It seems that every few years, a future Hall of Fame quarterback changes teams late in his career. Tom Brady did it just a handful of years ago; Peyton Manning did so before him, and 15 years ago, Brett Favre came out of retirement to force the Green Bay Packers’ hands during the summer of 2008.
This offseason, the player who the Packers handed that offense to when they sent Favre packing made a similar journey. Like Favre, Aaron Rodgers landed with the New York Jets this offseason, carrying on an eerily similar career trajectory to his predecessor. That shakeup in Green Bay, with Jordan Love now taking over under center, will always be the first part of the story of the 2023 Packers.
The rest of it, however, remains to be written, and Love will be responsible for writing much of it along with his head coach Matt LaFleur. For the fifth-year coach, this season represents his first opportunity to fully implement his own offensive scheme rather than needing to find compromises with a gruff veteran quarterback. But that scheme will be put to the test by the almost unbelievably young group of receiving weapons that the Packers have assembled around Love.
Will the young Packers find a way to overperform Green Bay’s unusually low preseason expectations? Let’s dive into the offseason’s changes to see how they might do so.
This one is obvious. The Packers finally cut the cord and moved on from Rodgers this offseason after two straight years of will they-won’t they. It all began on the first night of the 2020 NFL Draft, when the Packers selected Jordan Love in the first round, and it finally came to a head this March and April amid Rodgers’ darkness retreat.
All told, the Packers did quite well in compensation for a 39-year-old quarterback, surely in part because he is just a year removed from back-to-back MVP seasons in 2020 and 2021 following Love’s selection. The key components of the trade coming back to Green Bay are a second-round pick in April’s draft (more on that in a moment), a move up in Round 1 from pick No. 15 to No. 13, and a conditional draft pick for 2024 that will be in the first round if Rodgers plays at least 60 percent of the Jets’ snaps this season. Barring injury, that condition will certainly hit and the Packers will get a first-rounder for Rodgers that is critical in terms of the perception of the trade.
Furthermore, although the Packers will carry $40 million of dead money on the salary cap this season, they will be free and clear of Rodgers’ deal in 2024 and beyond, allowing them to make a big long-term investment in Love if he proves to be a worthy successor. Of course, the Packers’ odds to win the NFC North or make the playoffs are considerably longer with Love under center compared to the relative stability and long string of regular-season success that Rodgers has brought over the years.
Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb
Long before the Rodgers trade was officially executed in late April, Lazard signed with the New York Jets as an unrestricted free agent in the expectation that his quarterback would be joining him. One of the best run-blocking receivers in the NFL, Lazard has also been an efficient receiver, consistently ranking highly in DVOA and converting a high percentage of his catches into first downs or touchdowns. He had a career year in 2022, setting highs in nearly every counting stat as he totaled 788 yards on 60 receptions.
Similarly, the Jets brought in Rodgers’ closest friend, Randall Cobb, following the trade. Cobb’s role in Green Bay was much less prominent than that of Lazard, whose 100 targets doubled Cobb’s total, but he remained a reliable safety valve for the veteran quarterback.
With these players’ departures, the Packers’ receiving corps is exceptionally young — no player in the wide receiver room has more than one year of NFL experience. The group will rely on second-year pros Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs to be the leaders in the room as they grow and develop along with their new quarterback.
Other role players
In addition to those bigger names, the Packers also saw a handful of other players depart, whether they signed elsewhere in free agency or are still waiting for a contract. The tight end position needed some new blood after Green Bay saw Robert Tonyan move across the border and sign with the Chicago Bears, while longtime run-blocker Marcedes Lewis is still on the market.
On defense, the team lost a trio of starters in free agency as well. A pair of starting defensive linemen left, as Dean Lowry signed with the Minnesota Vikings and Jarran Reed went back to Seattle. Safety Adrian Amos remained on the market for some time as well, but he landed with — guess who — the Jets in early June after they had a player lost for the season with an injury. Then there’s the departure of kicker Mason Crosby, who was the only remaining Packers player besides Rodgers with a ring from the 2010 Super Bowl squad.
Almost every one of the notable external signings that the Packers made this offseason will likely make their biggest contributions on special teams. For some time, the only two additions were a safety/special teams ace, Tarvarius Moore, and a long snapper in Matt Orzech. Eventually the team brought in another safety, Jonathan Owens, who started every game for the Houston Texans last season, but that is the extent of the external additions.
Moore and Owens will likely compete for a starting job in training camp along with Rudy Ford, who signed a one-year deal to return to Green Bay. All three could well make the team to provide depth and special teams contributions, but that group has arguably the least top-end talent of any position group on the roster.
Green Bay was able to retain a few key players as free agents, however. Offensive tackle Yosh Nijman, who started most of last season, comes back on a restricted free agent deal. Ford returns to compete for a job, and more special teams aces like linebacker Eric Wilson and cornerback Corey Ballentine are under contract again as well.
The biggest returning free agent, however, is cornerback and kickoff returner Keisean Nixon, who was a revelation over the second half of the season. Despite having just one kickoff return attempt in the first seven games of the season, Nixon ended the year as the most prolific return man in the entire NFL; he led the league in kickoff return attempts (35) and yards (1,009), had the longest return in the league in 2022 (a 105-yard touchdown in Week 17), and managed to finish second among qualifying players in average return yardage at 28.8. He’ll be expected to build on his All-Pro campaign while also likely contributing as a slot cornerback.
2023 NFL Draft
The Rodgers trade shook up the Packers’ draft board a few days ahead of the first round. As a result of the pick swap from 15 to 13, the Packers selected Iowa pass-rusher Lukas Van Ness to help bolster a group of edge rushers that will be depleted early in the 2023 season due to Rashan Gary’s torn ACL. Van Ness is an incredible athlete who played all over the defensive front for the Hawkeyes, and he should be able to at least contribute in a meaningful way from Day 1.
Day 2 — with the Packers adding the 42nd pick from the Rodgers trade to their own 45th and 78th selections — was all about getting Jordan Love weapons. With Tonyan and Lewis departed in free agency, Green Bay doubled down at that position, drafting Luke Musgrave from Oregon State at 42 and Tucker Kraft from South Dakota State at 78. The two are both exceptional athletes, but they look to complement each other well as Kraft projects more as a conventional in-line tight end compared to Musgrave being a long-striding receiving project. The two will be tasked to contribute immediately in a group that has no other proven talent in the room.
Sandwiched in between those two players, the Packers added a fast, shifty receiver in Round 2 by selecting Jayden Reed out of Michigan State. Reed projects to play heavily in the slot in the NFL, but his 4.37 speed makes him a dangerous option down the field and when put in jet motion. Later on Day 3, the Packers added another pair of receivers in Virginia’s Dontayvion Wicks (Round 5) and Charlotte’s Grant DuBose (Round 7), giving them six drafted wideouts in the past two years. Some of these kids will simply have to play, with the group likely competing for snaps behind Watson and Doubs to start the season.
The Packers did address their defense somewhat on Day 3, drafting two defensive linemen (Colby Wooden in Round 4 and Karl Brooks in Round 6) and a couple of defensive backs in the seventh round. All of those players will be expected to be limited to rotational roles. That is particularly true of the defensive linemen, as last year’s second-round pick Devonte Wyatt and a 2021 fifth-rounder, T.J. Slaton, are expected to move into the starting lineup alongside Pro Bowler Kenny Clark.
The other notable additions in the later rounds were a backup quarterback in the fifth, