A 13-3 season, NFC North championship, and postseason run to the NFC Championship Game were all fantastic surprises for the Green Bay Packers over the course of the 2019 season. And while the team ultimately did fall short of its Super Bowl aspirations, it was an encouraging sign for an organization that underwent a head coaching change the previous offseason and took an expensive gamble on a number of prized free agents.
Outside of Matt LaFleur’s rather surprising start to his NFL head coaching career, the Packers received a number of noteworthy, and perhaps overachieving, performances from other newcomers to the roster. As Green Bay enters the offseason and turns its attention toward the 2020 season, here is a look back at some of those surprising individuals from the past year.
The second-year pro had to scratch and claw to make the Packers’ final roster, but by season’s end, Sullivan became a real contributor in the secondary.
Although he only had one interception on the season, Sullivan leap-frogged recent draft picks Ka’Dar Hollman and Josh Jackson and cemented himself as a dime cornerback so much that Tony Brown became expendable. Sullivan added six pass deflections and a forced fumble while playing behind Jaire Alexander, Kevin King, and Tramon Williams. For what it is worth, Sullivan posted a higher grade from Pro Football Focus than all but Williams during the 2019 season. From roster bubble to a 16-game contributor, Sullivan should have another opportunity to make a difference next season.
When the Packers initially trimmed their roster down to 53 at the end of summer, Lazard was one of the final casualties despite having a solid training camp and earning a bit of praise from Aaron Rodgers. It did not take long for Lazard to find his way back to Green Bay in some capacity, signing to the practice squad the following day and then getting elevated to the active roster three days later. What a difference he made for the offense from that point forward.
In a season in which Green Bay saw very few young receivers take a step forward as hoped, Lazard may have guaranteed a roster spot for himself in 2020. The former Iowa State Cyclone appeared in all 16 games and even made three starts en route to a 35-catch, 477-yard season with a trio of touchdown receptions. While Lazard is not an athletic wonder, he does bring size to the position and became a reliable route runner over the middle. He continued to gain Rodgers’ trust over the course of the season and was the team’s number two pass-catcher as it came to a close.
Sure, Smith’s contract suggested the Packers thought highly of the fifth-year pro when they signed him last spring. But who could have expected the quick impact the pass rusher could make?
On the field, Smith became a leader of the defense with his emotional play and consistent effort. A 16-game starter, Smith tallied 13.5 sacks in his first season with Green Bay, adding 17 tackles for a loss and 37 quarterback hits, according to Pro Football Reference. Smith eventually worked his way into the Pro Bowl, but he was an absolute disrupter for the Packers’ defense and a player opposing offenses needed to account for at all times. While Preston Smith was also an instrumental addition to the team, Za’Darius gave Green Bay the type of versatile pass-rushing demon it searched for for a very long time. The future is bright for a player like Smith just entering his prime.
The Packers received Goodson for next to nothing in a trade with the New York Giants prior to the start of the regular season, but the fourth-year inside linebacker went on to start nine games for the Packers in 15 total appearances.
While Goodson’s stats were not flashy with 35 tackles and no takeaways, the fact that he started half the team’s games was surprising. Oren Burks was supposed to nail down that starting spot next to Blake Martinez before a late injury in preseason. Although the Packers did use a combination of Raven Greene and Ibraheim Campbell in the inside on passing downs, Goodson’s overall addition and average of 17 snap counts per game were not expected in 2019.
Darnell Savage turned in a promising rookie season with 14 starts, but he was a first-round pick at a safety position looking for immediate upgrades. Jenkins, taken in the second round, was expected to sit behind Billy Turner and Lane Taylor at guard for a season before fighting for a starting role. When Taylor was injured and lost for the season after just two games, that opportunity came quicker than expected.
The results were surprisingly comforting. Though Jenkins was penalized 10 times during the entire year, including six holding calls, he earned a spot on the Professional Football Writers of America All-Rookie team for his outstanding play. Jenkins allowed just one quarterback hit and no sacks as a pass protector, while only posting one blown block in the running game. Green Bay has a decision to make in the offseason on its future at right tackle with Bryan Bulaga entering free agency, but Jenkins’ play as a rookie is reassuring at the left guard spot for a long time to come.