What a Difference a Year Makes for the Packers, Heading Into the NFL Draft

The Expectations for this Team Have Utterly Transformed In One Year

Za'Darius Smith (YouTube/FBH Sports)

President John F. Kennedy once said, “Change is the law of life.” We think the full quote was actually, “Change is the law of life in the NFL” but we can’t exactly confirm that.

Either way, from where the average Packers fan thought this team was heading into Free Agency last year to how the average fan views this team right now… It’s an almost impossible dichotomy.

And it’s not just the fan’s collective, bloated, perception – it is in fact the reality of the situation.

Everything has changed.

The Green Bay Packers, heading into the 2020 NFL Draft, are a legitimate contender looking to fill a couple (key) holes. The team heading into 2019 Free Agency period, around 13 months ago, was nothing more than a question mark; no one knew what to expect out of first year head coach Matt LaFleur.

The 2019 team ultimately went 13-3, but the football world wouldn’t have been shocked if they would have finished around 8-8 or 9-7. Literally no one knew what to expect.

Heading into 2020, a 12-4 season seems to be the absolute bare-minimum when it comes the expectations for this team. The rest of the NFC North did not get better; it’s arguable that every team in the division actually got a bit worse. So, at least a 12-4 record and a chance at a first round bye seems like not only an attainable goal, but a necessity.

And when you stop and think about it, how crazy is that?

Before the 2019 Draft, most Packers fans would have been thankful just to secure a winning record in the upcoming season after missing the playoffs in 2017 and ’18. Now, just a year later, Packer Nation is expecting their team to score at least 12 wins and anything short of a Super Bowl appearance will feel like a disappointment.

Is that fair? No. Is it where this fanbase is right now? Hell yeah. You gotta love ’em..

At the start of the 2019 season, there was much uncertainty. As we approach the 2020 season, there’s a definite level of calm both inside the organization and in the fanbase. That’s the biggest difference.

Things change quickly in the NFL and when you have a quarterback the caliber of Aaron Rodgers, every year has to be treated as a potential championship season. This is especially true as he begins to enter his late-30’s. There are only a couple chances left to bring another trophy home with this core.

The appetite of the fans has dramatically changed.

Green Bay, as most people know, was extremely aggressive in 2019’s Free Agency and during The Draft as they completely rebuilt their team. Management identified areas of needs and mercilessly attacked those positions.

Now, the fans have come to expect that level of rebuilding on the fly.

It goes without saying that all of Packer Nation was hoping General Manager Brian Gutekunst would do the same this offseason for a couple positions, like he did in 2019.

“What if he does to wide receiver and inside linebacker in 2020 what he did to edge rusher and safety last season?” Fans wondered, hoped.

His biggest Free Agency moves, although lacking that same splash of the 2019 Free Agency period, addressed those two prominent positions. We’ll dive into those moves a little later in this piece.

Unfortunately for “Gute” he set the standard for the magic he can create in the offseason impossibly high. But again, that standard is a credit to how well he did for himself last year. He deserves credit for helping the Packers change their culture. Although LaFleur and defensive captain, edge rusher Za’Darius Smith deserve just as much praise in that regard.

Brian Gutekunst, Green Bay Packers General Manager – (YouTube/Green Bay Packers, 2020)

Because of last season, and those upgrades in talent and culture, everything is different for this Packers team. In one season everything has changed both for the team as a whole and for individual players. Even more so for the fans. Sure, the players always think they can win. But once the fans start to expect it, everything changes.

Heading into 2019, we felt good about wide receivers and we were fooled. So that has us wondering, what position are we confident about heading into 2020 that may fool us? Is it defensive back? We just don’t know.

The tight end position had some optimism, too. Many people thought Jimmy Graham simply had to be better in 2019 than in 2018 and there was excitement surrounding rookie Jace Sternberger. But that optimism was displaced. Graham under-performed again and the rookie dealt with an injury for most of the season.

Going into 2020, we feel really good about the tight end position again. But we dive into that in more detail below.

Forecasting what’s going to happen in the NFL is a recipe for disaster. Which is why our proclamation for a 12 win season actually scares us. But hey, it’s the offseason and time for optimism.

Do you need any specific evidence as to how much things have changed for a few of the prominent individuals on this team? It goes far beyond the team as a whole and fan’s championship expectations.

