With the Green Bay Packers’ first practice slated for Saturday, all of the burning questions and storylines of a long, tumultuous offseason are finally about to play out.
In a preseason-less world, training camp battles will be in full force as veterans and rookies alike will compete for valuable first- and second-team reps in attempts to make the roster. That lack of game action, however, could help a pair of veterans on offense and special teams expand upon their niches.
Today’s musings examine those roles, as well as a draft streak three decades in the running.
Who will compete with Tyler Ervin for a return-man role?
Green Bay has been searching for a while to find a bona fide kick and punt returner. The Packers hoped to have found their man with straight-line speed in Trevor Davis back in 2016, but gave up on their former draft pick last September when they traded him to Oakland. Although Davis would not last long with the Raiders and wound up finishing the season with Miami (and is now a member of the Bears’ roster), he did return a punt for 32 yards and a kick for 52 yards. It took the Packers until Week 14 to find a player that was capable of coming close to those numbers.
That player was Tyler Ervin after experiments-gone-wrong with Tremon Smith and Darrius Shepherd. Ervin eventually would average 9.6 yards per punt return and another 26.7 per kick, aided by a long of 45 yards. Along with his lift as a returner, Ervin also slid into the third-string running back role for the remainder of the season. However, with AJ Dillon now on the roster and Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams figuring to return, roster spots could be limited in the backfield, especially if Dexter Williams gets a second chance. In case Ervin’s spot becomes difficult to retain, it would be wise for Green Bay to audition additional members of the roster for a return-man role in 2020.
There are a lot of unknowns in terms of who may compete for that role. Jaire Alexander has had previous experience as a punt returner as a rookie, but his value as a cornerback makes his health risk on special teams significant. Likewise, Jamaal Williams has gotten a few reps as a kick returner but does not have the desired home-run speed to be a serious weapon. Marquez Valdes-Scantling fits the profile in that regard, but has only returned one kick to this point in his NFL career. Shepherd may also get another opportunity as a returner while trying to make the team as a receiver. The dark horse in the race, though a lack of preseason hurts his chances, just might be undrafted rookie Darrell Stewart. If Stewart can carve out a primary role at wide receiver, his college experience as a returner at Michigan State could make him a candidate worth exploring.
Although Jace Sternberger may start, Robert Tonyan could see an all-around increase in usage
When the Packers decided to part ways with Jimmy Graham following last season, their 2019 third-round pick Sternberger became the assumed starting tight end by default. Josiah Deguara, an H-back and tight end hybrid, then became the hot name following the draft to play a valuable new role. While both players certainly are players to watch heading into the regular season, Graham’s 60 targets a year ago should be expected to be divided among a variety of players.
One of those individuals, perhaps lost in the shuffle, is Robert Tonyan. The third-year pro has seen limited targets from Aaron Rodgers over his first two seasons, but has shown small flashes of receiving talent. With 12 personnel sets, a mix of the receiving-focused Sternberger with blockers like Marcedes Lewis and Tonyan could make for ideal pairings. That is where Tonyan, a more elusive receiving weapon than Lewis at this stage, could begin to see increased snaps and prove his worth as a check-down, safety valve for Rodgers.
While the Packers expect to have a very similar group of wide receivers taking the field this season, the tight end group could be a fascinating element to watch within the offense.
Green Bay extended an interesting draft statistic in 2020
While Jonathan Garvin may end up playing much more edge linebacker for the Packers than defensive line, the former college defensive end became a member of a long-standing draft streak.
Dating back to 1986, Green Bay has selected at least one defensive lineman in each draft, a streak of 34 consecutive years. While General Manager Brian Gutekunst has been wildly unpredictable in his short tenure as draft decision-maker, he has continued a franchise strategy of creating depth and competition along the line while valuing athleticism. As many have said, there are only so many players big and athletic enough to play defensive line in the NFL and the Packers certainly have cast their lines in search for big fish. Still, it was curious that Green Bay did not add to its interior line depth in the draft to pair with Garvin on the edge.