GREEN BAY, Wis. – This could be a Super Bowl-or-bust season for the Green Bay Packers.
Or, as MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers put it, “Championship or disappointment.”
After a drama-filled offseason, Rodgers is back for his 14th season as the starting quarterback. But there’s no guarantee he’ll be back in 2022. And even if he is, there’s no guarantee he’ll be surrounded by a team anywhere close to this good.
General manager Brian Gutekunst robbed Peter to pay Paul to keep this team together for 2021. For 2022, however, the Packers are about $49 million over the salary-cap ceiling of $208.2 million. If that’s not bad enough, superstar receiver Davante Adams will be a free agent after this season. So will big-play receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling and touchdown-scoring tight end Robert Tonyan.
“Look, I think we all know what’s at stake,” Rodgers said. “I talked about that a little bit the other day about perspective and how important that perspective is to focus on this season and enjoy the most out of this season, because there are a lot of unknowns.”
Rodgers is one of the great quarterbacks in NFL history. However, he hasn’t won a Super Bowl since 2010. He led the team to a 15-1 record in 2011, and NFC Championship Games in 2014, 2016, 2019 and 2020. All five of those seasons ended in disappointment. The pressure is on to get over the hump.
Led by Rodgers and the top-ranked scoring offense in the NFL, the Packers had the best record in the league last season but squandered home-field advantage with a crushing loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Lambeau Field in the title game.
With Rodgers, Adams and an underappreciated group of skill players, the offense has plenty of firepower to run opposing defenses off the field. However, there’s one major question. Can the Packers survive without All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari, who suffered a torn ACL on New Year’s Eve and is starting this season on the physically unable to perform list? Led by Bakhtiari, who might be the best blocker in the game, Green Bay had arguably the best offensive line in the NFL last season.
Pro Bowl guard Elgton Jenkins moved to left tackle and had an excellent training camp, so Bakhtiari’s absence might not be a disaster. However, Jenkins isn’t as good as Bakhtiari at left tackle, Lucas Patrick isn’t as good as Jenkins at left guard, rookie Josh Myers isn’t as good as All-Pro Corey Linsley, who signed with the Chargers in free agency, at center, and rookie Royce Newman might not be as good as Patrick at right guard.
Packers OT Nijman Put Athletic Gifts Together in Training Camp
Note: This feature was published on Aug. 24 and was updated on Sept. 24 with the possibility Yosh Nijman will start at left tackle for the Week 3 game against San Francisco on Sunday.
If the blocking is good, the Packers will score a lot of points again. Adams, who led the NFL in receptions per game, yards per game and touchdowns per game during a banner 2020, was voted the best receiver in the NFL by his peers in NFL Network’s annual Top 100 Players series. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just Adams, though. Valdes-Scantling, one of the top big-play threats in the NFL, had a superb camp. Lazard is the unit’s “goon.” And the hands-of-glue Tonyan tied Kansas City star Travis Kelce for most receiving touchdowns by a tight end.
With do-it-all Aaron Jones and bruising AJ Dillon, the Packers will have one of the top backfield duos in the NFL. Their success is key because much of Matt LaFleur’s offense is based on passes that look like runs.
Green Bay finished ninth in total defense in 2020 and ninth in points allowed in 2019. However, with considerable resources dedicated to that side of the ball, LaFleur replaced Mike Pettine with Joe Barry as defensive coordinator. Everyone in the organization raves about Barry’s energy but, if that’s all that mattered, teams would hire an espresso machine to run their defense.
There will be no excuses because Barry has plenty of firepower. Kenny Clark is one of the top defensive linemen in the NFL. Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Rashan Gary form a high-quality edge trio. At cornerback, Jaire Alexander is arguably the best in the business, and Kevin King and slot Chandon Sullivan are returning starters. Plus, the team used its first-round pick on rocket-fast Eric Stokes. The safety tandem of Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage flourished during the second half of last season. Veteran addition De’Vondre Campbell looks like a real find at inside linebacker.
There are some concerns, though. This will be Barry’s third time running a defense. He flopped in Detroit and Washington, but those units were woefully undermanned. Clark must rebound from a so-so season to lift a so-so defensive line. Za’Darius Smith missed all of training camp with a back injury. Preston Smith had a horrible season last year and had to swallow an incentive-laden restructure. He had a superb camp. King spent big chunks of three of his first four seasons on the inactives list due to a litany of injuries. If he can’t stay healthy, is Stokes ready for prime time?
The big key will be turnovers. The Packers tied for 25th in takeaways last season, far too few considering the perceived level of talent.
12-5. This is a really good team with an elite quarterback, elite receiver, elite running back, a couple elite offensive linemen, an elite group of pass rushers, an elite cornerback and an elite safety combo. The schedule is tougher (on paper, at least), and the injury to Bakhtiari and the impact of Barry are the obvious wild cards. For all the offseason rancor, Rodgers is all-in on this season. So long as the Packers are healthy for the stretch run and don’t succumb to the immense pressure of what’s at stake, there’s no reason why this season can’t end with a championship instead of the usual disappointment.
Expected Depth Chart
Starting offense: QB Aaron Rodgers, RB Aaron Jones, WR Davante Adams, WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling, WR Allen Lazard, TE Robert Tonyan, LT Elgton Jenkins, LG Lucas Patrick, C Josh Myers, RG Royce Newman, RT Billy Turner. Key reserves: RB AJ Dillon, WR Randall Cobb, TE Marcedes Lewis, OT Dennis Kelly.
Starting defense: DL Kenny Clark, DL Dean Lowry, OLB Za’Darius Smith, OLB Preston Smith, ILB Krys Barnes, ILB De’Vondre Campbell, CB Jaire Alexander, CB Kevin King, CB (slot) Chandon Sullivan, S Adrian Amos, S Darnell Savage. Key reserves: DL Kingsley Keke, OLB Rashan Gary, CB Eric Stokes, S Henry Black.
Special teams: K Mason Crosby, P Corey Bojorquez, LS Hunter Bradley.