Look at the expectations for a few players heading into 2020 that people didn’t even know exactly what to think of prior to 2019:

Aaron Jones:

He’s expected to put up an MVP-caliber season in 2020. After scoring 23 touchdowns (including postseason), how can expectations not be sky-high for Jones? Heading into 2019, people would have been more than pleased if he had a 10-12 touchdown season. He’s due a big contract at this season’s end, but will the Packers pay at a position that loses value by the minute?

Perhaps the franchise tag, which Green Bay is hesitant to use, will be Jones’ fate. Seeing the money that fourth-year running back Christian McCaffrey, coming off a 19 touchdown season, got from Carolina ($16mil a year) will certainly get Jones’s camp excited, seeing as Jones is a fourth-year player, coming off a 19-touchdown season. No, Jones isn’t McCaffrey, but if Jones replicates his 2019 season, he’ll be asking for a boatload of cash.

Either way, everything has changed for Aaron Jones and what the fans expect from him.

Za’Darius Smith:

An intriguing signing in 2019, Smith’s swift adopting of Green Bay as his home made him easy to root for. But no one, and I mean no one, saw him putting up a Defensive Player of the Year type season. Heading into 2020, people will be disappointed if he puts up fewer than 12-13 sacks. Just like with Gute, the standard that he set for himself is incredibly high.

Few players in franchise history have ever sustained that level of sacks over a two-year period. But “Z” is expected to hit that number again; the same goes for his quarterback hits (an incredible 37 last year!).

From a new player this time last year, to a captain during the 2019 season, to now being an absolute fan-favorite looking to carry on Willie Davis and Reggie White’s legacy in Green Bay. There’s a man that’s changed the trajectory of his life in just one year.

Kevin King:

Some of Packer Nation, a fanbase known for being a bit emotional and grudge-holding, had already labeled King as an injury-prone bust after just two NFL seasons. People thought he wouldn’t stay in the lineup and wasn’t good enough of a cornerback for this defense. Plus, having been the draft choice they made instead of Wisconsin Badger (and now perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate) T.J. Watt, the odds were stacked against King from the beginning when it came to winning over fans.

Fast-forward one year and Packers fans think he’s the necessary talent to play opposite Jaire Alexander, giving Green Bay a strong cornerback duo for years to come. Yes, in just a few months King went from ‘bust’ to clutch-performer. In 2020, King is looked at as a big piece of this defense. A bit different from this time last year, huh?

Aaron Rodgers:

Due to the many notable defensive backs that have left the NFC North, Rodgers is poised to absolutely demolish the division. He just is. Yet going into 2019, no one knew what to expect from Rodgers in Matt LaFleur’s new offense. Will they gel? Will they bicker? The talking-heads loudly wondered; the cameras stayed on them after every punt last season.

Will Rodgers have 40 touchdown passes for the first time since 2016? That’s the expectation heading into 2020, a far cry from the growing pains of the 2019 season. Heading into last year, people just wanted to see how he’d react to learning a new offense for just the second time in his professional career (and the first time as a starter).

Last year the Packers dominated the NFC North, going 6-0 against their division rivals. And just take a look at the defensive backs that have left the NFC North this offseason. One of the NFL’s elite players, Darius Slay, has left the Detroit. Trae Waynes and Xavier Rhodes are no longer wearing Purple this season, while the Bears lost Prince Amukamara and ex-Packer HaHa Clinton Dix.

We like Arod’s chances to again deliver in 2020 against the North, especially against defensive backs that don’t have much, or any, experience against No. 12.

Looking Forward:

Will second-year safety Darnell Savage take that next step toward stardom? He has all of the tools and is as fundamentally sound of a safety as this team has had since Nick Collins (2011). This is one of the best stories to watch for in Green Bay in 2020. Could you imagine thinking Savage would be this impressive after just one season?

Unlike heading into 2019 when safety was a question-mark, it is an incredibly intriguing position to watch now. There’s legitimate optimism at both safety positions in Green Bay for the first time in a long time.

Sticking in the defensive backfield, let’s circle back to Kevin King for a moment. Will he earn himself a big contract? Or is he this team’s candidate for the franchise tag following 2020? The x-factor here, regarding King’s future, is talented but enigmatic cornerback Josh Jackson.

Can Jackson actually make a difference in 2020? He’s one of the biggest question marks on this team. We believe he has the talent, but needs some time out on the field. Will he gain the coaching staff’s trust over the next year? We give him a decent chance of doing so. Furthermore, King may indeed earn himself a big contract, but it likely won’t be from the Packers. Maybe they’ll find a future cornerback in The Draft.

