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Wednesday Walkthroughs: Which Packers player has improved the most?

NFL: Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Two things are true: first, the Packers have been hammered by injuries this year, and second, they’ve kept right on ticking.

No matter how big the body count has gotten, the Packers have weathered the storm. And in large part, they’ve done it by leveraging improvements from within. Virtually every time someone on the Packers has been hurt, they’ve been replaced by someone who’s stepping into a bigger role for the first time.

Who has improved the most? We asked our writers for their takes, and here’s what they had to say.

Tyler Brooke: AJ Dillon

We saw flashes of what AJ Dillon could do as a rookie, but the second-year running back is starting to become a legitimate workhorse in the Green Bay backfield.

Dillon has always been able to win with power and strength, but the tape has shown a player who is much more comfortable with the team’s run concepts. His mental processing post-snap to find the right hole is vastly improved from last year, allowing him to bring speed and momentum into the hole for extra yards after contact.

It’s also worth noting how impressive he has been catching passes this year. After only catching two passes in 2020, he has hauled in 27 receptions for 261 yards and a pair of touchdowns this season. Some of those catches have been well outside of his frame, something that we never really saw from him at Boston College.

There are plenty of other players who have shown vast improvement, but Packers fans can’t wait to see what Dillon can do at Lambeau Field in December and January.

Paul Noonan: Preston Smith

Consensus was, heading into 2021 that Preston was washed, that bringing him back at all was a financial mistake, and a mistake of team construction. Instead, Preston Smith has been a crucial cog in a fierce pass rush, and his work opposite Rashan Gary is even better than his 12-sack 2019 season. Preston currently ranks 15th among edge rushers per PFF grades, but unlike Gary, he’s excelled in all aspects of the position, including coverage.

With Za’Darius Smith sidelined indefinitely, things looked bleak for Green Bay on the edge entering the season. With Gary’s ascension, and Preston’s bounceback, the Packers saw a pending weakness morph into a huge strength. That’s been the story of the entire defense this year at all levels, from Rasul Douglas through De’Vondre Campbell, and while those two deserve a ton of credit for upping their games, Preston’s great season is at least as unlikely, and every bit as important.

Jon Meerdink: Rashan Gary

Gary is becoming who he was supposed to be when the Packers selected him 12th overall in 2019. According to Pro Football Focus, he’s racked 58 total pressure so far in 2021, a career high and a big increase over his total of 46 in 2020. His 58 pressures rank seventh in the league, which becomes even more impressive when you note that he’s the only player in the NFL with 50 or more pressure who hasn’t played in every game.

Gary’s not piling up traditional stats, but those would come. Sooner or later, those pressures will become sacks, and as he continues to refine his pass rushing repertoire, it’s hard to believe that his impressive athleticism won’t bring them in bunches.

Kris Burke: Dean Lowry

If there was one big flaw in building the roster many saw with the way the 2021 Packers were built it was the lack of a true partner for Kenny Clark on the defensive line.

Who would have thought the answer was already on the roster? Well, maybe not THE answer but at least a satisfactory one. When Lowry signed his extension in the summer of 2019, his play slipped to the point where he was considered a possible cut candidate before the Packers instead decided to restructure his deal.

What followed has been a strong bounceback season for Lowry where he has been more disruptive than expected along the line and he has already matched his sack total from last season with four games to go and he’s also two tackles shy of last year’s total.

He’s not getting bullied and is routinely winning his matchups. That is a welcome sight from where he was in 2020.

Tex Western: Yosh Nijman

Remember back in the summer of 2021 when Nijman was playing so poorly in preseason snaps that it was widely speculated he’d be released at final cuts? Now he is playing left tackle – and playing pretty darn well! – for a team sitting in the top spot in the NFC.

Nijman has gone through a bit of a bumpy road this season, to be sure. He struggled a bit in his first substantial action, when he stepped in for an injured Elgton Jenkins against the San Francisco 49ers. He also had his hands full with a resurgent Robert Quinn this past weekend against the Bears, and Quinn ended up with a pair of sacks on the day. But he has allowed three sacks and taken just three penalties all season in 356 offensive snaps, somehow making left tackle less of a concern than multiple other positions on the offensive line.

Nijman was always incredibly athletic and incredibly raw in his technique when he signed with the Packers as an undrafted rookie in 2019. Now he has learned how to harness that athleticism and has become at worst a serviceable spot starter – which is an improvement of light years from where he was just a year ago.