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.
Another good article Rob! To me, the few surprises that I noticed was how P. Smith has declined (either by regression, or scheme); Tonyans’ emergence; Barnes’ hustle; Wagner stepping up to the plate when needed; and Turners’ versatility on the O line. King never was a great tackler, Kirksey hasn’t impressed much, and we are seeing Gary becoming a force off the edge. Savage has blossomed, and Amos has been under appreciated since he came to town. On offense, Rodgers, Bahk, Jenkins, Adams, Linsley, and Jones are top line players. On defense, Clark, Alexander, Amos, and Z. Smith are top line players with Savage, Barnes and Gary coming on. At the beginning of the year, I didn’t think we would have been better than we were last year. (ie the draft). I had a feeling the offense would be better because of being in the 2nd year of the system; but had big doubts about the defense. Special teams—— no comment! The team has become more dynamic with speed, better athletes, some key additions and good game plans. Gentleman, we have a pretty good team!
Although not always factually correct, your article shows me the time and the thought you invested in this article
I do believe that Wagner, Turner, have improved, i also concur that Jenkins is showing to be versatile. PFF doesn’t grade him very high in comparison of Linsley and Bakh, but regardless, he shows up and battles in respectable fashion. He’s a warrior.
The O line given their due. Lets not escape the fact full implementation of the 2nd year offense, and Rodgers quick release and having somewhere to go with the ball, is a huge help to the O line over last season.
(btw…Wagner plays offensive snaps).
We disagree a bit on Kenny Clark. If we’re talking about stepping up over seasons past. Clark’s play has been ok. But he’s had more impact in previous years.
As far as Rashan Gary. (12th pick of the draft) not 19th.
Gute created the clusterfuck of Rashan Gary, not Rashan Gary. He shouldn’t be judged too harshly on the mistake of someone else.
I know two things about Rashan Gary….
1) The more snaps he plays, the more productive he is. I’m not saying he’s blue chip, or his draft slot was justified. I’m saying he deserves a chance.
2) The only reason, the one and only reason Gary isn’t starting. Is because of Preston Smith’s contract. He’s outplayed Smith imo. But you’d like to see more tackles.
I’m not entirely a Rashan Gary fan at this point yet. What i am…is someone who knows a #12 pick should get a chance to prove himself as a starter. He’s at least earned that.
Some others need to be more consistent, but why quibble…great article Rob.
Ya, I think we’re beyond the point that Gary should start over P. Smith. He’s earned it. I agree with you on P. Smith starting only because of his contract. I might be wrong on this but, hasn’t Clark been battling injury earlier in the season? The last few weeks he has been playing better though. Maybe the addition of Snacks will take some of the double teams off Clark.
The article is about players who stepped up play over last season. Kenny Clark hasn’t outplayed his previous season(s), injuries or no injuries. That isn’t a knock on Clark, but he doesn’t qualify.
Much the same reason why you don’t see the Smith Bros. listed. Although the Z Man had 4 FF’s. 3rd best in the league. His season was fairly equal with last season, sans the FF and PFF grade.
Very good Rob. I would suggest that if Lazard is listed as upping his game from last year you should consider MVS has upped his game considerably from last year. I know it is maddening when MVS drops the ball, but to me going from 452 receiving yards to 690 is a good increase. 2 TDs in 2019 to 6 TDs this year is an admirable increase. The substantial increases is on only 7 more targets this year than last year. I also think a 17.4 yard per reception last year to 20.9 this year is a good increase. All that and having a better catch %, though not by much is a plus. I would also bet that is you asked LaFleur MVS has upped his game in blocking by leaps and bounds from last year. Despite the maddening drops it appears to me MVS has become a much better hands catcher as the season has progressed. I think we should consider MVS as having upped his game from last year.
Let’s hope MVS can pull a James Jones and turn those butterfingers of his into some sticky fingers. Or, at least give the term butterfingers a new meaning similar to the Butterfingers candy bar that sticks to your teeth like cement.
And he dramatically improved the team with all that yardage – that makes 18.