Perhaps the only thing that hasn’t changed for this defense is how great Davante Adams and David Bahktiari are for this offense, and how great Kenny Clark and Jaire Alexander are for the defense. They’re some of the most consistent players on the team. Thank goodness we aren’t talking about those four players changing in any way.

But this next point is one of the funniest to look back on…

Remember Debating This?

Perhaps nothing explains the “what a difference a year makes” idea better than 2019’s most polarizing issue between Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers fans. We are talking about the (now laughable) Ha Ha Clinton-Dix vs Adrian Amos debate.

Well, Clinton-Dix is on his fourth team in three years and Amos is coming off the most productive season of his career and looks to be a staple in Green Bay’s defensive backfield moving forward.

Amos made more than the game winning play to end the 2019 season opener against his former team, the Bears. He announced is presence to Packer Nation in the best way possible. First impressions truly are everything, huh? However this defense has its safety position locked down for the foreseeable future as Amos continued his solid fundamental play all season.

He’s a big part about why fans are so optimistic about the Packers for this upcoming season. Like we said, Amos and Savage are a legitimate duo at safety.

We mentioned that many fans (us included) are expecting this team to win at least 12 games this year. However in Green Bay, expecting a 12 win season is, in some ways, a return to normalcy. It’s the way Packers fans have felt since the mid-1990s. Sure, it hasn’t always come to fruition, but it is almost always expected — except last year, that is.

But what a beautiful difference a year can make.

How About This Paradigm Shift?

Heading into 2019 the NFC North coaches all had great job security, newcomer Matt LaFleur included of course. Heading into 2020, there’s an opportunity that LaFleur is the only coach left after the season… How insane is that?

If the Packers are the only team to make the playoffs this season, things will get very interesting. LaFleur is now literally the only head coach that for sure isn’t going to be fired following this season, regardless of what happens.

Matt Patricia’s tenure in Detroit is another horrendous season away from possibly coming to an end. Matt Nagy’s offense has been exposed as all-show, no-substance and the quarterback situation in Chicago isn’t helping matters. What about the Vikings’ Mike Zimmer? What if they miss the playoffs in 2020, he may find himself out of work. That team has been built to win more than they have in recent years.

But LaFleur is safe. The NFL is a brutal business and everything can change in just a few short months. Man, how different did every NFC North team feel about their coaches this time last year?

We should really talk about how much the culture within this franchise’s management has changed. Gute did less in the 2020 offseason than he did 2019, but he still did so much more in Free Agency than in most of Ted Thompson’s seasons as General Manager.

Thirteen or fourteen months ago, we didn’t know this side of Gute. But heading into 2020, it’s what we expect from him. Reputations are built and molded quickly in the NFL.

We’ve been talking about how quickly things change in this league, but here’s some individual positions that have changed and will continue to change in the upcoming NFL Draft.

Here are the positions the Packers found themselves needing to change heading into 2020, some they’ve already addressed.

Tight End:

The first big decision this offseason for Gute was at the tight end position. He made the correct call. Thanks for the memories Jimmy Graham, but we won’t be holding a parade when you come back to Lambeau Field next year with the Chicago Bears. He wasn’t worth the money, obviously. All eyes are now on Jace Sternberger. Can he be the answer? We hope so. There’s talk that he’s going to be used more in the slot in 2020. That’s an intriguing thought.

Does the team believe in Jace Sternberger as a legitimate starter for 2020? It seems like an obvious yes. Does the Packers’ system require two capable, pass catching tight ends? What then?

Gutekunst did not sign Free Agent Austin Hooper, a wish of some Packers fans.

Hooper certainly never jumped off the tape as “must sign” talent, but again, anything would have been better than what the Packers have had the last few seasons at tight end. That said, he’s increased his receptions, yards and touchdowns in three consecutive seasons. You’d think that if Rodgers could have thrown to him, that trend would continue.

If Hooper continues his ascent at his current pace, his 2020 season will have around 80 receptions, 800 yards and eight touchdowns, perhaps even higher if Rodgers was his quarterback. Would you have liked that? Of course! And he’ll only be 26 next season, so it certainly was worth taking a serious look at signing him.

His career catch percentage is 77.3%. For reference, Jimmy Graham’s catch percentage in Green Bay was 62.4%. That’s quite a gap.

