Twelve Who Must Bring Fourth of July Fireworks

Bill Huber

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers went 13-3 last season but the oddsmakers don’t love them in 2020. How do they take the next step after reaching the NFC Championship Game last season? These are 12 of the players who must deliver.

QB Aaron Rodgers: Some of the players on this list are obvious. Rodgers, of course, is one of them. The quarterback with the best passer rating in NFL history, Rodgers is the only quarterback in NFL history to throw for 4,000-plus yards, 25-plus touchdowns and four-or-fewer interceptions in a season. And he’s done it the last two seasons. However, he must be more accurate; he was in the bottom half of the league in adjusted completion percentage last year.

RB Aaron Jones: Jones is one of the team’s few proven playmakers, a fact that might not have been abundantly clear to coach Matt LaFleur at this point last year. After leading the NFL in rushing touchdowns and total touchdowns last year, a prolific encore would certainly help the Packers’ chances of playing deep into January and beyond. The starting point: staying healthy. Jones played all 16 games last season after playing in 12 in each of his first two seasons. Jones played 663 snaps last year after a combined 712 in 2017 and 2018. If Jones plays 650-plus snaps again, it’s hard to see the Packers falling short of the playoffs.

WR Davante Adams: As is the case for Jones, Adams is one of the team’s few proven playmakers. He’s never played a full 16-game season, including four missed games last season with turf toe. When he’s on the field, he’s an elite player. Even after he found the end zone only five times last season, Adams has a league-high 40 touchdown catches the last four seasons. Great players win football games and Adams is one of the greats.

TE Jace Sternberger: Will Sternberger be a stud? A dud? Something in between? It’s anyone’s guess at this point for last year’s third-round pick. Jimmy Graham was anything but great in his two seasons with the team but his 149 targets the past two seasons ranked eighth among all tight ends.

WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling: Valdes-Scantling fell off the face of the earth last season. The team’s anointed No. 2 receiver caught 5-of-19 passes for 36 yards in the final nine regular-season games. He played one snap in the NFC Championship Game. Still, he’s got what nobody else on the receiver corps has: game-breaking speed.

RT Rick Wagner: The Packers’ new right tackle will face a bunch of top pass rushers in 2020. It’s more than that, though. In three seasons in Detroit, Wagner missed eight games. Who, exactly, is the backup offensive tackle? Yosh Nijman, Alex Light or John Leglue? Playing musical chairs and inserting Billy Turner? There has been no interest in bringing back Jared Veldheer. So, Wagner must play and play well.

DT Kingsley Keke: Kenny Clark is a beast, Dean Lowry and Tyler Lancaster are role players, and Montravius Adams is heading toward being a bust. If there’s room for growth on the defensive line, it resides in the second-year player from Texas A&M, who defensive coordinator Mike Pettine raved about last month.

OLB Za’Darius Smith: Smith is the straw that stirs the defense’s drink, an impact player on the field and a leader in the locker room. His impact last season would be impossible to overstate. When he had at least one full sack last season, the Packers were 6-1. Not that his presence is limited to sacking the quarterback. He dominated Detroit in Week 16 even while collecting a mere assisted tackle.

ILB Christian Kirksey: The Packers’ inside linebacker depth chart is something to behold. Kirksey’s barely played the last two years due to injuries. Oren Burks’ first two seasons have been ruined due to training camp injuries. Rookie Kamal Martin was dogged by a knee injury last year at Minnesota. Curtis Bolton might have been an undrafted starter last year if not for a torn ACL. Kirksey is the one and only proven player on the unit. If the run defense is going to be of a championship caliber, he must play and play often.

CB Kevin King: Jaire Alexander is the best cornerback on the team and one of the top cover men in the NFL, but King will be key. After playing in only 15 of 32 games and playing 684 snaps in his first two seasons, King played in 15 games, logged 805 snaps and intercepted a team-high five passes last season. Despite heavy investments in the position in previous drafts, the Packers’ cornerback depth is precarious.

S Darnell Savage: Veteran Adrian Amos is as solid as they come, but for this defense to take a big step forward in 2020, it will be because Savage’s athleticism translates into more big plays created and fewer big plays allowed. He had two interceptions as a rookie but missed far too many tackles.

K Mason Crosby: After his debacle in Detroit in 2018, Crosby has been on auto pilot. Last year, he made 22-of-24 field goals and 40-of-41 extra points. The Packers went 8-1 in one-score games last season, meaning there’s not a lot of margin for error in terms of missed kicks.