Training camp is officially over and the Minnesota Vikings are looming on the horizon. Folks, pretty soon we’re going to be watching actual football.
And now the dust of training camp has settled (such as it was, what with the no preseason games and all), it’s time to start thinking about who we’re most excited to watch when the regular season finally, mercifully kicks off.
Here are the position groups we’ve got a collective eye on as the Green Bay Packers prepare for their Week 1 date in Minnesota.
Shawn Wagner: Edge rushers
It’s hard not to be excited about the encore performance coming from Preston and Za’Darius Smith in 2020 after racking up a combined 25.5 sacks and 133 pressures last season. But had there been a preseason to scout the outlook of the unit, there would have been even more excitement.
Coaches have not stopped gushing about Rashan Gary’s growth and effort throughout the summer and the second-year pro parlayed some of that development into a strong camp. With a second full season on the edge and Kyler Fackrell now in New York, Gary is in line for increased snaps, which should result in a numbers boost. I’m looking forward to seeing what the coaches and media have been gushing about, and if Gary can truly tap into that well-documented potential.
Even behind Gary, there have been some encouraging signs from Tim Williams, Randy Ramsey and seventh-round pick Jonathan Garvin in the battle for a fourth edge rusher. Garvin, in particular, is a high-upside player who just turned 21 and has some raw tools to someday make a big impact. Watching these players in preseason, along with other rookies like Delontae Scott and Tipa Galeai, would have been fun to dream on.
Paul Noonan: Corners
If the defense is improved from last year, this will be the reason why. The increased role for Chandon Sullivan is the x-factor, and the biggest reason to be excited. While Tramon Williams was quietly excellent in 2019, he’s obviously getting up there and has lost several steps at this point. Outstanding technique can get you far, but at some point, you need to be able to run with people. Sullivan isn’t a burner, but he was an elite tester in explosion (jumping) drills, and in his limited work so far, he’s graded extremely well. Best served as a slot corner working in smaller spaces, he’s also a nice thumper against the run.
Jaire Alexander looks great, but his underlying metrics haven’t been quite as good as his tape. He can get bullied by bigger receivers and occasionally gives up big plays. I’ll wager this changes this season and he rounds into a complete lockdown corner. Kevin King is more than adequate on the other side, and I suspect, with Darnell Savage having another year under his belt, that this will be the best secondary they’ve had in a very long time.
Jon Meerdink: Running backs (and maybe fullbacks?)
I know, I know. “Running backs don’t matter.” “Running is less efficient.” “Every run play is taking away an opportunity to pass.” Yes, I know and understand all of those things. Running backs are still cool, though. They’re some of the most athletic players on a roster chock full of high-end athletes, and they represent the perfect marriage of the violence and skill required to play football.
The Packers’ stable of backs is going to be really interesting this year. What will Aaron Jones do as a follow up to his great 2019 season? Can A.J. Dillon actually run on those tree trunks? What can Matt LaFleur cook up for Tyler Ervin? Where does Jamaal Williams fit into all of this? All of these are fascinating questions and soon we’ll get to watch them play out in real time. I think it will be exciting and interesting to watch, even if it’s not the most analytically sound brand of football.
Plus, there’s a chance we’ll see John Lovett (or some similarly versatile fullback/H-back type, not including Josiah Deguara) at some point this season, which is an entirely different and equally interesting proposition. There’s certainly a role for that kind of player in LaFleur’s offense, but who will fill it? I’m excited to find out.
Tex Western: Edge rushers
I’ll echo Shawn here — I think that the Packers are going to have the best three-deep edge group in the NFL this year. Lists from NFL analysts be damned: The Smiths are absolutely a top-five tandem, and I dare you to tell position coach Mike Smith they’re not if you disagree. Za’Darius was one of the most consistent players in generating pressure in the entire league last season, while Preston remains an exceptional EDGE2, able to set the edge in the run as well as get after the passer and drop into coverage.
What takes my excitement level up a notch, however, is the juice that Rashan Gary seems to have brought after this weird offseason. Gary had few opportunities last season, but he did record some decent pressures. Now based on the glowing reviews from training camp, I’m on board with him being a potential game-wrecker along with the Smiths in his second year.
The depth pieces have some intriguing talent here as well. 7th-rounder Jonathan Garvin could play a similar role to Z or Gary, potentially giving the team some rotational snaps with his hand in the dirt. And Tim Williams has plenty of athletic ability; if he’s refining his game better, that would be a hell of a lot of talent in the fourth and fifth players on the depth chart.