While the Green Bay Packers‘ quarterback situation remains up in the air entering training camp, the rest of the roster is still one of the very best in the NFL. With boatloads of potential on both sides of the ball, the Packers should have playoff aspirations even if their MVP quarterback is nowhere to be seen.
The Packers had the NFL’s #1 scoring offense in 2020, and they were paired with a consistently average defense. While the offense really can’t get much better than they were last season, the defense looks set to take a step forward in the upcoming season. They’ve returned virtually their entire unit from last year and while a change in defensive coordinator may take some getting used to, “the D-Train” has everything it needs to be a top-10 defense in 2021.
After losing to the San Francisco 49ers in the 2019 NFC Championship Game, the consensus opinion among NFL fans and analysts was that the Packers were going to take a step back in 2020. They didn’t. Instead they improved. If the Packers are to improve again this year, you’d have to think a Super Bowl win is on the horizon.
Let’s take a look at five areas where the Packers can improve in 2021.
5 – Rushing off the edge
While the Packers registered the same amount of sacks in 2020 as they did in 2019, it was clear to see that their pass rush regressed to some extent between the last two seasons. We saw improved production from 2019 first-round pick Rashan Gary, but it was neutralized by a major fall in production from Preston Smith. For the third consecutive year of his career Za’Darius Smith had a great season, but truthfully it wasn’t as impressive as his season prior when he led the entire NFL in pressures.
You could actually argue that the Smith Bros. regressed more than anyone else on the team this past season. Although much of this is because they set the bar so high in 2019.
Packers fans are hoping that 2021 is the season we see the big jump we were promised from Rashan Gary. Gary’s athletic upside is through the roof, it’s the only reason he was selected in the first round to begin with. Meanwhile if Preston can even remotely return to his 2019 play, and Za’Darius continues performing at a Pro Bowl level, the Packers should be set to improve on the edges in 2021.
4 – AJ Dillon receiving ability
Up to this point in his career, AJ Dillon has only really known one thing; running people over. And he’s really good at it. While that style got him through high school, college and his rookie season as RB3 on the Packers, the time has come for Dillon to diversify his skill set.
Dillon caught only 21 passes in three years at Boston College. Quite the contrast to his remarkable 845 rushing attempts in the same time frame. Last year, AJ made just three receptions while Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones combined for 78 total, so you can clearly see he has a big role to fill.
We’ve already heard that the Packers coaches are taking time to develop the 250lb powerback’s route running and hands. HC Matt LaFleur referred to Dillon’s receiving ability as “deceptive”. LaFleur said, “It’s rare that you see a guy that size able to catch the ball as fluidly and naturally as he can.”
AJ Dillon was mightily impressive in his rookie year, albeit in a small sample size. Dillon’s commitment and attitude is commendable and I have no doubt he’s putting in the work to take a big leap forward in the passing game next season.
3 – Linebacker play
It’s been a long time since the Packers truly valued the linebacker position, but it’s still an integral part of every NFL defense. Krys Barnes looks to fully take the reins as LB1 in his second season following a solid opening campaign as an undrafted rookie in 2020.
Kamal Martin set moderately high expectations during his red-hot training camp last year and despite battling multiple injuries, showed he’s capable of starting on this defense. However, some of Martin’s flaws became more and more noticeable as the season went on, putting into doubt whether or not he’s truly the answer at the position.
After a failed experiment on the edge, not much hope remains for Oren Burks. As for Ty Summers, he got some first-team reps at OTAs so we’ll see where that ends up. Following the release of Christian Kirksey, the Packers signed former Arizona Cardinal De’Vondre Campbell and drafted rookie Isaiah McDuffie to round out a pretty underwhelming linebacker group.
However, we have hope that new defensive coordinator Joe Barry, who was a linebackers coach on the Rams, is able to improve some of these young guys and finally solidify the Packers on the second level for the first time since the early 2010s.
2 – TE/FB Usage
I’m just going to say this now: Matt LaFleur is awesome at utilizing heavy offensive personnel, we just haven’t seen it yet. When the Packers drafted Cincinnati Bearcats H-Back Josiah Deguara, it quickly became clear in post-draft interviews that he was “Matt’s guy”. That was solidified in the season opener when Deguara was heavily featured early on before getting hurt.
Deguara battled injury for a few weeks, returned to play a few snaps in Week 4 vs. the Falcons before ultimately tearing his ACL and getting placed on injured reserve for the remainder of the season. With Deguara out for the season, AJ Dillon in the midst of a long battle with Covid-19, and Aaron Rodgers going scorched earth on the entire NFC, LaFleur never got the opportunity to implement his power running scheme he’s been cultivating ever since he arrived in Green Bay.
If the Packers enter the season without Rodgers at QB, expect to see much more heavy (12 and 22) personnel from LaFleur and OC Nathaniel Hackett as they attempt to play bully ball up the middle of opposing defenses. Providing everyone stays healthy, they have all the pieces to be very successful on the ground in 2021.
1 – Special teams
Oh boy. I think we were all a little too quick to forget just how downright abysmal this unit was last year. In case you need a reminder, the 2020 Packers special teams were:
- 29th in yards per punt
- 29th in yards per punt return
- 31st in yards per kick return
- 27th in yards per kick return allowed
- 32nd in yards per punt return allowed
Since 1978, only two special teams have ever allowed over 17 yards per punt return. They are the 2020 Green Bay Packers… and the 2010 San Diego Chargers. Yes, that is the 2010 San Diego Chargers, the team that had the NFL’s #1 offense AND #1 defense yet MISSED the playoffs because their special teams cost them game after game.
Matt LaFleur’s first call of action following the season was the firing of special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga. But instead of overhauling the unit and recruiting a new coach from elsewhere, LaFleur opted to promote from within, catapulting Maurice Drayton into the lead role.
All of the Packers’ primary special teams contributors are back too. Oren Burks, Ty Summers, Will Redmond, Vernon Scott and Ka’Dar Hollman are all still in town. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing at this point. As for the specialists themselves, Mason Crosby continues to age like a fine wine while JK Scott ages like milk on a Los Angeles balcony entering his fourth NFL season.
Do I have optimism that the Packers will figure out special teams this season? It’s hard to know. It really depends how much emphasis they place on it during practice. The Packers were so good at “actual football” last season that it masked the major special-teams deficiencies. They may not be so good at “actual football” this season, so they definitely need to figure this out.