GREEN BAY, Wis. – In a tradition that stretches more than a decade, here is our annual ranking of the 90 players on the Green Bay Packers’ roster ahead of July 28, the first practice of training camp. This isn’t merely a look at the best players. Rather, it’s a formula that combines talent, salary, importance of the position, depth at the position and, for young players, draft positioning. More than the ranking, we hope you learn a little something about every player on the roster.
No. 6: OLB Za’Darius Smith (6-4, 272; 28; seventh season; Kentucky)
Smith got his Tuesday Motivation when “Madden NFL” posted its top-10 edge rushers. Smith, despite ranking third in the NFL with 26 sacks the past two seasons, was 10th.
“They’re still snubbing me,” Smith said in June of lists such as the one at Pro Football Focus, which had him 13th among edge rushers. “It is what it is. I feel like it adds fuel to the fire, and I’m going to continue to prove myself. I think when I came out of Baltimore, I led the team in sacks and pressures and hits. And then I came here and had a dominant year, and it was basically another snub year. And after last year, I was (fourth) in the league in sacks, (third) with forced fumbles, and they’re still snubbing me. But it is what it is. Like I said, it’s going to continue to add fuel to the fire, and I’m just going to continue to prove myself each and every year.”
While Smith had another impactful season in 2020, he wasn’t as great as he was in 2019. In his first year in Green Bay after signing a four-year, $64 million contract, Smith recorded 13.5 sacks and led the NFL with 93 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. In 2020, Smith had 12.5 sacks. On the downside, he ranked 17th with 51 pressures. On the bright side, he forced four fumbles – as many as his first five NFL seasons combined.
The fumbles were a big thing. In 2019, 12 of the top 15 in forced fumbles were edge rushers and 24 of the top 25 in fumbles were quarterbacks. Quarterbacks who are getting ready to throw, have only one hand on the ball, are focused on what’s going on downfield or fail to feel pressure are all ripe for the picking. Smith took advantage last season.
Nonetheless, the Packers need more out of Smith. That goes beyond sacks and pressures during the regular season but in the playoffs. In two divisional-round wins, according to PFF, Smith had three sacks and 19 quarterback pressures. In two NFC Championship Games, he had zero sacks and one pressure. In the big moments, Smith must deliver a better pass rush and a more determined run defense.
Who knows, maybe outside linebackers coach Mike Smith moonlights at EA Sports and had a hand in the “Madden” rankings.
“He sees something like that, it keeps him hungry," said Mike Smith recently. “Some guys, it's Super Bowls; some guys, it's money. Whatever it may be, you've got to find that whatever makes you tick and makes you (ticked) off. My dad used to say, 'You've got to find a reason to hate your opponent.' Sometimes you look for a reason.”
No. 7: DT Kenny Clark (6-3, 314; 25; sixth season; UCLA)
Early in training camp last summer, the then-24-year-old Clark signed a four-year contract extension worth $70 million that tied him to Green Bay through 2024.
"When Russ gave me the contract to sign, I was shaking," Clark said.
It was a wise investment. Clark is young, productive and plays a premium position. In 2019, Clark finished second on the team with 89 tackles, according to the coaches’ count. He had a team-high 11 stuffs, defined as a tackle at or behind the line of scrimmage vs. the run. Among the 63 interior defensive linemen who played at least 200 snaps of run defense, Clark finished seventh in PFF’s run-stop percentage. That metric measures impact tackles.
Meanwhile, Clark matched his career high with six sacks. Among the 82 defensive linemen who rushed the passer at least 200 times, Clark finished sixth in PFF’s pass-rushing productivity, which measures sacks, hit and hurries per pass-rushing snap. Among interior defenders, his 62 total pressures trailed only Aaron Donald’s 80.
Looking at both of PFF’s metrics, Clark was the only interior defender to finish in the top 16 in each. Clark, of course, was much better than merely the top 16.
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, meaning his tackle rate plunged for 14.5 snaps per tackle to 9.6. He went from 11 stuffs to just three.
Clark, slowed by a groin injury sustained in the opener that limited him to 13 games, must return to his dominant form. Simply put, there’s nobody else capable of making a consistent difference up front. The playoffs were perhaps 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.
“I think for him to do what he needs to do to take that next step is to keep doing what he’s been doing,” defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery said. “Because he’s played at a high level. He’s productive. He affects the quarterback and in the run game. If anything is around him, he’s usually on it. So, just excited about him and continue to grow.”
Clark became a father during the offseason, and that’s led to some odd sleep patterns.
“I love it. It’s cool,” he said. “The sleep part, I have Zoom meetings at 7 o’clock out here in California and the baby’s waking up like three, four times out of the night. Me and my girl are just struggling, struggling with it. So, we got better and she’s sleeping a lot more. But them first three weeks were definitely tough for us. It’s an adjustment, just like anything else. But I’m loving the Dad life, loving my baby girl and really enjoying it.”
No. 8: RB Aaron Jones (5-9, 208; 26; fifth season; UTEP)
There are only 11 running backs in NFL history with a career average of at least 5.0 yards per carry. Five of them are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
One of the other six is Jones.
“I want to rewrite the history books and leave my stamp,” Jones said after signing. “And I feel like that’s the best way to do it, is leaving your name in the history books.”
The re-signing of Jones in free agency was an upset given Green Bay’s cap difficulties. The four-year, $48 million contract was in reality a two-year deal with cap charges of $4.46 million in 2021 and $9 million in 2022 before soaring to $19.25 million in 2023 and $15.25 million in 2024.
Paying big money to a running back is a big gamble. Given the bruising nature of the position, the risk is obvious, which no doubt is why general manager Brian Gutekunst drafted AJ Dillon in the second round in 2020 even with Jones and Jamaal Williams in the backfield.