MVS has speed that defenses have to respect (granted defenses can take their chances that he may drop a home run ball). In other words defenses play differently when MVS is in the game. This quality (speed) is being used by LaFleur to manipulate the defense at times.
I would agree with Howard on MVS. At least he makes a case for improvement. It’s just that MVS is so maddening as a fan, He makes incredible plays one minute, then the next minute you wonder how he made the roster cut.
His catch rate did improve, but his “improved” catch rate is still far below acceptable.
I guess as long as he’s cheap, he has a home.
The best case you can make with Lazard is he equaled last years numbers in 6 less games. So is it actual improvement, or is it potential improvement IF he wasn’t injured?
You can give Lazard the Hometown pass on that i guess, but i’m not putting him ahead of Gary and Turner.
Stepped up, or improvement to me means, you stepped up and improved over the previous season.
Not…he would have if he wasn’t injured. i’m nitpicking , i get it.
But i live in black and white world, gray was never my color.
“The Browns, is the Browns, and I can’t wait to play them again”; was the quote from Smith-Shuster last thursday at the Steelers presser! This guy just doesn’t learn. He runs off at the mouth, dances on the other teams’ logo, and makes a fool of himself on social media. The guy is wearing out his welcome in Pittsburgh. Also, am I the only one who thinks Big Ben is finished? He threw 4 picks, and he didn’t even make an attempt to try to recover the high snap near the goal line to start the game. Tomlin made a statement earlier last week, that he thought there was something not right about his team. The Steelers sure have had more than their fair share of malcontents. Anyway, I’m happy for the Browns fans, who have suffered a long time!
He looked like brett bielema. A fat drunk. Big Ben was a transcendent talent…but hes just there for the 40 million dollar paycheck at this point.
Rodgers and brady are aging….and discuss at length their extreme dedication to off the field work in the offseason. Weight lifting…diet…etc. I’ve never heard anything like that with Big Ben Rapelisberger.
Big Ben just looks like a fat has been. He can still throw a great ball some of the time…but hes just too inconsistent now.
Mick, when i saw that high snap over Bens head, and neither him nor Connor wanted to put much effort to fall on it, from there, i wanted the Browns to win.
It reminded me of Cam’s fumble in the SB when he declined to go after his fumble. This is the NFL boys.
When AB was going through all his juvenile antics with the Steelers, it was Ju Ju who was performing and acting mature.
There must be something in the water there,
“Bad loss, but um, the Browns are going to clapped next week so it’s all good.” -Chase Claypool
Sounds like someone is butthurt. Must be from the giant ass clapping he took last night.
Seeing Ben sit there on the bench looking all sad at the end of the game was a funny cherry on top of a tasty Brownie Sundae.
Ben was shown sitting with Pouncy.
Those two were responsible for 5 turnovers (with an assist to Connor).
Claypool can be a dick all he wants, what he said was stupid. Maybe that will make Claypool feel better sitting on the couch in his house eating cheetos watching the Browns play this weekend.
In what world… do you turn the ball over 5 times in one game, and expect to win?
Moving on to our match against the rams. This is the match up i was genuinely terrified of given how the rams defense matches up and the familiarity of the coaches. Donald collapsing the middle is an absolute game changer in any game…but even more so when your qb is aging and Adams isnt a guaranteed 7 yard catch like he is most games.
However….packers earned home field which should be a nice advantage against a team from LA…and the rams have donald and Goff really banged up.
I like our chances…but we will see who steps up outside davante cause ramsey is a straight killer.
LaFleur will have to come up with a good game plan this weekend against the Rams. I’m thinking that the Rams are going to cover Adams with Jalen Ramsey all game long. It will be important to run the ball and Rodgers will have to scan the field for other options. This will be a stern test against a great defense. Also, slowing down the rookie running back (Akers) , will be key; and force Goff, with his injured thumb, to win the game. The Pack will have to keep Ramsey and Donald from taking over the game. McVay vs LaFleur————- can’t wait!
You’re right Stig! Big Ben looks like the out of shape beer drinker trying to compete with stallions. He has talked about retiring for quite some time now,,,,,,,,, I think he should follow thru on that retirement!