But still, the price simply wasn’t worth it. Hooper is now the highest paid tight end in the NFL, which is utterly ridiculous. Gute was wise to stay way from Hooper and not get into a bidding war for an overpriced player at not an overly vital position. Yeah, we said it. This team won a Super Bowl with a tight end stable of rookie Andrew Quarless, Donald Lee and Tom Crabtree.

I mean, come on.

Sometimes the best move is not making a move. It appears as though that is the case at tight end for the 2020 season.

Now everyone is heading into the 2020 season with optimism for the tight end position. Maybe they have a star in the making with Sternberger.

Okay, onto the three positions that the Packers General Manager Brian Gutekunst addressed in Free Agency. Plus, a few positions should all be focused on heavily by Gute and Co. in the upcoming draft.

Right Tackle:

We spoke about how “everything has changed” in one year. Well, not all changes are for the better.

Right tackle Bryan Bulaga is gone. This change really hurts.

He’ll only be 31 this year and he had played at an elite level the last two years. But the salary cap forces many unpleasant decisions for team management. Fortunately, he got a massive three year contract from the Los Angeles Chargers; a much larger contract than what the Packers could have offered. Still, it hurts. We were huge Bulaga fans. He’s one of the least celebrated members of the Packers family in this millennium, despite him deserving so much praise.

Free agent Jared Veldheer is still “only” going to be 33 this year, so it’s not like he was a terrible option as a bridge option at right tackle for this season.

Instead, the Packers brought in a blast from the past name in right tackle Ricky Wagner. Wisconsin Badgers fans remember him blocking for John Clay, Montee Ball, James White and Melvin Gordon. Talk about “Running Back U” huh?

Like Bulaga, Wagner is going to be 31 for the 2020 NFL season, but he’s on a much more digestible contract. That’s what it comes down to sometimes, no matter how much better Bulaga is.

A year ago we loved this position for the Packers. Today… not so much.

We mentioned Veldheer early and he’s still unsigned, so maybe he gets brought back in a pinch. You never know, especially if things go wrong in The Draft and the Packers don’t get the tackle they wanted.

But the question is, does letting Bulaga walk mean they have to draft a tackle early? Would they have drafted one early either way? Yes and yes.

We see the Packers drafting a tackle in the first two days of the 2020 NFL Draft. Heading into next season, the right tackle position isn’t quite as fun as it was a year ago. But if they find their future tackle in The Draft, we’ll feel a bit better (especially if its in rounds two or three).

The next two positions are the ones we alluded to earlier that the fans were hoping Gute would heavily address.

Inside Linebacker:

This position has been flipped on its head more than any other over the last year.

Once a fanbase turns on a player, there isn’t much the player can do to change the narrative. So, at the very least, there’s some optimism from the fanbase at the inside linebacker position heading into 2020, unlike this time last year.

Productive but oft-maligned inside linebacker Blake Martinez is gone. He received a huge payday from the New York Giants, which is nice to see. Throughout his career in Green Bay he showed flashes of splash play ability and was a tackling-machine. But his inability to shed blocks and instinctively diagnose plays made paying him that type of money simply impossible.

Christian Kirksey – Erik Drost / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

To replace him, the Packers have signed former Cleveland Brown Free Agent Christian Kirksey.

If you look purely at the stat sheets, he doesn’t seem to be much more dynamic than Martinez, but on the tape his athleticism shines. Kirksey is an upgrade in coverage and has shown a more consistent ability to rush the passer. Sure, he’s had some health troubles, but if he can stay healthy he’s a potential upgrade at a much lower price. That’s a hell of a combination.

Martinez got the A.J. Hawk treatment from Green Bay fans, but didn’t have the benefit of winning a Super Bowl. His time in Titletown had simply ran its course.

We still believe the Packers could draft an inside linebacker early in the 2020 NFL Draft to create a duo and make inside linebacker a position of strength (finally). The wildcard here is Oren Burks. Can he make a year-three jump similar to cornerback Kevin King last year, after battling some injuries? Maybe Ty Summers will step up and bring instant quality depth?

If either of those questions are answered as true in 2020, that would change the equation at this position. But don’t be surprised if inside linebacker is addressed in the first three rounds anyway.

A year later, inside linebacker still has its questions, but there’s definitely more optimism from Packer Nation.

Wide Receiver:

Last year, there were high-hopes for this receiving corps.

