There are no two ways about it: 2018 was a disappointment. But last season also featured an intriguing injection of young talent into the Green Bay Packers’ roster.
This infusion of youth wasn’t limited to one side of the ball; the Packers added interesting contributors on both offense and defense. Sure, not every draft pick or undrafted free agent signing worked out (J’Mon Moore comes to mind), but the Packers have some exciting young players with chances to take big steps in 2019.
Here’s who we’re most excited to watch next year.
Paul Noonan: Equanimeous St. Brown
I think Marquez Valdes-Scantling is kind of a one-trick pony and that J’Mon Moore will probably bust out of the league, but EQ is physically imposing enough and showed enough to make me believe he is a real weapon. It’s one thing to have a big bodied receiver with raw skills, but he also possesses a huge catch radius and good hands. He needs work on his soft skills, but that’s what coaching and development are for.
I wish he would have received more reps earlier once Allison was hurt, and while a burner like Valdes-Scantling has his place, EQ could have been used as a situational weapon. The development time should have gone to St. Brown from the start. If he can increase his catch percentage next season to merely adequate levels he will be incredibly productive. If Rodgers simply plays like his normal self, that should happen almost automatically.
Shawn Wagner: Jaire Alexander
I’m not sure if I’m more excited about Alexander or simply curious. After quickly bursting onto the scene as the Packers’ top corner as a rookie, Alexander had his share of struggles down the stretch. The “rookie wall” is a common term to describe that first-year plateau, but Green Bay’s recent issues with high-round cornerbacks in their sophomore seasons are troubling.
Kevin King’s injuries hampered his ability to produce in his second season in 2018, but even former picks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins saw a drop in production in their second campaigns. Randall’s case was especially perplexing after showing signs of becoming a top starter after making the move from college safety. Even before being traded to Cleveland, it became apparent that Randall probably would never have a season quite like his rookie year. Rollins, meanwhile, never looked the same as a slot corner or playmaker after an encouraging first year.
I’m not saying Alexander will become a bust next season, but the sophomore slump has been a factor in the past. After watching Derwin James become an instant Pro Bowler in his rookie season (after the Packers passed on him), it would be a much-needed incentive to see Alexander reach his full potential as a starting corner in Green Bay.
Bob Fitch: Oren Burks
If only because I want to actually see him on the field, my choice is Oren Burks. As an inexperienced coverage linebacker, Burks left a lot to be desired last year after playing excellently in the preseason. Burks played best when he didn’t have to think and let his athletic traits do the work, and hopefully a year of offseason training and learning NFL offenses has helped his mind catch up with his body, which hopefully also added some bulk.
The linebacker depth has deteriorated rapidly, and much of the recent draft capital selected at that position hasn’t panned out. I’m a pretty big believer of drafting athletes and accentuating their existing positive traits rather than forcing guys into an existing system, but it’ll remain to be seen if there is a spot on the field for Burks. Ideally he would be matched up against tight ends or running backs, covering short and middle depth routes sideline to sideline. Blake Martinez can’t play as much as he did last year and expect to last long; hopefully, Burks can validate his third-round draft status in year 2 and get Martinez some well earned time off, particularly on passing downs.
Mike Vieth: Tony Brown
I am very intrigued by the whole cornerback position going into next year. I think the Packers did a very good job grabbing Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson in the first two rounds last year. I think Alexander is going to be a number one or two corner without a doubt. Jackson will be a solid slot corner or, if he continues to struggle with man coverage, he’ll convert to and be a solid safety. Even Natrell Jamerson, who was claimed off waivers in December from Houston, has the ability to be a very good special teams player.
The one player that could be the X-factor from all the rookie corners will be Tony Brown. If Brown can continue making strides in his coverage skills and keep his physical play where it is, he will be an amazing pickup. Getting four solid corners in one year will set the Packers up for years to come.
After being undrafted, Brown played with a nice chip on his shoulder and his swagger was impressive. While the swagger got him a taunting penalty against Detroit and his over aggressiveness led to an unsportsmanlike penalty against the 49ers, the penalties didn’t bother me. Sure they happened at bad times and showed poor judgment but I would rather have that than a player that is timid and scared to make mistakes.
Brown, along with all young players, will make mental mistakes and as long as they grow from them and learn to control the emotions, it’s nothing to worry about. When I see Brown play, I see the potential of a Sam Shields type of player. If they can get that type of player along with the continued progress of the other rookies, and a healthy Kevin King, the Packers corners could be dangerous.
Jon Meerdink: Tyler Lancaster
If Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark have taught us anything, it’s that defensive line play can be incredibly entertaining to watch. The brutal, less-than-glorious aspects of slamming head-on into an opposing team’s biggest players reveal a beautiful meta-game of moves and counter moves playing out at incredible speed.
In 2018, we got to watch Tyler Lancaster learn that game in real time. Undrafted out of Northwestern, Lancaster climbed from practice squad to the active roster to the regular defensive line rotation. To be fair, that rise was fueled by a not-insignificant number of injuries ahead of him on the depth chart. But once he got into the lineup, he rarely left. Over the final six games of the season, he played more than half the defensive snaps four times.
Given the physical nature of defensive line play, it can take a couple years of seasoning for a young player to really find where they belong. In part, that’s what makes me excited to watch him next year. He earned valuable experience in 2018 and it’ll be exciting to see if he can take a big step forward.
Evan “Tex” Western: Josh Jackson
Mainly, I’m fascinated to see how the Packers use Jackson in his second year. Perhaps he’ll be able to harness his ball skills and keep his hands to himself better while learning to be comfortable playing man coverage. That’s the best-case scenario -- that he does become a very good outside cornerback opposite Jaire Alexander and Kevin King.
However, I think it’s also entirely possible that the team pushes him to the deep middle, putting him at free safety where he is better able to use his instincts and follow the quarterback’s eyes. That’s where he excelled in college -- dropping back in zone coverage, anticipating where the quarterback would go with the football, and going up and getting it.
The variance on Jackson is arguably higher than for any other second-year player in 2019. He could take a massive step forward and become a budding star like his draft classmate Jaire Alexander, or continue his unimpressive play from his rookie year. The questions about his position only add to the intrigue.
Peter Bukowski: Equanimeous St. Brown
Given how many names have already been mentioned on this list, Brian Gutekunst must be smiling. He brought in a considerable amount of talent in the 2018 draft class as well as UDFAs with Tony Brown and there is so much moldable ability to be excited about if you’re a Packers fan.
St. Brown stands out for two reasons: the first is his physical tools. He was a Day 2 talent who fell for reasons that remain unclear to this very moment. His size, speed, hands, and improved route running stood out last season and he eventually beat out Marquez Valdes-Scantling for playing time once Mike McCarthy took his leave.
The other is Aaron Rodgers. Jaire Alexander is immensely talented, but as we saw against the Rams, he can be singularly awesome and the defense can falter. If EQ is crushing it, he’s going to get the ball and therefore impact this team in a major way. He can be the big slot weapon or an outside receiver. He’s more physically gifted than Geronimo Allison and after a year of playing time, closed the experience and chemistry gap. It shouldn’t be surprising if EQ is WR2 by October.