A total of 10 running backs averaged at least $7 million per season last year, including seven with lofty price tags of at least $12 million per season. While Tennessee’s Derrick Henry, Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook and New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara were exceptional, seven of the 10 didn’t get close to earning their paydays.
Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey, Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon and the Giants’ Saquon Barkley were hurt for most of their seasons. Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott had 4.8 yards per touch, the worst of his five seasons by more than 1 yard. Arizona’s Kenyan Drake averaged only 4.4 yards per touch, also the worst of his career. Denver’s Melvin Gordon averaged 4.6 yards per touch, 1.5 yards worse than his career high. Houston’s David Johnson led the NFL with 2,118 scrimmage yards in 2016 but had 715 in 2019 and 1,005 in 2020.
Coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons, Jones ranks 11th in Packers history with 3,364 rushing yards. If he reaches 1,000 yards again in the new 17-game format, he’ll zoom all the way into fourth place in franchise history. Among those he’d pass would be Hall of Famers Paul Hornung (ninth with 3,711), Clarke Hinkle (seventh with 3,860) and Tony Canadeo (fourth with 4,197).
“Just to continue to do even better,” Jones said during OTAs. “I have some [goals] I left my dad with before, it was our goal, so I’m just going to keep it as that. Eventually, everybody will know what it is. Just to win the Super Bowl, that’s the ultimate goal. We’ve been there two years in a row so, at the end of the day, that’s the ultimate goal and anything else that comes after that is even better.”
No. 9: G Elgton Jenkins (6-5, 311; 25; third season; Mississippi State)
A second-round pick in 2019, Jenkins has been nothing short of phenomenal. In 34 career starts, including playoffs, Jenkins has allowed one sack. One. He was named all-rookie in 2019 and Pro Bowl starter in 2020. Last season, Jenkins logged 827 snaps at left guard, 297 at center and 59 at the two tackle spots.
“Very happy for him – happy for his career, his trajectory,” left tackle David Bakhtiari said. “I just keep preaching to him: ‘Hey, by no means have you made it. For what you can accomplish, it’s a nice accolade on your journey.’ That’s one thing I try to keep pressing on him because I see a lot more things in his future and I want to make sure he can obtain all of them.”
Jenkins became the first Green Bay offensive lineman to start a game at guard, center and tackle in the same season since the 1970 merger. If he were the coach, where would he line himself up at?
“I’d play quarterback,” Jenkins said late in the season. “Just knowing defenses and stuff like that, with the arm I’ve got, I feel like I could sling it around, break a couple records.”
Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett couldn’t vouch for Jenkins’ arm talent but he could speak highly about Jenkins’ overall talent.
“The way he’s been, we could put him out at wide receiver maybe,” Hackett said.
Versatility could be Jenkins’ calling guard again. The Packers enter training camp with no depth at offensive tackle whatsoever. If Bakhtiari isn’t ready for Week 1 because of his knee injury, Jenkins could get the call at left tackle at New Orleans.
“He’s looked great,” offensive line coach Adam Stenavich said in June. “He’s a rare guy in this league, a guy that has the athleticism to play on the edge. Usually you get your centers and guards, they don’t have that combination of length and athleticism to go out at tackle and compete with the good edge rushers out there, but Elgton has those tools. He has the size, he’s got the length, so he’s a very versatile guy, a very intelligent player. You can move him around and the game’s not too big for him. He understands everything. Extremely football smart. Moving him out to tackle, it might not be his absolute best position but he’s still a very, very good tackle.”
No. 10: RT Billy Turner (6-5, 310; 29; eighth season; North Dakota State)
With his ability to play here, there and everywhere on the offensive line, Turner was one of the team’s unsung heroes in 2020.
Including playoffs, here was Turner’s playing time breakdown in 2020: 423 snaps at right tackle, 363 at left tackle and 244 at right guard. Wherever he played, he played well. Among the 55 offensive tackles to play at least 50 percent of the passing-game snaps last season, Turner ranked 26th in ProFootballFocus.com’s pass-blocking efficiency, which counts sacks, hits and hurries per snap. PFF charged Turner with two sacks, five hits and 18 hurries for 25 total pressures.
The move from guard to tackle really suited Turner. In 2019, he was one of 62 guards to play at least 50 percent of the passing snaps. He finished 57th in PFF’s pass-blocking efficiency. It charged him with six sacks, six hits and 33 hurries for 45 total pressures. Moreover, Turner went from 12 blown blocks in the run game to only seven, according to Sports Info Solutions.
Really, the only blemish on his resume was the NFC Championship Game against Tampa Bay, when he allowed two sacks while subbing for left tackle David Bakhtiari. It’s hard to blame Turner too much for that game; after all, he’s not a left tackle.
With that, Turner – who had never won a starting job in his first five seasons in the NFL until joining Green Bay on a four-year, $28 million deal last year – went from potential cap casualty to remaining one of the team’s most important players. A restructure reduced his 2021 cap charge by almost $3.5 million.
“I think anybody that is on our roster will be able to look at last year and realize that just because you’re an offensive linemen, you play this position on another team or in college, or you played whatever position last year, that doesn’t mean that’s the position you’re going to play on this team or on any team at all,” Turner said last month.
“You can never predict the future and you can never predict what’s going to happen day-to-day. Our coaches do a great job of kind of letting us know last second, as we’re getting out on the field, what position we’re going to be playing for that day and that really makes you have to focus on meetings and all the details at every position to understand the actual scheme that’s being installed and that we’re actually running. Because you never know what position you’re going to end up at at any given time.”
Turner’s father, Maurice, was a 12th-round pick by the Vikings in 1983. He played in 23 games for Minnesota in 1984 and 1985 before finishing the 1985 season with three games for Green Bay.