Draft-and-develop has been a philosophy long utilized by the Green Bay Packers to build a consistent winning franchise. For many teams, including the Packers, that strategy will be tested significantly in 2020 by the coronavirus and may lead to struggles producing the critical first-to-second-year jumps desired of so many young players.
APC’s Tex Western recently discussed head coach Matt LaFleur’s comments about the team’s creativity in adjusting to the pandemic in terms of one-on-one conversation and video instruction for newcomers. But the lack of on-field instruction usually afforded to first- and second-year pros through rookie minicamps and organized team activities, not to mention training camp, could be a significant factor in the team’s performance next season.
While many professionals across the league will be affected, here are a few of those second-year players on the Packers’ roster that could have benefited greatly from a full, normal offseason.
Last year’s first-rounder had difficulty getting consistent weekly snap counts as a rookie, spending time behind two marquee free agent signings. With the depth as well as a position change to consider, a major impact from Gary in his first season would have been semi-surprising despite being the 12th pick of the draft. Still, Gary’s stat line after a scrutinized college career left much to be desired, even with a stronger finish to the season. With Kyler Fackrell leaving in free agency, Gary was primed for a larger role behind the Smith Brothers in year two and maintaining the depth on the edge.
The pandemic specifically takes a toll on a player like Gary, whose improvement at the position hinges on extra reps to practice technique. There is no doubt that he has the physical tools to become a pivotal player for Green Bay and the NFL, but losing perhaps the most critical offseason of his career does not help Gary’s cause in translating those tools to on-field production.
Although the Packers selected Josiah Deguara in the third round to make an immediate offensive impact, much is still expected from Sternberger after being last year’s third-round pick. With Jimmy Graham’s departure, Sternberger will have the first opportunity ahead of Marcedes Lewis and Robert Tonyan to take the lion’s share of first-team responsibilities at tight end, and show some of the receiving threat he displayed as a college junior.
However, as health was a major factor in his development as a rookie, Sternberger finds himself in a similar position to Gary in requiring on-field teaching to make that large jump, especially after having limited on-field experience as a collegian to begin with. The traits are there for Sternberger to stretch the defense in all areas of the field, but will there be enough growth to help Green Bay as a starter at the beginning of the 2020 season?
It was a bit head-scratching that with all of Green Bay’s struggles to stop the run at various points of the 2019 season, Keke played in just 9% of the team’s defensive snaps. After being picked by many to be the team’s hidden gem of the draft class, Keke registered just one quarterback pressure as a rookie. His development as a five-technique, with the ability to move inside on passing downs, is critical to a Packers defensive line that saw limited growth from Montravius Adams and Tyler Lancaster in the interior, and a lack of results from Dean Lowry on the end after his contract extension. Green Bay did not add much muscle to the defensive line through the draft, but did sign a young Treyvon Hester afterwards. Keke’s opportunity is there for the taking to become a role player on the defensive front, but his athleticism could have been paired nicely with a spring of in-person coaching.
The drafting of three interior offensive linemen in April signified the Packers’ goal of increasing the depth in that area, while preparing for eventual shuffling and loss. What that means for Madison in particular is uncertain. The former fifth-round pick in 2018 sat out the 2018 season for personal reasons, but also did not appear in any games last year upon his return. The loss of his first season surely set Madison back, but the loss of a true first offseason deeply deters Madison from being able to make a sizable adjustment to the pro game. Madison already was making a transition from college tackle to NFL guard, and now he will face significant competition just to make the 2020 roster, especially if he cannot show the versatility to be a swing tackle. It has been a series of unfortunate events for Madison since joining Green Bay.
Ka’dar Hollman and Kabion Ento
Hollman, a 2019 sixth-round pick, and Ento, an undrafted free agent, each could have made monumental gains with normal team activities. While the Packers return Jaire Alexander, Kevin King, and Chandon Sullivan at cornerback, the development of Josh Jackson has been disappointing and the team let slot corner Tramon Williams walk in free agency. The latter two situations have left doors open for Hollman and Ento to secure reps with the first- and second-team defensive units — doors that could lead to roster spots and extensive playing time beyond the 2020 season.
Ento gained recognition from the coaching staff last training camp after making the move from college wide receiver to NFL corner and was able to spend a year on the practice squad for further development. Likewise, Hollman received praise in preseason before spending most of the season on the inactive list on game days. Both bring good size to the position and great success stories if they are to carve out professional roles. But the lack of meaningful reps as a result of this pandemic could stymie the possibility of each’s long-term outlook.