The Packers’ Youth Movement Defines Their 2020 Season (And Beyond)

The Kids Are More Than Alright

Jaire Alexander on Zoom, August 14, 2020

In the NFL, a football team has to always be getting better or younger.

That is, if that franchise wants to stay relevant.

The Green Bay Packers, over the last two years, have managed to do both. It’s much harder than it seems to accomplish both at the same time. Contracts have to be handed out, talent has to be reevaluated constantly and sound decisions have to be made sans emotion. Oh, and you have to draft well, too.

Other than that, it’s easy!

Doing this while you have an aging all-time great quarterback on the roster? I don’t envy that job.

Ten years ago it was a young and talented Aaron Rodgers leading a team of veterans, today it’s a veteran Aaron Rodgers leading a young and talented team.

In more ways than one, Aaron Rodgers’ career has come full-circle. He is clearly, and absolutely, at peace with everything around him. He now finds himself the legend with the eager, impressive first round pick standing behind him. The cold shoulder he received in 2005 has been converted into a warm embrace.

The at-ease, indistinct, grey-bearded smile in his official 2020 headshot suggests he knows how good this young team can be. As if he knows he has found himself, once again, exactly where he was meant to be on this planet.

This season promises to be fun, but it didn’t just happen on its own. It didn’t get this way without extreme curation — which we have deemed Green Bay’s youth movement.

Yes, the team is currently led by Aaron Rodgers, a 36 year old quarterback. But there are only two other men over the age of 31 on the entire roster. Kicker Mason Crosby and blocking tight end Marcedes Lewis (also both 36).

The saying, “Football is a young man’s game” is certainly true, but a young roster with a few older, veteran leaders is the sweet spot in the NFL. Thankfully, that is where the Packers find themselves.

Head coach Matt LaFleur isn’t shy about what he wants out of his football team and General Manager Brian Gutekunst is staying true to his vision for the roster.

The youth movement has apparently permeated throughout all of 1265 Lombardi Ave. I mean, the Packers even got younger at Head Coach last year. LaFleur is only 40 years old as he starts his second year in Green Bay. Gutekunst is one of the younger GMs in the NFL, too, at the age of 47.

It’s exciting to ponder what is to come from year two of their collaboration, especially with a rejuvenated Rodgers further buying into LaFleur’s offense. The Packers’ defense has more swagger than a defense in Green Bay has had since the mid-1990s — that culture change is chiefly due to captain Za’Darius Smith’s leadership. He’s the rare vocal leader that also leads by example.

Gutekunst’s vision is nearly fully realized and this is following a trip to the NFC Conference Championship Game in 2019. He took that team, one game from the Super Bowl, and basically said, “Good, but we can get younger. And more skilled.”

Things to Consider about Green Bay’s Roster:

The average age of their starting defense: 25 years old.

That defense was a Top 10 defense last year (up from 22nd in 2018).

The average age of their runnings back stable: 24 years old. 

Their starting running back led the NFL in touchdowns in 2019.

Every single cornerback on the roster is 25 years old or younger.

The youngest cornerback on the roster happens to be future First Team All-Pro Jaire Alexander. He’s only 23 years old. His partner Kevin King, who led the team in interceptions in 2019, is 25.

Davante Adams is the oldest wide receiver on the team at 27 years old.

There isn’t a position group on this team more debated than wide receiver; there also isn’t a position group that has more potential for growth in 2019 (more on this later).

David Bahktiari, a left tackle on a potential Pro Football Hall of Fame trajectory, is only 28 years old.

We could see ‘Bahk’ playing at this level for another 6-7 years. That would be for the rest of Aaron Rodgers’ tenure in Green Bay and for the first few years of Jordan Love’s potential starting career. The Packers’ second best lineman, Elgton Jenkins, is just 24 years old.

Green Bay recently locked up the leader of the defensive line, Kenny Clark, to the largest contract in NFL history for a nose tackle.

Amazingly, Clark is still only 24 years old (soon to be 25), despite this being his fifth year in the league. He’s the linchpin for the Packers’ defense. If he continues to grow in his abilities, there’s no telling how great he’ll become.

The players that the Packers are investing in, longterm, are all under the age of 30. That may seem obvious, but there are franchises in this league that give high-priced multi-year deals to guys over the age of 30 because of what they’ve accomplished. Green Bay isn’t falling into that trap. They aren’t paying for what guys have done, they’re only paying for what guys will do next.

Well over half of the Packers’ 53 man roster is in their first, second or third year.

Around 20 of those men expected to make significant contributions on the field this season. And that is without accounting for inevitable injuries. From top to bottom the Packers are relying on youth, with an emphasis on the young depth pieces. Which makes sense, why keep players as backups that have already reached their ceiling?

The current Packers are perpetuating the idea of top-level competitiveness now and hope for a better tomorrow, too. Again, not many teams are currently walking that line.

