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Packers Friday Musings: 2019 draft class is emerging after big game vs. Saints

Kingsley Keke was one of several second-year players to play a critical role in last Sunday’s win.

Green Bay Packers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

As the Green Bay Packers approach Week 4 of the NFL season, they do so with back-to-back primetime matchups. Fresh off a Sunday Night Football win over the New Orleans Saints, the Packers will now take on the Atlanta Falcons on Monday Night Football before enjoying the bye week.

A bye week may be just what the doctor ordered, pun intended, for a team that might be without a key offensive contributor for the foreseeable future due to injury. While today’s musings investigate some of the receiving injuries affecting both the Packers and Falcons, they also take a look at the rise of second-year pros last week as a result of further injuries. Plus, after the Falcons’ performance last week, could the Green Bay pass rush be in for a big night?

Without further ado, here are the thoughts of the day.

Packers are beginning to see the fruits of their labor in Brian Gutekunst’s second draft class

Through three games, the Packers have played a number of younger pros in their first three seasons, including a few rookies. But Sunday night’s game highlighted one particular draft class during Gutekunst’s tenure - the 2019 haul.

Heading into this season, the jury was still out on that class. Elgton Jenkins and Darnell Savage quickly earned starting gigs and had productive rookie seasons for Green Bay. But overall, the rest of the class had plenty to prove and that included first-rounder Rashan Gary. But Gary has garnered reviews as the team’s most improved player thus far, while Jenkins and Savage have continued their roles as starters. The third week of the season also saw a bounce-back performance from tight end Jace Sternberger, the team’s third-rounder a year ago. Some of his catch-and-runs were exactly what the team envisioned when it selected Sternberger last year and he recovered from the injuries that plagued him in Week 2.

Adding to those more expected contributors was a pair of players that jumped to the forefront against the Saints. With Christian Kirksey leaving the game early, seventh-rounder Ty Summers also was thrust into action and saw 44 defensive snaps. He had his share of ups and downs in his first true meaningful defensive action as a pro, but figures to have another large role this week in the middle of the defense. Perhaps the surprise of the day was a breakout performance from Kingsley Keke, the former fifth-round pick. In the absence of Kenny Clark for a second straight week, Keke notched two sacks and a forced fumble in 46% of the defensive snaps.

It may have taken a year, but the 2019 draft class is beginning to look a whole lot better just three weeks into the regular season.

Green Bay could generate increased pressures against Atlanta based on the Falcons’ last performance

Outside of Keke’s sacks, the Packers really struggled to consistently pressure Drew Brees last week and that led to quite a bit of trouble getting off the field. However, looking back at some clips provided by Windy City Gridiron, Chicago was able to create plenty of problems for Atlanta’s passing game in Week 3 and that should bode well for the Packers.

The Bears only registered two sacks, but they had near double-digit hits and pressures. Atlanta’s right side of the line, particularly tackle Matt Gono, struggled mightily against the speed rush of Khlalil Mack. The Bears were able to get several one-on-one opportunities for Mack against Gono, as well as the tight end, and reaped the benefits. The interior defensive line also was productive for Chicago with stunts and pure bull rush power that pushed the guards back.

For Green Bay’s defensive front, film review should be fascinating this week. Scheming Za’Darius and Preston Smith into similar situations like Mack exposed could prove game-changing with their own speed on the outside. A healthy return of Kenny Clark could also provide a lift in up-the-middle pressure, while Keke showed the ability to get to the passer via a stunt against the Saints. The Packers’ pass rush has not been as effective by the numbers as it was last season, but this week’s game could present a favorable matchup.

Both teams appear to be entering Monday night limited at wide receiver

Jaw-dropping news broke this week when Allen Lazard reportedly had surgery on a core muscle and will be out indefinitely. The loss of Lazard stung a Packers wide receiver corps that was already thin without Davante Adams last week and Equanimeous St. Brown, who was placed on injured reserve. While there is hope that Adams can return against Atlanta, it still might be in a more limited fashion and forces players like Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Malik Taylor into expanded roles. Green Bay did well to involve three tight ends in the receiving game last week and could very well continue to game plan around them. Still, the Packers will be scrambling to replace Lazard’s presence.

But the Packers are not alone. Atlanta took the field without Julio Jones last week, and the Pro Bowler remained a limited participant this week. Likewise, Russell Gage has been in concussion protocol and blossoming receiver Calvin Ridley was also held out of Thursday’s practice. While the Falcons could have all three receivers by the time Monday rolls around, the team figures to be careful with the trio, especially with Jones and Ridley nursing hamstring and ankle injuries, respectively.

Receiving injuries have been handcuffing for the Packers in the early season, but the same could be said for the Falcons. The effects on both teams will be one of the more important aspects of the game to watch Monday and, in the case of the Packers, the next several weeks.