The NFL is, at the end of the day, about wins and losses. Full scale rebuilds are rare in a sport where careers are too short to do a “Process” style rebuild for more than one season. Despite this, in any given NFL season, only a handful of teams are considered true Super Bowl contenders. Over the course of the past decade, the Cinderella run from the Wild Card spots has become rarer and rarer. That does not mean that the league’s middle class has no shot, but regular season success has had a disproportionate impact on playoff success of late.
While the Green Bay Packers may be able to still win the NFC North in 2023, I think this would largely come down to the division not being particularly good. The Vikings are trying to do a rebuild while still having Kirk Cousins’ large cap hit on the books; meanwhile, the Chicago Bears should be a great deal more competent this year, having filled out their team with more actual NFL talent, but between a poor defensive line and quite bad quarterback play, it’s hard to climb that mountain. The Detroit Lions are the betting favorites right now, but their success hinges on a combination of improved defense and another borderline career year from Jared Goff — the same Jared Goff who was shipped out of Los Angeles as effectively a dead money contract in the Matthew Stafford trade. I am of course interested in the Packers 2023 season as just a season where the team tries to win the division, win playoff games, try and win a Super Bowl, etc. But I am almost more interested in what we will learn about the team, not just for this season, but as we move into new era of Packers football in life after Aaron Rodgers.
The biggest question is of course Jordan Love, but everyone knows that, so I am not going to dwell on it. The offense has major questions in every position group. Can Aaron Jones sustain his production as he moves into the age where running backs typically fall off of a cliff? The Packers can get out of his contract with somewhere between mild ($5.7M if post-June 1st designation) and moderate ($12.3M if pre-June 1st) pain this off-season. Can Jones play continue to justify a large running back contract? Can AJ Dillon justify an extension of any kind? After a moderately successful 2021, Dillon was much less impactful in 2022, and has been perhaps the least explosive runner at the position.
aj dillon (among running backs with at least 800 carries since 2020):— Tej Seth (@tejfbanalytics) June 29, 2023
•tackle for loss rate: 4.4% (1st/42)
•explosive rate: 4.4% (42/42)
if you need 3 yards he will get you 3 yards and if you need 5 yards, he will also get you 3 yards
Aside from quarterback, no position on the field has more questions than wide receiver. Can Christian Watson continue his stellar production from the second half and handle the inevitable increase in volume that being the Packers clear WR1 will bring? Is Romeo Doubs an actual NFL receiver? Despite acclaim during training camp, Doubs really struggled as a rookie. Only five receivers with at least 50 targets had a worse DVOA than Doubs’ -19.5%. He did struggle with an injury, which has derailed more than one receiver’s season before, but in what has become an increasingly crowded room of young receivers, Doubs needs to show he can be a quality player or the reps will dry up.
The offensive line has few questions in the short term, with David Bakhtiari back and depth across most positions, but questions abound for what the 2024 Packers line will look like. Will Green Bay trade David Bakhtiari before they likely will have to cut or trade him next off-season due to a massive cap hit ($40.6M)? Can Zach Tom prove to be the heir apparent at the spot? He came into the league undersized, but has the elite movement skills that Green Bay has coveted for years in their premier pass protectors. If he can win the starting right tackle job and show well, it might line him up to be the long-term answer on Jordan Love’s blindside. Will Yosh Nijman be with the team long-term? He may end up as the backup swing tackle this year, but he has put out enough quality tape to be a starting tackle in this league somewhere. If Green Bay doesn’t think that will be in Green Bay, he may find himself traded before this year’s deadline. And perhaps my favorite question on the offensive line... who is the center? Josh Myers has not lived up to his draft position so far, and it’s entirely possible that Zach Tom takes the starting center reps this year if they want Yosh Nijman on the field. And if it isn’t Myers or Tom... then who?
While the defense may have more known quantities than the offense, it is not without its own questions. The defensive interior, which has been a weak point of the team since Mike Daniels aged out, has nothing but questions outside of Kenny Clark. Second year player Devonte Wyatt is in a ‘put up or shut up’ year after hardly playing at all in his rookie season. The Packers spent a first-round pick on an older player, something they rarely do, but Wyatt could not break into a meaningful rotation role despite poor performances from veterans Dean Lowry and Jarran Reed. It may seem like TJ Slaton just arrived, but he will be a potential extension candidate next spring as he becomes a free agent after the 2024 season. Can he turn his solid play in a smaller role into a full-time workload? Can any of the rookie defensive linemen keep the run defense from being a bottom-five unit? If Kenny Clark gets injured, can this unit be anything but the worst in the NFL?
I don’t think any unit faces as many questions of their starters as the Packers’ linebackers. After posting an All-Pro season in 2021, De’Vondre Campbell looked pretty washed in 2022. He went from a 3% missed tackle rate, per PFF, to 10.1%, and he looked one or two steps slow all season long. Can he find something more approximating his 2021 form or will the Packers be looking to post-June 1st him next off-season? His partner Quay Walker finds himself in a similar position to his Bulldog teammate. Unlike Wyatt, Walker had a lot of snaps last season, and began to improve near the end of the season, but to justify the Packers’ selection of him in the first round, Walker will need to become one of the premier off-ball linebackers in the league. He has overwhelming athleticism, but can his processing of the game take the leap in year two, or will Green Bay continue its search for their first difference -making linebacker in decades?
The cornerback group feels more settled than others, but I think folks are missing one big question. Jaire Alexander is one of the game’s best, and it appears Keisean Nixon will be getting the starting job in the slot. With Eric Stokes still recovering from surgery, Rasul Douglas will start outside opposite Alexander. The questions around Eric Stokes, his 2022 performance, and injury recovery are the most pressing for the 2021 first rounder, but I think Rasul Douglas is being overlooked as a question mark with this group. Douglas was a revelation, akin to De’Vondre Campbell for the secondary, when he started to get run in the middle of the 2021 season. Douglas’ 2022 was less impressive, but he was still a solid starting corner. Douglas will be 28 by the time the season starts, and cornerback is a young man’s game. We must not forget that just 18 months ago, Douglas was available for nothing. While his performances in Green and Gold have been good so far, I remain hesitant to buy him as a medium-term answer at corner.
The safety position’s question is crystal clear: Are any of these guys NFL players? Darnell Savage was benched last year. Rudy Ford is a career special teamer. Tarvarius Moore ruptured his Achilles tendon in 2021 and went from starter to special teamer after returning in 2022. Dallin Leavitt is strictly a special teams player. Jonathan Owens played a lot of snaps for the Houston Texans last year, but playing a lot of snaps for the 2022 Houston Texans does not indicate that you are an NFL-caliber defender. It’s entirely possible that no one on the active roster this September is a member of the Packers safety room by the time the 2024 training camp concludes, and that could spell disaster for a defense that, at a bare minimum, has reasonable upside within the other groups.
Will all of these open questions, it is difficult to see the Packers being legitimate contenders in 2023, and that is fine. This is the first of what will probably need to be two transitional years to clean up the books from the last few years of the Aaron Rodgers era. What is most important this season is not competing for a Super Bowl, but instead what we can learn about the players on the roster and if they can be a part of the next Packers team that can compete at that level.