Legendary Marquette basketball coach Al McGuire is supposed to have once said “The best thing about freshmen is they become sophomores.” That the quote has been attributed to dozens of other sports personalities really doesn’t matter, because the point is a good one: young players mature and improve. That’s the goal, at least.
The 2019 Green Bay Packers succeeded both in spite and because of their young players last year, and many of them will be asked to take on bigger roles in 2020. Here are the second-year players we’ll be watching the most closely this season.
Tex Western: Rashan Gary
This may seem like a cop-out, but I’m really excited to see what Gary can bring to Green Bay in his second season. As the fourth option on the edge, Gary only saw about a quarter of the team’s defensive snaps, but for a player who was adjusting to a new position, I don’t see that as a bad trajectory. Indeed, the fact that the team did not need him to be an instant contributor is probably good for his overall development.
Now as the unquestioned number three option behind the Smiths, and with likely more responsibilities and roles on his plate, Gary should push for closer to 50 percent playing time, or more of injury strikes either of the starters. While some Packers fans appear ready to write Gary off already, I am still bullish on his prospects as a versatile edge rusher who can be used interchangeably with Za’Darius Smith both on the outside and with his hand in the dirt.
Rcon14: Jace Sternberger
It may seem overdramatic, but a lot of the Packers offensive efficiency is probably riding on what the Packers get out of Jace Sternberger. They almost completely neglected the wide receiver position (slow and largely mediocre Devin Funchess barely counts), so any improvement from the receiving corps will have to come from within. While Jimmy Graham was truly awful as a run blocker for his entire tenure, he was a competent pass catching option (2.1% DVOA in 2019, 19th amongst qualifying TEs). Marcedes Lewis is a nice veteran presence, but he’s essentially a sixth offensive lineman on his snaps. Robert Tonyan is a fun athlete, but has a grand total of fourteen career catches.
Sternberger will have to carry the load of being TE1 if the offense has any real upside. While his rookie campaign was entirely forgettable, it’s important to remember that rookie tight ends are almost always bad. I don’t have high expectations for Sternberger in year two, but if he can replace Jimmy Graham’s receiving production and be an actual tight-end in the running game, that would be a very good return for a second year tight-end.
Shawn Wagner : Kingsley Keke
I thought it was curious when the Packers chose not to beef up the defensive line during the 2020 NFL Draft outside of edge rusher Jonathan Garvin. The line itself needs someone to step up next season and Keke represents one of those players with the potential to take that leap. Keke should give the Packers flexibility both on the end and in the interior with his athleticism and skillset and his improvement could push both Tyler Lancaster and Montravius Adams. Without many additions from the outside, Keke becomes a critical piece to Green Bay’s puzzle in defending the run better and, frankly, I was surprised when he didn’t get more defensive snaps as a rookie.
Jon Meerdink: Allen Lazard
Allen Lazard is only technically a second-year guy. He bounced around the league for a while before landing in Green Bay late in 2018. But his first regular season on-field action came last year, so for the purposes of this exercises, he’s a second-year man.
Lazard came on beautifully down the stretch last year, growing into a nice role on offense that was only kept small by a mystifying reliance on Geronimo Allison. With Allison off to Detroit and the only other major addition at wide receiver coming in the form of Devin Funchess, Lazard should have a decent shot at playing a bigger role in 2020, something that should suit him nicely. He may never be a field-stretcher, but so what? He did fine as a complementary piece in 2019, and throwing some more snaps his way should only increase his contributions.
Paul Noonan: Darnell Savage
We usually talk about Gary as the 2019 draftee with the highest upside, but that moniker should probably go to Savage. Like Gary, he was a first-rounder with fantastic measurables. Unlike Gary, he immediately showed why the pick was warranted and remains the incumbent starter going into the 2020 season. There are two knocks on Savage, the first being that his relatively small frame may make it difficult to stay on the field. The second is an occasional lack of discipline which took him out of position, however his recovery speed is so good that it almost didn’t matter, and if he learns to play in position this season, he has the talent to be the best in the league. If the defense is going to improve from last year’s “meh” performance, it will be on the young guys to step up, and Savage is their best bet to be a star.