In my previous post, I explored the likelihood that edge rusher Preston Smith might be a much better player in 2021 than he was last season. In Preston’s case, I believe he had a down season due to a lack of self-motivation, not lack of ability. As to any number of other returning players, but particularly those with superlative athleticism, I feel that an added year of experience, and pro coaching, will lead to still better performances. Late last season, I came up with a list, that eventually reached 20 players, of guys who “stepped up” in the course of the 2020 season (here). That’s a remarkable number; even so, the Packers continue to be a young team, with many players still having room to reach their performance peaks.
As to the best Packers players, I’ll grant you that Aaron Rodgers hasn’t left much room for improvement. Still what he accomplished last season was the first time that Matt LaFleur’s offensive schemes were mostly in place. Had Matt been previously brought on board, we can only guess at what Aaron might have achieved during the final couple of years of Coach McCarthy’s reign.
Though Davante Adams has also left little space for improvement, he did miss two games last season, and was less than 100% for some others. Also, as the season progressed, he was routinely double-teamed. If the other receivers can ramp up their games a bit, double-teaming Davante won’t be as effective.
As for David Bakhtiari, he’s been a peak performer for five years now. Assuming he fully recovers from his ACL injury, he should remain so for several more years.
Jaire Alexander, like Rodgers and Adams, was arguably the best there was at his position in 2020. If the Packers decide to line him up against the opposition’s best receiver, which they seldom did last season, I believe that he’d contribute even more to the team’s defensive posture.
My thoughts on Aaron Jones are fairly well known. In addition to getting a few more carries each game, if he is made a more integral part of the passing game, and not just used as a dump-off option, his total offensive production (runs and receptions) should increase by 300 yards or so.
I think it’s very likely that Elgton Jenkins will be named an All Pro in his third year; he achieved Pro Bowl status for the first time in 2020. He’s only 25.
Except for the departed Corey Linsley, that mostly covers the team’s acknowledged stars of last season. Let’s move on to those who are knocking on the door of NFL stardom.
In his sixth season, and second with the Packers, safety Adrian Amos surely had his best season ever. How did Pro Football Focus grade Amos on the year? Only two safeties were graded higher than 85.3 points by PFF: the Bengals’ Jessie Bates (90.1) and Amos (89.9). Now that Adrian’s talents are widely known, he should be in line for Pro Bowl and/or All Pro honors in 2021.
Next up is the Pack’s other safety, Darnell Savage. Having been drafted at pick 21 in 2019, having started for two full seasons, possessing 4.36 dash speed, and having risen to #17 (out of 94) on PFF’s player grade list, these all lead me to believe his next step will be to finish in the top 10 of PFF’s list, and be in the conversation for Pro Bowl and/or All Pro recognition. Could it be that Darnell will have a true breakout season in his third year, as did Alexander last season?
Tight end Robert Tonyan earned a couple of league-wide distinctions last season. First, he tied with Travis Kelce for the most touchdowns by a tight end, with 11. Second, he had the highest percentage of targets caught among all receivers (WRs and TEs), at just over 88 percent – and to that he added four more out of four throws, and another touchdown, in the playoffs. Moreover, he did this while starting only 8 games and getting only 61.4 of the offensive snaps on the year. Aaron Rodgers will surely be looking Big Bob’s way in 2021 (assuming he’s not picked off by another team by April 23).
Who’s next? I’d venture to say A.J. Dillon, who missed most of his rookie year due to injuries and being on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Like Savage, he’s a high draft pick, he wowed people in his only significant playing opportunity last year against the Titans, and he has an incredible physique. At right around 250 pounds, he’s one of the biggest running backs in league history; unlike most other huge backs, however, he’s all lean meat and muscle. I doubt that he’ll need years of development – he’s ready to excel right now.
Injuries prevented Allen Lazard from having a breakout season in 2020. After a very promising second half of the 2019 season, Allen played in only ten games, and started only three, last regular season. After getting off to a blazing start (13 catches for 254 yards and two TDs in the first three games), he incurred a freakish core muscle injury that caused him to go on injured reserve until late November. Back in good health for the postseason, in two games he had 13 catches for 158 yards and a touchdown. His 22.6 yards per catch was tops among all receivers in the postseason. At almost 6’5” and 227 pounds, it’s hard to believe he went undrafted in 2018.
Lazard wasn’t the only undrafted player whose 2020 season got derailed by injury. Despite there being no preseason games, Krys Barnes, just out of UCLA, was a surprise starter at ILB when the season opened. Krys played well, but not great, until being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list in November. Despite the setback, he came back to finish the season strongly against the Panthers, Titans, and Bears, totaling 27 tackles in those three wins. Despite getting only 41 percent of the team’s defensive snaps on the season, he finished with 80 tackles, second best on the team to Amos. The Packers think Krys has what it takes to anchor the team’s run defense: he’s instinctive, aggressive, tough, and covers a lot of ground.
I could include more players. Kenny Clark was another guy who missed much of last season due to a groin injury in Week 1 – he wound up with only 58 percent of the defensive snaps. Billy Turner probably had his best pro season last year, so he’s still on the ascendancy. Unless Preston Smith bounces back, Rashan Gary is poised to take over that starting job – stay tuned for a feature on his prospects in 2020. Is Marquez Valdes-Scantling about to become the next breakout player? Kingsley Keke? Jon Runyon? Maybe Josiah Deguara – yet another promising player felled by injury in 2020?
In sum, the Packers have no shortage of players – young, medium, and old, who are still getting better. They also have a head coach and an offensive coordinator who are about to begin a third year with the team they still have their peak years ahead of them. The coordinators for the defense and special teams underperformed and have been replaced – which might well bring a surge of improvement among those units and players.
Though the Packers have been unable to add to the roster by acquiring free agents, the good news is that they already have ample returning personnel to again take them far into the postseason. What gaps remain can, and must, be filled at draft time. Unlike last season, maybe they’ll heed my 2-part draft advice: (1) select players who can fill the team’s positions of greatest need; (2) in the top three rounds, select players who are already developed and ready to compete at the pro level.