2023: The Unveiling
Without reliving the unthinkable day too much, the Aaron Rodgers trade was finally sent through to the commissioner's office, and the final, most significant domino fell. A plan put into motion in 2018, the next era of Green Bay Packers football had arrived.
It is officially the Jordan Love Show.
No Rodgers. No Adams, Allen Lazard, or Randall Cobb. No Adrian Amos. No Robert Tonyan or Marcedes Lewis. No Mason Crosby. All of a sudden, the veteran presence in Green Bay vanished.
To open the 2023 season, the average age of the Packers was 25—the youngest roster in the NFL—and even younger if you only look at offense (24).
The overarching blueprint was finally rolled out in full, and besides Jordan Love, the 2023 rookies became a key component.
Like in 2022, the class needed to be built of as many day-one contributors as possible who could step in and start working through the growing pains together, with Love as the starter.
The desired result is that they develop chemistry as the season progresses, learn how to win on the job, and emerge as a threat for the next decade. But the downside also holds a significant impact, resulting in a catastrophic rebuild and many new faces, ultimately setting the franchise back years.
Simply put, the current rookie class needs to be impeccable.
As it stands now, the plan continues to trend up weekly, especially after consecutive wins against the Los Angeles Chargers, Detroit Lions, and Kansas City Chiefs to keep the Packers' playoff hopes alive.
While it'd be irresponsible to deem this class as the best in team history with entire careers still to play out, the first-year productivity from the 2023 class, by design, is off the charts.
Packers rookie pass catchers have accounted for 1,429 yards through 12 games, setting a franchise record with five games still remaining. The selections of Jayden Reed, Luke Musgrave, and Dontayvion Wicks are shaping up to be home-run picks.
Reed entered Week 13 leading the NFL in yards per catch from the slot (16.6) and the second-most touchdowns (4). Reed's dynamic playmaking ability as a runner has added a new wrinkle to Green Bay's offense. Wicks has been great in his own regard, posting the seventh-highest win rate against man coverage in the NFL (50%), and has been PFF's ninth-graded receiver since Week 11.
Through only 11 games, Musgrave found himself 22 yards shy of the Packers tight end rookie record for receiving yards (363) held by Bubba Franks. While he'll likely miss the remainder of the season, fellow rookie tight end Tucker Kraft has filled in seamlessly and looks like a player who can finally break the Packers' "third-round curse."
With Watson and Doubs having grown into becoming bonified weapons, in just two years, Gutekunst has pulled off an unprecedented rebuild of Packers pass catchers. It might have come later than many would have liked, but the Packers have surrounded their quarterback with a strong wide receiver room.
The defensive rookies tell a similar success story.
Between Lukas Van Ness, Colby Wooden, and Karl Brooks, through Week 13, they've produced 39 pressures and five sacks. Sure, the sack numbers are low, but the tape for all three has spoken for itself. They're disrupting the quarterback, not allowing plays to develop, and quickly turning into playmakers.
Carrington Valentine and Anthony Johnson Jr. have stepped in for injured starters in the defensive backfield and have done nothing short of continuously impress.
Finally, there's kicker Anders Carlson, who arguably has the greatest spotlight of the entire class with replacing the Packers' all-time leading scorer Mason Crosby. He's wavered a bit from 40 or more yards out but opened his career 7-7 on attempts. He's been perfect inside 40 yards (12-12) and passed his first test kicking in December in Green Bay, going 3-3 against the Chiefs.
The blueprint was not perfect, and many will argue it was the wrong tactic to avoid maxing out the final few seasons with Rodgers. While it was built to sustain success with Rodgers, it's clear now that Gutekunst's plans were always geared more toward a future after Rodgers.
His draft picks over the last four years make up almost the entirety of the Packers' roster in year one with Love under center, and it seems the team is fully coming together with the contributions of the 2023 rookies.
Per the Packers Dope Sheet, the offense has posted 375 or more yards in five consecutive games, their longest streak since 2013. The defense is surrendering the 10th-fewest passing yards (2,445), third-fewest passing touchdowns (13), and pressuring the quarterback at the ninth-highest rate (23.2%). Of course, it'd be nice if they could clean up the run defense. But it's hard to complain when they're allowing the ninth fewest points per game in 2023.
The culmination has been 11 of the 13 players selected in this year's draft looking like they'll be quality pieces, including backup rookie quarterback Sean Clifford, who played great in preseason and was tagged as the highest IQ player in the entire draft. It makes this class a historic success, helping the Packers overachieve in 2023 to the tune of a potential playoff appearance.
Entering the 2024 season, the Packers' young roster is already setting up to overtake the NFC North and make playoff runs once again. They'll have five picks in the top 100 of the 2024 draft, and Rodgers's $40 million in dead cap is coming off the books.
Thanks to a masterclass in building a roster around a first-year starting quarterback, and with Love and the rest of the roster excelling, a new championship window could already be forming in Green Bay.