler, and the AP also named him second-team All Pro. Just a few games into the season, opposing quarterbacks all but stopped throwing to his side of the field, and as the season progressed broadcasters were regularly referring to him as a “shutdown” cornerback. He has made several top receivers who’ve lined up against him disappear throughout a game. Despite seldom being challenged, Jaire still managed to get 13 passes defended on the year.
Midway through the season, Green Bay’s starting safeties weren’t generating a lot of headlines, but then they began turning up the heat. By season’s end, Darnell had zoomed up to being ranked by PFF as the #9 safety (out of 92). Over the final six games he and Amos were either the two highest rated safeties, or very close to it. Almost all of the 23-year old’s stats improved over his rookie season, including: 75 vs. 55 tackles, 12 vs. 5 passes defended, and 4 vs. 2 interceptions. The play of the safeties was a key to the team’s defense working its way up to seventh best pass defense and 13th best run defense. Broadcasters commented over how Savage was all over the field as the Pack made their playoff push. Darnell is another first-rounder (21st overall in 2019) who’s begun to return dividends – he’s put that 4.35 dash speed to great use in 2020.
Despite having a sterling career at Iowa State, this wide receiver went undrafted in 2018, and Green Bay didn’t sign him up until December of that year. It was during the latter part of 2019 that Lazard began to catch our attention, and he’s been producing ever since. He finished the 2019 season with 35 catches for 477 yards and 3 TDs. Though he statistically failed to match last season’s totals this year (33 catches, 451 yards, 3 touchdowns), it was only because he suffered a “core” injury that sidelined him for six games.in mid-season.
Like Tonyan, he has a good catch percentage, 71.7%, even though not being at full strength much of the time. He’s been one of Rodgers’ favorite targets when it comes to converting third downs. Allen’s improvement would have been more statistically noticeable but for his serious injury.
Gary, drafted 19th in 2019, received some harsh reviews that year, but primarily because his playing time was quite limited. In 2020, however, his snap counts went way up (from 244 to 456), along with his statistics. His tackles went from 21 to 35, tackles for loss from 3 to 5, sacks from 2 to 5, and most meaningful, QB hits from 3 to 11. It appears that Rashan will get more playing time as an edge rusher in the playoffs and in years to come. PFF rated Gary as the 48th best edge defender out of 115.
Rashan just turned 23 in December, so there’s plenty of time for him to continue his development. The Packers seem pleased with the progress he’s made this season, and he seems poised to take over the starting job from Preston Smith, who finished the season ranked #102 by PFF.
The 7-year veteran lived up to expectations in his first year in Green Bay. This season, however, he rose to the occasion when the O-line was ravaged by injuries, and proved to be both versatile and solid. Though PFF lists him at #45 out of 83 tackles, I feel he did a very commendable job, and was substantially improved compared to 2019 – especially as a pass blocker. The fact that Rodgers was sacked only 20 times on the year seems to bear that out – Billy was in there on over 85% of the team’s defensive snaps.
It’s hard to statistically rank nose tackles, but most observers say that Clark, a first-round pick in 2016, has gotten better each year in the pros, and had his best year this season – despite missing three games after injuring his groin in the season opener. Kenny didn’t get his snap counts regularly back up to the 70 or 80 percent range until the final five games of the season. On the year PFF ranked Clark as 30th out of 53 interior defenders. When fully healthy, Clark was noticeably more of a force in 2020 than in his prior four years.
Despite being just a fifth-round pick in 2017, this versatile guy just turned in his fourth strong rushing season in a row. It was also arguably his best, as he was rewarded by just being named a Pro Bowler for the first time. On the year, he reached a personal high of 1,104 rushing yards, and would have exceeded many other 2019 totals had he not missed two games in mid-season with a calf injury. Even so, his rushing average of 5.5 yards per carry was third-best among running backs, and his yards per game was fourth best – and this despite his rushing attempts being only tenth most.
David has had his share of awards: first-team All Pro in 2018, 3-time 2nd team All Pro, and 3-time Pro Bowler, but in 2020 he moved back from second-team to first-team All Pro. He received 26 votes from the AP, with no other left tackle getting more than 13.
If a recall correctly, this superb blocker didn’t allow a sack during his entire rookie season – making it difficult to improve upon. But improve he did, according to Pro Bowl voters, who named him one of the two starting guards for the NFC lineup. Jenkins was one of several Green Bay O-line players who switched positions often due to injuries to others, and did so seamlessly. The 25 years old and 44th overall pick in 2019 should be a mainstay on that Pro Bowl list for years to come.
Many thought Wagner was acquired to be a starter on the O-line. If so, he was initially beat out for the job by Lane Taylor, and later by Lucas Patrick. But once injuries mounted, Rick became the chief fill-in, and took the job back from Patrick. On the year, PFF rates him a respectable 25th out of 83 tackles. I’d say he’s more than lived up to GM Gutekunst’s hopes and expectations. He’s played every defensive snap, despite nursing injuries, a time or two over the team’s stretch run.
After no starts in his first season, Keke was a starter in nine games in 2020. His numbers went up considerably in his second year: 21 vs. 10 tackles, 3 vs. 0 tackles for loss, 8 vs. 1 QB hits, and 4 for 0 sacks. He was on the field for 40.3% of the defensive snaps, a big jump from his 9.0 percentage in 2019. He’s developing into being a formidable pass rusher.
In many cases, Packers players continued to play at or near their previous levels, so they aren’t included on the list. This group includes, offensively: Jamaal Williams, Marquez Valdes- Scantling, and Marcedes Lewis. On the defense, the list includes: Za’Darius Smith (named 2nd team All Pro, a first in his career), Dean Lowry, and Tyler Lancaster. I’d say that Chandon Sullivan and Raven Greene both showed a degree of improvement, but not markedly so. Several other players did not get sufficient playing time to be appraised.
Tops on this list has to be Preston Smith, followed by Kevin King – who I can’t imagine being back next year. Christian Kirksey was also a disappointment – though near season’s end, Mike Pettine changed his role, and he immediately started performing better.
In any given year, an NFL team probably expects about a half dozen players to show marked improvement over the previous season. This season, however, my survey counts 17 players as having significantly stepped up their game. This occurred across the board: the starring players got even better, and so did the mid-range talent, as did a few guys who barely saw the field or made an impact a year ago.
I think this explains why the Packers got to spend the weekend on their couches watching others do battle – having secured the #1 NFC playoff seed.
What are the causes for such a stunning escalation? Two come to mind. First, the team gained a largely new set of coordinators, position coaches, and even strength trainers two years ago. These guys were considerably younger and more energetic that those they replaced, and they both inspired and better educated the players. Second, new playbooks, formations, and schemes were fully implemented in LaFleur’s second year at the helm, which resulted in a more innovative, dynamic, and modern style of play.