GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers’ return to the NFC Championship Game, and their long-awaited return to the Super Bowl, doesn’t only hinge on the return of MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers. These five players must rebound during the 2021 NFL season.
DT Kenny Clark's Payday
Early in training camp last summer, the then-24-year-old Clark signed a four-year contract extension worth $70 million that left him feeling “blessed” and his hand “shaking” as he signed a deal that would tie him to Green Bay through 2024.
While it was a great year financially, it wasn’t a great year on the field. In 2019, Clark finished sixth in ProFootballFocus.com’s pass-rushing metric, which measures sacks, hit and hurries per pass-rushing snap, and seventh in PFF’s run-stop metric, a stat that essentially measures impact tackles. He was the only interior defender to finish in the top 16 in both stats; Clark, of course, was top seven in both.
In 2020, Clark was 42nd out of 115 in PFF’s pass-rushing metric, his pressure count plunging from 62 pressures and six sacks to 28 pressures and two sacks, and 23rd out of 101 in run-stop percentage. He had 41 tackles in 595 snaps, a rate of one for every 14.5 snaps. That was down sharply vs. 2019, when he had 89 tackles and a tackle rate of 9.76 snaps. He had three stuffs – a tackle at or behind the line vs. the run. That’s as many as Montravius Adams despite playing 160 more run-defending snaps.
Clark must return to his dominant form. Simply put, there’s nobody else capable. The playoffs were a good indicator with 2.5 sacks. He was a stud in the NFC Championship loss to Tampa Bay with eight tackles, all of which came within 3 yards of the line of scrimmage.
OLB Preston Smith Was Major Disappointment
When the Packers signed Smith in free agency in 2019, it was fair to ask if he was worth the four-year, $52 million investment considering his rather ordinary production in Washington. The answer was a resounding yes. Smith had a career-high 12 sacks – as many as the previous two seasons combined – and joined Za’Darius Smith as driving forces in a defense that fueled a surprise run to the NFC Championship Game.
His 2020, however, was a major regression. Not only did he go from 12 sacks to four, but he went from 23 quarterback hits to 11 (official stats) and from 23rd with 55 total pressures to 61st with 26 (Pro Football Focus). The Packers restructured Smith’s contract, figuring it was a better investment to cut his cap charge of $16 million by about $7 million instead of swallowing a bunch of dead cap money. Smith can earn back his lost wages with a bounce-back season.
CB Kevin King's Injuries
Almost nothing King could do could possibly erase the mistake of former general manager Ted Thompson bypassing T.J. Watt and drafting King in 2017. It’s not King’s fault that Watt is a three-time All-Pro and one of the best big-play pass rushers in the NFL. But at least King had his 2019 season to reduce the sting. Finally staying healthy after playing less than one-third of the defensive snaps his first two seasons, King ranked among the NFL leaders with five interceptions and 15 passes defensed.
His 2020, however, was a major step in the wrong direction, a fact punctuated by giving up two touchdowns in the first half of the NFC Championship Game. Limited to 11 games by a quad injury, King had zero interceptions and five passes defensed. After giving up completion rates of 59.1 percent in 2017, 52.2 percent in 2018 and 60.2 percent in 2019, King gave up a 70.3 percent completion rate in 2020, according to PFF. Opponents beat him for a 115.0 passer rating.
The Packers re-signed him to a bargain contract but took out some insurance by using their first-round pick on Eric Stokes.
LT David Bakhtiari's ACL
Obviously, this one has nothing to do with level of play. Bakhtiari was named to the prestigious All-Pro team for a fifth consecutive season. Among offensive tackles, he ranked second in PFF’s pass-blocking efficiency, which measures sacks, hits and hurries per pass-protecting snap. Sports Info Solutions charged him with zero stuffs (a tackle at or behind the line) on running plays.
However, he played less than three-fourths of offensive snaps due to broken ribs at midseason and a season-ending torn ACL. The ACL, obviously, is the major concern headed into 2021. There aren’t 32 starting left tackles in the NFL, let alone competent ones hanging out on NFL benches. There are worse fallback plans than shifting left guard Elgton Jenkins or right tackle Billy Turner, but the game of musical chairs means lesser players at those positions, too. The sooner a fully healthy Bakhtiari returns to the lineup, the better it will be for Rodgers’ or Jordan Love’s well-being.
WR Allen Lazard's Hot Start
This one isn’t really about level of play, either. While Marquez Valdes-Scantling is a premier home-run threat, Lazard is the team’s best and most consistent receiver opposite Davante Adams.
That was evident in the Week 3 game at New Orleans. With Adams sidelined, Lazard had a massive night in the primetime victory with six catches for 146 yards and one touchdown. Through those three games, he was on pace to catch 69 passes for 1,355 yards and 10.7 touchdowns. However, he suffered a core-muscle injury in that game that required surgery. Not surprisingly, he wasn’t quite the same player upon his return.
Lazard had 13 catches for 254 yards in the first three games and 20 catches for 197 yards upon returning for the final seven games. However, he was an impact player in the playoffs with four receptions for 96 yards, including the clinching 58-yard touchdown vs. the Rams, and a pair of 23-yard catches to convert third downs in the NFC Championship.
Not only must Lazard stay healthy, he must catch the ball better. Of 92 receivers who were targeted at least 45 times, he had the eighth-highest drop rate (five drops; 13.2 percent), according to PFF.