Class of 2019, Not 2020, Holds Key for Packers

Bill Huber

GREEN BAY, Wis. – For the Green Bay Packers, as is the case for perhaps every team in the league, the personnel focus has been on the 2020 draft class. After all, everyone loves a shiny new toy, and the Packers acquired nine of them.

However, even under the best of circumstances, rookies tend to take a back seat to veterans. Veteran players know the system and they’ve had a year of NFL strength and conditioning training. The rookie class is learning the playbook from scratch and went right from their final college season to Combine training.

To be sure, games started isn’t the best way to measure the impact of any player. Still, it’s worth nothing that only 10 rookies last year started all 16 games. In addition, only seven started 15, seven started 14 (including Green Bay safety Darnell Savage and guard Elgton Jenkins) and three started 13. Just 32 rookies started 12-plus games. With the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s rookie class will face an even bigger challenge moving into the starting lineup.

Thus, while there’s been plenty of talk about the potential impact of second-round running back AJ Dillon and third-round tight end Josiah Deguara, the truth is it will be up to Rashan Gary, Jace Sternberger and the rest of the 2019 draft class to step up if the Packers are going to take a step forward this season.

Here’s a look at last year’s eight-man class:

First round – OLB Rashan Gary. Gary, the 12th pick of the draft, had two sacks while playing behind the standout tandem of Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith. Brian Burns, who was the 16th pick by Carolina, had 7.5 sacks. Montez Sweat, who was the 26th pick by Washington, had 7.0 sacks. Chase Winovich, a third-round pick by New England who was Gary’s teammate at Michigan, had 5.5 sacks. “We’re looking forward to Rashan making a big jump. It’s a shame that he didn’t have this in-person offseason,” defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said. There’s a lot of snaps available with the departure of Kyler Fackrell and the desire to take the workload off the Smiths.

First round – S Darnell Savage. The 21st pick of the draft earned all-rookie accolades. Savage started 14 games – missing two games with an injured ankle – and tied for second among all rookies with two interceptions. Of 13 safeties to play at least 160 coverage snaps, Savage ranked fifth with 33.3 snaps per receptions allowed, according to Pro Football Focus. He has the speed to be an eraser in the secondary. On the other hand, he dropped two interceptions and missed an appalling 20 tackles (including playoffs) by our count.

Second round – G Elgton Jenkins. Jenkins replaced injured Lane Taylor for the final 14 games and earned all-rookie honors. Of eight rookie guards to play at least 200 pass-protecting snaps, Jenkins was the only one to not allow a sack. Jenkins, for his part, played 570 pass-protecting snaps. With a no-nonsense personality, Jenkins has the goods to be a Pro Bowl player. “Just trying to be the best in the league,” Jenkins said last season. “If you want to be the best, there’s always things you can work on. You can never be complacent with your job and the things that you’ve accomplished. So, you critique every small thing. When you’re doing everything to the best of your ability, eventually, everybody will label you as the best.”

Third round – TE Jace Sternberger. Sternberger’s season was derailed by a concussion suffered during a joint practice against Houston and an ankle injury in the preseason finale that sent him to injured reserve for half the season. He didn’t catch any passes – 17 rookie tight ends caught at least one – though he did have three receptions for 15 yards and one touchdown in the playoffs. Even as he emerged with a larger role in the playoffs, he was looking ahead eagerly to 2020. With the release of Jimmy Graham, the starting position is Sternberger’s for the taking.

Fifth round – DT Kingsley Keke. After being inactive for the first two games, Keke played 94 snaps and finished 19th on the team with 11 tackles. He showed just enough potential and explosion to suggest he could take a big second-year jump. With the desire to take some of the workload off Kenny Clark’s play, the relatively disappointing season from Dean Lowry and Tyler Lancaster and no major additions to the group, opportunity is pounding on Keke’s door. “That’s somebody that we’re looking forward to having a much more increased role,” Pettine said.

Sixth round – CB Ka’Dar Hollman. Hollman played four snaps and was inactive for a team-high 12 games. At 6-foot and with 4.38 speed, his upside is obvious. With Tramon Williams still unsigned and with Kevin King entering his final season under contract, Hollman’s development will be important.

Sixth round – RB Dexter Williams. Williams played 10 snaps and carried five times for 11 yards. It perhaps was noteworthy that in his discussion of the running back corps recently, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett mentioned Dillon and Tyler Ervin but not Williams. For Williams to stick around, he’ll need to take a big step forward in the passing game.

Seventh round – LB Ty Summers. Summers didn’t play a single snap from scrimmage, though he led the special teams in snaps (311) and was third in tackles (seven). A scout from an AFC team recently spoke highly of Summers as a potential sidekick to Christian Kirksey. With the free-agent departure of B.J. Goodson, Summers has a shot to earn a big role.

Click here for the number of starts by draft picks for each team.