Ultimately it was misguided optimism, as no one but Davante Adams proved up to the task. Whether it was injuries, drops, or just a lack of production, this unit struggled. What made the struggles even more aggravating was the thought, this time last year, that the group was actually deep with talent.

Man, how things have changed.

By all accounts, the wide receiver class of the 2020 NFL Draft is incredibly deep. Clearly the Packers are counting on finding a receiver in one of the first two rounds to be “the guy” opposite Davante Adams.

Well, unless they think they already found that guy in Free Agent signing Devin Funchess. He’s a big body and is only 26 years old. If he finds chemistry with Rodgers quickly, he could be the biggest signing of the year for Green Bay. It’s a low-risk, high-reward move. If it doesn’t work out, no big deal. But if it does, well, Gute gets even more credit.

Still, we think The Draft is essential at bringing more talent to the position group. The Packers have the 30th overall pick in The Draft and if the receiver pool is as deep as it seems, they could trade back a bit, gain another draft pick, and take an excellent receiver in the second round. Or perhaps they’ll grab one in the first (perhaps Jalen Raegor or Denzel Mims).

Now, a receiving corps of Adams, Funchess, Raegor/Mims and Allen Lazard sounds pretty damn good. Add in the player that wins out between Marquez Valdes-Scantling (MVS) and Equanimeous St Brown and you really have something. That would leave Jake Kumerow as the odd man out.

So in one year the Packers’ receiving corps went from being a young, talented group that fans were optimistic about to being a cursed group that couldn’t make big plays and had no depth behind Adams. All the way to, right now, looking like it might be an incredibly exciting group as soon as The Draft ends.

Things in the NFL really do change quickly.

Defensive Tackle:

Not a ton has changed over the last year at this position, however the context of the position has.

The Packers simply have to pay Kenny Clark (and his agent knows it), so they couldn’t invest heavily in a big-name defensive tackle in Free Agency. Drafting a big, run-stuffing defensive lineman seems inevitable, but what value can they get?

There are more and more rumblings that Gute may actually target an inside defensive lineman with the 30th overall pick in The Draft. While that would be exciting and would help the team be tougher against the run, it doesn’t get Rodgers the weapon on the outside he desperately needs to throw to opposite Adams.

This will be a tough call for Gute, but hey, that’s why the pay him the big bucks.

We’ll know a lot more about this position after The Draft, of course.

Quarterback:

We say pass on quarterback this year, but we’d understand if management wants to bring in some new blood for the quarterback room. The future is coming, as much as we protest. That said, go all in for another ring. Future be damned!

But that’s definitely just our fan-brain talking…

We do see them taking a quarterback in the 4-6 rounds; anything higher is squandering a chance to bolster a roster that’s hungry and ready for a ring. But hey, in 2005 they selected Rodgers and that worked out quite well. Even so, we hope the pick comes on day three of The Draft.

Defensive Back:

The defensive backs position groups have changed greatly for the better.

We believe that cornerbacks are pretty solid in Green Bay at the moment, despite many thinking Green Bay will try to snag another one in the first few rounds of The Draft. That said, if the team isn’t going to invest in Kevin King, drafting a corner with potential becomes a must. Either way, this cornerback corps has enough talent in it to win a Super Bowl if they stay healthy.

The same goes for safety. Yes, Mike Pettine likes to run three safeties out on the field, but if guys stay healthy this team has enough talent to go all the way.

What’s encouraging about this offseason is that two of the biggest positions of need for the Packers heading into 2020, inside linebacker and right tackle, were addressed in Free Agency. Were they huge names? No, but they’re proven commodities that have a chance to flourish in this system.

We hope the Packers focus on wide receiver, defensive tackle and inside linebacker in the early rounds of the NFL Draft. However sticking at least close to the “best player available” is a must when adhering to The Packer Way. So, don’t be surprised if they trade a few picks to gain some value throughout The Draft, rather than reaching just to fill a need.

Last year heading into The Draft it seemed like they still had 4-5 needs to make the roster ultimately competitive. This time last year, a division title seemed like nothing more than a wish. Then they went out and won 13 games. Right now, it seems like if they just hit on one or two positions in The Draft, a Super Bowl run isn’t out of the question.

The best part is, all we have to do is sit back and watch.

As always, Go Pack Go!

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We seek to bring more context to, and share interesting stores about, the history of the Green Bay Packers and the NFL as a whole. Clickbait be damned. "We" are Daniel and David Zillmer; hit the about or contact to learn more.

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