That is where rookie quarterback Jordan Love fits in. The immediate future is bright for Green Bay. They have an all-time great quarterback surrounded by a young, hungry roster. Yet, they also won’t be in scramble mode when Rodgers eventually moves on. As we’ve written about before, it’s the Packer Way after all.

Even the Packers’ punter, JK Scott, is only 23 years old. He has the potential to take his game to another level over the next few years. Youth is at the forefront of every position on this football team. This isn’t an accident and it’s not a mistake either.

The Front Office Sticking To Their Guns:

Earlier we mentioned Davante Adams’ age. As you probably know, if you follow this team, the Packers cut fan-favorite “Touchdown Jesus” Jake Kumerow on roster cut-down day prior to the 2020 season. Kumerow would have been the oldest receiver on the team at 28 years old.

Emphasis on the would have been.

Kumerow didn’t fit into the Packers’ youth movement, obviously. The 24 year old, and more athletic, Malik Taylor took his spot on the depth chart.

Often times fans don’t quite understand why the Packers let the more experienced player go. Sure, they understand when it’s a money issue, but it isn’t always just about the money.

Green Bay has also refused to sign free agent lineman Jared Veldheer, like they did last year. The 33 year old remains an option, a cheap option, to add depth to the offensive line which is currently reeling. However the Packers are remaining steadfast in their trust of their younger linemen.

This franchise, led by GM Gutekunst, is increasingly being known for making the decision they believe to be right, not the decision that’s the easiest. This harkens back to the days of GM Ron Wolf and the majority of the Ted Thompson era. They also knew to make the tough call at the right time.

Getting Younger, Even When It Hurts:

The most profound example of this Packers team getting younger without giving into sentimental feelings is the team not bringing back 37 year old cornerback Tramon Williams.

Instead of keeping the longtime leader in the defensive backfield, the Packers have banked on a plethora of unproven cornerbacks. Those men are Chandon Sullivan (24), Josh Jackson (24), Ka’dar Hollman (25) and Parry Nickerson (25). Of course, this isn’t including the team’s two starting corners from 2019 (the aforementioned Alexander-King duo).

Williams is an example of how to take care of your body as a professional athlete; he was a marvelous role model for this Packers team. However intangibles, rightly, only mean so much to this Packers regime. The same goes for what you’ve done for the team in the past. It’s nice, it’s appreciated, but it’s not used as a reason for making the team the following year.

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is an example of a guy the Packers (smartly) walked away from a year early. They replaced him with the one year younger Adrian Amos, who looks to have a long career in front of him. Clinton-Dix is currently not on an NFL roster.

In recent years the Packers have walked away from other notable players such as guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang — and they were right to do so. The same goes for Mike Daniels, a former captain and Clay Matthews, one of the best defensive players in franchise history. At first many of these moves seemed rash, but the Packers were often right about father time striking sooner than later.

Even Randall Cobb was replaced by younger, cheaper players. If those receivers step up this year, it’ll look brilliant. However that remains to be seen.

Jimmy Graham is a rare example of a guy they waited a year too long, but still they were smart enough to finally let him go before this season. The Chicago Bears, well, just like with Clinton-Dix signed Graham. I think we all know how that’ll pan out.

Speaking of the 33 year old Graham, his “production” will be replaced, and likely surpassed, by a 23 year old, 24 year old and 26 year old.

Saying goodbye to guys a year early, rather than a year late is a hallmark of the Packers. Bryan Bulaga is possibly an example of this. Would the team have loved to keep him? Of course, but financially it didn’t work out and he is 31 years old. Sure, Bulaga may have a great season for the Los Angeles Chargers, but the team is betting his best years are behind him. They probably aren’t wrong.

Remember, nostalgia is supposed to hurt — even when it hurts immediately.

Show Me The Money:

The Packers’ youth movement comes at the exact right time.

Many of their young playmakers have yet to hit their second contract, which means they’re playing on incredibly team-friendly contracts for a few more years. That’s always good for a football team, but it’s more important than ever right now.

Imagine the salary cap implications of COVID-19 from the lack of fans at games this season. The cap will either stay flat or shrink in both 2021 and 2022. The Packers, unlike many teams, will have the benefit of relying on these young players to produce without massive contracts.

But Green Bay hasn’t just gotten younger, they’re gotten more talented, too.

“Gute” has been smart and hasn’t sacrificed talent in the name of saving money. He’s happy with his roster, despite the impending financial puzzle. It would be easy to say “just keep the cheapest guys in many of the backup roles,” but that’s not what’s happening here. As a matter of fact, this is the first year that the Packers have not kept any of the minimum salary undrafted free agents on the final roster.

This illustrates the firm control that Gute has over the roster and his understanding the need for younger players to excel, while also putting together a roster that can challenge for a Super Bowl again.

