Aaron Rodgers laughed off questions about player-run practices. Drew Brees had his guys together at a local high school or wherever and the Green Bay Packers, fresh off a Super Bowl title, couldn’t be bothered. Without offseason work thanks to a work stoppage and CBA negotiation, the Packers didn’t meet up for on-field work and took some heat for it. Then, they lit up the Saints’ defense in week one, Rodgers put together arguably the finest quarterback season ever played, and the fact we ever worried about such things felt laughable.
The Packers won’t get OTAs this season, or any of the assorted spring camps with the league taking the necessary precautions amid the coronavirus pandemic. Training camp will almost certainly be limited. But, they just won 13 games in 2019 and still have Rodgers. So, they’re fine right? It’ll be like 2011 all over again. Well ... sort of.
Superhero Rodgers doesn’t play for the Packers anymore, or if he does, he’s more like Batman than Superman, spending a lot more time as average citizen Bruce Wayne than a crime-fighting dynamo. Matt LaFleur doesn’t provide the same level of continuity Mike McCarthy brought back then, and of course, the weapons aren’t the same either.
Still, the Packers bring back a remarkable number of starters from last year’s team, and replaced some of their departed players with internal development rather than outside signings. Plus, they benefit from a modified schedule because so many of their fellow NFC contenders faced much more significant turnover this offseason that even—or perhaps especially—the draft likely won’t fix.
A nightmare scenario for rookie platers
Adam Thielen recently said this unique offseason would have been devastating to his young career. “Honestly, I probably wouldn’t be in the NFL if this would’ve happened my rookie year,” he told a local TV station.
That doesn’t bode well for the Vikings’ ability to develop players like Justin Jefferson or Jeff Gladney, each who will be expected to start and make meaningful contributions to a potential playoff team in 2020. The same goes for other young receivers on NFC contenders, including CeeDee Lamb in Dallas, Jalen Reagor in Philadelphia, and Brandon Aiyuk in San Francisco.
Such words of caution won’t quell concerns from Cheesehead Nation around Brian Gutekunst’s lack of aggression in adding pieces this offseason, but it’s useful context nonetheless. In short, the potential impact of those players on their respective teams would likely be more costly in a year with a normal offseason, although most rookies are bad as rookies, even if they eventually become quality players.
It’s not just receivers either. Teams like the Cowboys and 49ers will be expecting to backfill major contributions from star players with rookies in 2020. Trevon Diggs may eventually become a terrific cornerback, but expecting him to fill in for Byron Jones in any climate would be a fool’s errand. To do it with a digital offseason and potentially truncated training camp would just be foolish. The same goes for Javon Kinlaw in San Francisco, replacing DeForest Buckner, though to a somewhat lesser extent. Still, there’s basically no chance Kinlaw will provide of 75-80% of Buckner in ‘20.
These teams backfilled talent, but they won’t reap the benefits of that restocking of the proverbial cabinets this season. The Packers didn’t enter the draft in the same position.
What major holes did the Packers need to fill this offseason?
Heading into the draft, pinpointing likely starters for the Packers proved difficult. Perhaps slot cornerback if Tramon Williams didn’t re-sign, but Chandon Sullivan acquitted himself well. There’s a case for DL3, but Tyler Lancaster is only a nominal starter, with Mike Pettine preferring to play small. There were places where the Packers could have added talent or found long-term starters, like linebacker or right tackle, but even under traditional offseason circumstances, a rookie coming in and becoming a preferred starter was a longshot.
That speaks both to the quality of the roster overall (contrary to what one might read on Packers Twitter, the sky is not, in fact, falling) and the continuity of this franchise. On offense, nine of 11 starters return, with Jimmy Graham and Bryan Bulaga the major departures. Asking Jace Sternberger to play a bigger role represents a better bet than a rookie tight end, having played with Rodgers in the system for a season and Marcedes Lewis back in the fold. And while Wagner will be the new man on the line, he’s a veteran player coming to the best pass-blocker group in the league last year by Pass Block Win Rate.
Wagner will be the only offensive starter in 2020 who wasn’t with the team in 2019 if we assume Allen Lazard starts over Devin Funchess.
If we want to quibble, Geronimo Allison played more than half of snaps last year and he’s gone as well, but given the Packers’ apparent preference to play more from big personnel, the two tight end or two running back sets are “base.”
Continuity isn’t everything
Of course, continuity of personnel is just one factor. Mike McCarthy entered Year 4 with Rodgers in 2011, a team with one of the most loaded skill position groups of the last 20 years. Having Rodgers play the position as well, or better, than anyone else can paper over whatever deficiencies come from not having OTA’s.
On the other hand, Davante Adams’ ability to win individually, even against rolled coverage, has a case as the best skill player of either team, and Aaron Jones can’t be further down the list than fifth (after Adams, Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson for sure — we can quibble over Jermichael Finley).
In short, the impact of bringing back the same personnel can be similar in terms of its advantage relative to other teams, even if the results aren’t. Green Bay won’t magically turn into one of the best offenses ever, unless they hit the Falcons Year 2 lottery like Matt Ryan and Co. did in 2016 under Kyle Shanahan and LaFleur. That said, they will likely be ahead of other contending teams transitioning approaches and incorporating new players to play pivotal roles.
Defensively, Christian Kirksey follows Wagner as the only new-to-the-team starter on defense with the likely Sullivan-for-Williams swap coming from internal development. Green Bay won’t want the mirror of its defense from that ‘11 season, one of the worst in league history at the time, despite considerable consistency of personnel. But unlike that disastrous defense, the Packers bring back every impact contributor from 2019, plus can expect development from rising stars like Jaire Alexander, Darnell Savage, and Adrian Amos to go along with the upside of Rashan Gary and Kevin King.
Even the new addition, Kirksey, played for Pettine in Cleveland and knows the defense. Replacing a defensive signal-caller, albeit a a flawed player like Blake Martinez, would normally be a burden, but Kirksey’s scheme experience provides an avenue to mitigate the potential downgrade.
Without the COVID-19 pandemic, a tragedy for reasons that extend well beyond football, we may otherwise have expected more of a jump in Year 2 with Matt LaFleur than we’ll eventually see. On the other hand, a year in the system and multiple seasons with this offensive line and weapons provides the Packers a continuity their biggest competitors in the NFC lack outside of New Orleans. And while the Packers didn’t add significant pieces on defense like the Eagles for example, they too bring back a talented, ascending group.
An offseason that might otherwise be somewhat disappointing looks better through this lens, while providing a reminder who well this team played last year with quality starters at the essential positions. Such a luxury doesn’t necessarily close the talent gap with a team like the 49ers but it does provide a case that the marquee draft picks and even some free agents won’t impact their teams as much as they would in other seasons.
Replacing Emmanuel Sanders with Brandon Aiyuk will be tricky in San Francisco. That helps the Packers. Ditto for the Vikings going from Stefon Diggs to Justin Jefferson. That would have been true under normal circumstances, a factor now exacerbated. Green Bay doesn’t face those challenges. That provides a built-in buffer for the Packers even if it’s marginal. Football is a game of marginal advantages though, and to defeat regression, they’ll need every little edge they can get.