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Three improved positions the Packers should unveil in 2021

Health and an extra year of seasoning should lead to a more reliable inside linebacker unit, specifically, next season.

NFL: JAN 03 Packers at Bears Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As the Green Bay Packers drafted a number of possible quick contributors in April, the team’s possible step-back in quarterback play, headed by Aaron Rodgers’ uncertainty, carried a dark cloud over the course of the late spring. Still, as training camp approaches, optimism remains for the Packers at a number of other positions, especially if Rodgers returns to the fold.

While unexpected performances could indeed spark improvement in several areas of the Packers’ roster, three noteworthy positions should see boosts when the fans have their first opportunity to see the team up close.

Inside Linebacker

Signing De’Vondre Campbell could prove to be the type of shrewd move that pays dividends for a defense over the course of a season. At age 28, Campbell brings several years of professional experience and the type of athleticism Green Bay has been missing in its position group. The hope is that Campbell could be a potential three-down player that brings particular value in coverage on passing downs, more so than Christian Kirksey did last season. At the very least, Campbell represents a depth option with some remaining upside that the Packers could feel comfortable about in the event of injuries.

Health itself is another factor that should lead to an improved inside linebacker unit. Kirksey landed on injured reserve in the early half of last season, thrusting undrafted rookie Krys Barnes into a pivotal starting role that he manned until getting injured himself late in the season and missing action due to Covid-19. Barnes did return to the starting lineup, but he was also hampered by a broken thumb in the playoffs in which a club was required to play meaningful downs. Barnes was an admirable performer considering his draft status and a generally reliable tackler outside the clubbed hand, but he did allow a passer rating of 110.0. While his coverage ability could improve as a second-year player, Barnes’ area of weakness is exactly where Campbell could make a difference.

Another player who could step in and make a difference is fellow second-year ‘backer Kamal Martin, who was having a great training camp until suffering an injury that resulted in a six-week absence to begin the season. As Packers Wire noted, Martin quietly had a good rookie season by Pro Football Focus’s numbers but had discipline issues as a tackler. He certainly could be one of Green Bay’s biggest jumpers from year one to year two with his own athleticism, aggressiveness, and all-around traits.

The trio of Campbell, Barnes, and Martin could be the right inexpensive blend of talent for new Defensive Coordinator Joe Barry to work with after having developed several inside linebackers into strong contributors in previous stints, including in Los Angeles. That focused development is new and critical after years of the Packers shying away from using high-end resources to upgrade the position.

Running Back

This may be an odd take considering the season Aaron Jones had a year ago. But barring issues with pass-blocking, Green Bay could be poised for a big season from its running backs.

Especially if Jordan Love is the starting quarterback, the Packers will be looking to establish a running threat in their offensive system once again in 2021. While Jamaal Williams was a fan favorite for his energy and a critical third-down back with his receiving and blocking skills, he may have been covering up the snaps AJ Dillon might have otherwise received. Without Williams next season, Dillon is set to become a power back for this team and exceed the 3.7 yards per carry that Williams averaged the past two seasons. He also should be able to pick right up as a receiver, having displayed better-than-anticipated hands in limited pass-catching opportunities.

Of course, Dillon’s ascension will only make the backfield more dangerous if Jones continues his exceptional play. Jones has raised his rushing yard total every season as a pro, even as his total carries decreased from 2019 to 2020. He continues to make a difference in the passing game and is the team’s home run weapon. Barring injury, that should not change next season after earning an extension in Green Bay.

The Jones-Dillon tandem could be imposing for opponents over at least the next two seasons. If Love is indeed under center, the duo should help the transition and still give the Packers an opportunity to be successful with their integral playaction concepts. Because of Dillon’s anticipated carries, Jones’ consistency, and the opportunity for more check-down receptions, watch for the running back production to actually improve next year, even if defenses load the box and the third-string role remains undetermined.

Kick/Punt Returner

There is nearly a zero-percent chance that these special teams positions do not improve in 2021, particularly at punt returner.

Over the last two seasons, the Packers have averaged 4.85 yards per punt return and 19.85 yards per kick return. In fact, if not for Tyler Ervin’s late addition to the roster two years ago, Green Bay may have finished the season averaging negative punt return yardage. It was not much better last year, even after Tavon Austin was signed and the Packers only returned 11 total punts during the regular season. Punt returner has been a glorified fair-catch-and-don’t-fumble position the past two seasons.

Even if rookie Amari Rodgers does not turn into the Randall Cobb-like return man as hoped (7.8 yards per punt return in college and very limited kick return duties), he certainly has a high probability of transforming the returner positions to some degree. He has a running back type of body to break tackles and has enough elusiveness to evade gunners. Most importantly, he should not turn the ball over as a good hands catcher. The Packers are counting on Rodgers to win the returning roles, especially on punts, and an upgrade to both areas could be a missing piece in the Packers’ contention hopes.