Counting On Progression:

There are numerous guys that we’re expecting to make a jump from year one to year two on both sides of the ball.

Darnell Savage leads this list. If he continues to develop, the Packers could easily have one of the best safety duos in the NFL for years to come. Savage, a second-year starter, is only 23 and his experienced parter and defensive leader, Adrian Amos, is only 27.

Remember, these additions to the safety position came after the team walked away from once-promising safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Did we mention the 28 year old Clinton-Dix is currently not on an NFL roster?

Rashan Gary is the other defensive player that all eyes will be on for a massive step forward in year two.

Gary seems motivated, has trimmed down and will be looking to give the Packers the best 1-2-3 edge pass rush in the NFL. Of course Gary is learning from The Smith Bros. with each passing week. If Gary takes that step, all NFL offensive lines will be on notice.

The other players that the Packers are looking for a huge impact from, who haven’t put together a full season of plays, are Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Allen Lazard and Equanimeous St. Brown. I’m sure the front office would be pleased if just two of these three men became reliable playmakers for this offense. If one actually becomes a near 1,000 yard receiver? Look out.

“MVS” is the man that’s got the most love from Rodgers in the last couple weeks, so he definitely has the inside track to the ‘the man’ opposite Davante Adams. However Lazard showed flashes last season and St. Brown might be the most well-rounded of the three.

This will be the most fun position to watch in Green Bay in 2020, mark it down.

And again, the Packers are sticking with this youth movement at this most-crucial position. St. Brown is 23, Lazard is 24 and MVS is 25. The team didn’t feel the need to sign a veteran wide receiver free agent or trade for a veteran free agent. You can’t say Gute doesn’t whole-heartedly believe in his vision.

Letting the older players go is never easy, but winning helps. That is what Gute is counting on in 2020 and beyond.

Getting Young Without Dismantling the Roster:

Hitting gold with free agent signings Adrian Amos, Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith are the main reasons the Packers accomplished this, honestly. You have to hit when you go into free agency and in 2019 the Packers unequivocally hit.

All of those guys have their best football in front of them and they really kickstarted the youth movement. Without the backbone of the defense in place, accumulatively well under the age of 30, this plan wouldn’t have worked out the way it has. Kudos to Gute and his scouts for targeting those three guys first and foremost.

Kenny Clark by Jeffrey Beall / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)

But the youth movement as a whole is a combination of other things, too. The Packers haven’t overpaid at certain positions and as we’ve mentioned they’ve let guys walk that the fans adore, but whose best years are behind them. They’ve drafted well (and yes, that remains to be seen on some guys) and have obviously scouted well.

But when we say the Packers have scouted well, we mean that they’ve targeted the guys that are going to let LaFleur’s system flourish, rather than take the easy route of drafting, signing or trading for guys that would make Aaron Rodgers (and the fans) happy at first glance.

It’s a nuanced approach as a team isn’t smart to alienate their Hall of Fame quarterback, but still, they know their plan, if properly executed, gives him the best chance to win another ring. Even if he didn’t get the weapons he was initially hoping for.

The Packers’ front office (thankfully) didn’t panic over their horrible showing in the 2019 NFC Conference Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers. Many fans panicked, but the Packers stayed true to their plan of getting younger and continuing to accumulate players that fit the head coach’s system.

Green Bay understands that the best defense is keeping their offense out on the field for as long as possible. How do you stop the 49ers from rushing for all of those yards? One way is to keep their offense on the sideline for long stretches of play. Rodgers will have to be more methodical and patient, but everyone knows he’s smart enough to adapt his game.

The bigger point is that the Packers offense would likely be a year behind had they dismantled their young wide receiver group last year instead of staying patient.

Had they cut young receivers to sign a couple veteran wide receivers the team would be much older at a position where there’s a premium on speed. Instead, they trusted their process and now those young receivers are gaining the trust of Rodgers. They now have two to three years of rhythm with Rodgers, something they wouldn’t have otherwise had.

The same can be said had they drafted a wide receiver in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft like many people had hoped for. Yes, there were some very talented receivers in this year’s draft class, but with the truncated offseason they likely wouldn’t have developed the chemistry with Rodgers that “MVS” and Lazard are enjoying.

Yes, the Packers signed free agent Devin Funchess, but he is only 26 years old and opted out for the 2020 season due to COVID-19 anyway. Still, he fit the youth angle, unlike Mohamed Sanu (31) or Emmanuel Sanders (33).

Look at the Chicago Bears and the Detroit Lions, their coaching staffs are desperate. Win this year or be replaced. The Vikings were seemingly in that boat before resigning Mike Zimmer. Even so, the Vikings seemingly decimated their defensive backfield this offseason, something the Packers avoided doing at any position group (supposing right tackle pans out). Hopefully Rodgers can make the Vikings pay for that a couple times this year, starting in Week One.

