This season is set up to be one of the most pivotal in recent years for the Green Bay Packers. They have a superstar quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, that they are paying a boatload of money and is not getting any younger. The Packers need to have a competitive playoff run this year and prove that they should be taken seriously as a Super Bowl contender.
The pressure isn’t really on Rodgers, though, because he has played about as well as a quarterback possibly could over the past two seasons. The pressure is truly on the rest of the roster to step up and sufficiently support the quarterback. That sentiment is truer for the wide receivers than any other position on the team.
The Packers didn’t use this offseason to surround their superstar quarterback with talented weapons. Instead, they traded away arguably the best wide receiver in the game in Davante Adams and let deep threat wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling walk in free agency.
That leaves wide receiver Allen Lazard as the de facto number one option in the passing game. The fifth-year receiver has been productive throughout his career but still seems a far way off from being the leading wide receiver on a team. He is going to have to grow up fast this year as Rodgers will be heavily relying on him to make plays for him.
Lazard will still have quality receivers next to him, he just will no longer get the benefit of a player like Adams drawing the attention of the defense. Green Bay will have veteran receiver Randall Cobb and Sammy Watkins, who was signed in free agency, to help Lazard out. But at this point in their careers, both of those guys are much more complementary pieces than starting wideouts.
The wide receiver production outside of Lazard will likely come from the crop of young players at the position. Despite Green Bay’s seemingly unwillingness to spend first-round picks on receivers, they have a few quality young options. Incoming rookies Christian Watson (second round) and Romeo Doubs (fourth round), and second-year Amari Rodgers (third round) will all be potential options to earn significant roles.
The uncertainty at receiver is not great for the Green Bay offense but it could lead to more usage for the running back duo. Aaron Jones has already been one of the most productive running backs recently and that is likely to continue. He could have his best season in 2022 if he is more involved in the passing game as a way to make up for the losses at receiver.
The biggest beneficiary of the up-for-grabs targets will be backup running back A.J. Dillon. While he technically is the backup, Dillon is much more of a modern backup that still gets incorporated into the offense. He actually led the team in rushing attempts and yards last year (it helped that he played all 17 games while Jones played in 15) and finished fourth on the team in receptions.
With the current state of the wide receiver group in Green Bay, Dillon could be the one that gets called upon to carry more of the offensive load. That would allow him to show more of his pass-catching ability and demonstrate the versatility of his game. Expect to see a lot more two-back looks in order to get Jones and Dillon on the field together.
Another part of the offense that is staying relatively the same is the offensive line. Despite losing Billy Turner, who started 13 games last year, the Packers return five guys up front with starting experience.
Obviously, the biggest name is left tackle David Bakhtiari who, despite missing nearly the entire 2021 season due to injury, has done a great job protecting Rodgers throughout his career. Another valuable piece is guard Elgton Jenkins, who filled in for Bakhtiari at left tackle before suffering his own injury. With Jenkins having the ability to play all over the line, it gives Green Bay to go with the next best three players out of Josh Myers, Jon Runyan, Royce Newman, and Yosuah Nijamn, all of whom are relatively young.
If the offense does take a step back in 2022, which is entirely possible, it would then require Green Bay’s defense to cover for them with improved play, which it is more than capable of. The Packers’ defense was a very solid unit last year, but this year’s version has the potential to be one of the best defenses in the league.
The biggest improvement they will make this year on that side of the ball will be getting cornerback Jaire Alexander back for a full season. Alexander, who is one of the best corners in the game, played only four games last year.
The fact that the Packers still finished within the top 10 in completion percentage allowed, yards allowed, interceptions, and opponents’ quarterback rating says a lot about how talented the secondary is. Adding Alexander back to the mix will ensure that the Packers once again have a top pass defense in the sport.
The unit was so productive in 2021 thanks to a talented safety duo of Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage and great play from rookie cornerback Eric Stokes and a resurgent season from cornerback Rasul Douglas. All four of those players are back with the Pack so there is no reason to doubt them being just as successful.
Green Bay also got one of the biggest surprises in the NFL last year with how well linebacker De’Vondre Campbell played. He joined Green Bay as his third team in six years and vastly outplayed his one-year, $2 million deal. Campbell was one of the best linebackers in the entire league last season, racking up 146 tackles and making the All-pro first team.
It could end up being a fluke season but it is also possible that Campbell finally unlocked something in his game in Green Bay. The Packers are certainly paying him like an All-Pro ($10 million per year for five years) so they are expecting to get that same level of play from him.
The Packers also got Campbell some reinforcements when they drafted Georgia linebacker Quay Walker in the first round of the draft this year. Walker is a freak athlete, like everybody else on that Georgia defense, that should have no trouble coming in and starting right away for Green Bay. If he develops as quickly as his talent suggests he can, Walker and Campbell could form one of the best off-call linebacker duos in the sport.
The rest of the starting linebackers are pretty good too, with outside linebackers Rashan Gary and Preston Smith finishing first and second, respectively, on the team in sacks in 2021. Gary is a former first-round pick that has finally found his footing as an NFL pass rusher and Smith was brought in as a free agent in 2019 and has played well for the Packers ever since.
With those two able to put plenty of pressure on the opposing team’s quarterback, it makes the defensive line’s job a whole lot easier. Unfortunately, that is something the unit actually needs since it is the group on the defense.
Defensive tackle Kenny Clark is definitely a stud on the interior while defensive end Dean Lowry is solid next to him, but that is about where the production ends. The unit took a hit when it lost defensive end Kingsley Keke, who started eight of the 12 games he played in, as a free agent.
Green Bay addressed that hole in the draft when they selected defensive tackle Devonte Wyatt, who also happens to be from the University of Georgia. Wyatt will have no trouble playing right away as he basically played on an NFL-caliber defense at Georgia.
The Packers also added defensive tackle Jarran Reed in free agency. It was a smart move from Green Bay to add multiple players at a position of need (now if only they took that same approach to the wide receiver spot). Reed has played in plenty of big games during his time in Seattle and Kansas City so he will be ready to contribute to another Green Bay postseason run.
The question is how long that postseason run will last, though. There is not much doubt that the Packers will repeat as division champs in a relatively weak NFC North. The Vikings could be solid but they are more likely to push for a wild-card spot than a division crown.
Green Bay will comfortably win the division behind a 13-4 record. It’s not that bold of a prediction because that is the same record they had in 2022 but with games against the Buccaneers, Bills, Cowboys, Titans, and Rams they will play a tougher schedule this year (plus one of their losses last year was in week 18 to the Lions when they weren’t even trying).
I’m banking on Rodgers being able to figure out how to win even though his receiving unit could be one of the worst in the league. I’m also betting on the defense’s improvements to cover up any struggles from the offense.
At the end of the day, I do think that Green Bay should be taken seriously as a Super Bowl contender. I know all the sportsbooks are doing so but I sense that a lot of fans have written them off due to poor playoff performances in recent years. But this is the year the Packers exorcise their playoff demons and make a real push behind one of the best seasons of Rodgers’s career.