For years, the Green Bay Packers banked hard on player growth as a team-improvement strategy. Unfortunately, the “develop” part of “draft and develop” is often much easier said than done.
But this year, the Packers are benefitting from a few big jumps from players they’ve had in the pipeline for quite some time. Here are our picks for the most improved members of their developmental prospects.
Shawn Wagner: Robert Tonyan
An easy answer would be Rashan Gary and he may indeed be the most improved Packer after a stellar second week. But I’m going to go with Tonyan. The third-year tight end had been on the field for less than 10% of snaps as a rookie and less than 20% of snaps last season. But through two games, Tonyan has seen action on 60% of the team’s offensive snaps and has become the team’s number one tight end, even if the depth chart doesn’t reflect that. More importantly, he is becoming a legitimate route runner when he is on the field, which shows signs of an upgraded role.
Tonyan only has the two catches against Detroit this season, one being a touchdown, but the targets from Aaron Rodgers (who has improved himself) are increasing. The drops from Jace Sternberger only help Tonyan’s cause. The statistical marks of improvement from Tonyan may be hard to see after just two games, but a bigger season may lie ahead.
Tex Western: Rashan Gary
This isn’t really close for me. Last year, Gary played just 244 snaps — just under a quarter of the team’s total defensive snaps — and he was credited with five total pressures on the year (according to Pro Football Reference). This year he has 65 snaps through two games, about 60 percent of the team’s total, showing that he has taken on a bigger role on defense. But in 2020, he has already matched last year’s pressure total in only a quarter of the snaps, while nearly matching his sack total from 2019 (two) on Sunday alone.
Gary looks like a totally different player in 2020 from the raw youngster we saw a year ago. He had those flashes, but he never put together a complete or even remotely consistent game. On Sunday against Detroit, he was a terror, and he’s justifying the faith that the Packers placed in him in April 2019 when they made him the 12th overall pick in the draft.
Paul Noonan: Kingsley Keke
With Kenny Clark getting hurt in week one, the defensive line has had a rough go of it, and the Packers have had their typical difficulty stopping the run. None of this can be blamed on Keke, who has impressed early, and has been, dare I say, stout against the run while holding his own in pass defense. Keke was a 5th-round pick in the 2019 draft, but there’s a decent case to be made that he should have gone higher, as he’s a pretty solid athlete. He made several nice plays against the Lions and he keeps flashing week in and week out.
Their problems mostly stem from lack of depth behind Clark, and the continued underperformance of Dean Lowry and Montravius Adams, but going forward, the Keke/Clark combo should give Pettine something to work with, especially as temperatures drop later in the season.
Jon Meerdink: Elgton Jenkins
Counterintuitive, right? Here’s my case.
Last year, Jenkins was excellent, but it wasn’t necessarily a wire-to-wire dominant performance. He couldn’t quite nudge Lane Taylor out of the starting lineup, and though he was headed for a bigger role, it took a torn biceps for Jenkins to supplant the veteran.
This year, Jenkins is approaching superhero status. Not only is he an All-Pro caliber guard, he’d probably be the Packers preferred backup at both tackle spots if they needed a long-term solution. We already know what he can do at right tackle in limited reps: he battled Yannick Ngakoue to at least a draw in Week 1. And maybe it was just to prove he could still do it, but he also took snaps at center in training camp.
Calling someone “most improved” often means they went from not very good to passable. Jenkins has gone from really good to downright great.