Desperate coaches and General Managers don’t tend to make good roster decisions. And that is how rosters get decimated. There is no panic in Green Bay and that’s due, in our opinion, to what Gute pulled off prior to the 2019 season.

Gutekunst’s Best Offseason:

The 2019 offseason may go down as one of the best in franchise history. Between the free agents signed and that draft class, it’s staggering. We could go on and on about these guys. As we’ve already dove into, Amos was among the free agents brought to Titletown USA that year, along with The Smith Bros. (Za’Darius and Preston). Joining them via the draft were rookies Elgton Jenkins, Savage, and Gary. We see all of them taking steps forward in 2020.

Having an All-Pro quarterback while featuring good (and potentially great) young players at the key positions is the perfect recipe for NFL success. This is especially true with the impending salary cap obstacle created by COVID-19. Despite this, the national praise is missing for the Packers.

For some reason, Green Bay hasn’t been given proper credit for their impressive 13-3 season last year. Maybe it’s because they were blown out in the NFC Conference Championship Game; okay that’s probably it. But still, their season should be judged as a whole.

There has been a lot of talk around the internet about “regression” and how the Packers are going to win fewer games in 2020. The main reasons cited are because they won numerous close games last year and the defense produced a boatload of turnovers. Many experts don’t see the Pack duplicating those turnover and clutch-time results.

We actually believe that Green Bay is set up to match or even improve on their turnover production since they have ascending players on both edges, a potentially elite defensive backfield as well as the highest paid defensive tackle in NFL history. And when it comes to the big moments, I wouldn’t take another quarterback-kicker duo than the one we have in Green Bay.

Again, this team has solid leadership, is young and talented. For most teams it’s one or the other (youth or talent) at most positions. Not in Green Bay.

This team is without a doubt faster today than it was last year and I’m sure getting that close to the Super Bowl, especially with an older franchise quarterback, has them even hungrier this year. Head Coach LaFleur is obviously more comfortable and we expect the offense to look a lot more dangerous in 2020.

The One Example of Getting Older:

The one obvious example of this Packers team actually getting older at a position is inside linebacker. The Packers moved on from Blake Martinez and signed free agent Christian Kirksey. Although Kirskey (28 years old) is two years older than Martinez, he’s by far the more athletic linebacker.

So when Gute’s Packers do go against the ‘youth movement’ it’s to get more athletic. That’s not a bad tradeoff. And again, it’s not like Kirksey has much more wear on his tires. He’s played in 73 NFL games compared to Martinez’ 61.

It’s not like they went crazy away from the plan of getting younger everywhere; they saw an opportunity to upgrade a position with a guy still in his prime. It was a smart deviation from the plan. To use it shows that Gute doesn’t have tunnel vision with his plan, which is reassuring.

Looking Ahead:

They have their potential QB of the future already on the roster, a young roster, a stable of young running backs, including one that can be the featured runner in the future in A.J. Dillon. His body type is rare and he fits perfectly in LaFleur’s scheme.

Based on this youth movement trend, we’d say a future in Green Bay may be a bit uncertain for a few players. Namely, Corey Linsley, the Packers’ longtime reliable center. The same can be said for guard Lane Taylor. We are betting the Packers will rely on their younger depth at those positions in the immediate future.

Enter: John Runyan.

The rookie will be looking to take over a position in the inside of the offensive line much sooner than later. That’s right, the youth movement in Green Bay isn’t ending anytime soon.

The Packers’ three 36 year old players are all at positions where age seems to less important to overall performance. Obviously we’ve seen plenty examples of quarterbacks playing well into their late 30s in recent years, so no worries there. At kicker, well, we don’t see Crosby’s game dropping anytime soon. Yes, Lewis is old for a tight end, but he’s a blocking tight end (just 15 receptions last year).

You could say that of the Packers’ very few older players, we aren’t worried about their contributions.

The Packers are set up well at the premier positions with young talent (QB, CB, LT and EDGE) and you can say the same about a few others, too (NT, S, RB, G). This movement wasn’t just about the 2020 season, but it also wasn’t just about the future.

Green Bay is uniquely positioning themselves for a title chase in 2020 and stability as the next few years unfold. Many people don’t appreciate how difficult that is to accomplish in today’s NFL, but it may just end up being GM Brian Gutekunt’s lasting legacy in Titletown, USA. Especially if he adds another title to the collection.

Aaron Rodgers doesn’t have many more cracks at a Super Bowl, especially in Green Bay. But if his furtive smile doesn’t convince you that he thinks his young team has what it takes in 2020, I don’t know what to tell you. He believes in the youth movement and so should you.

The season is finally here!

#GoPackGo

About PackersHistory.com 26 Articles
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.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply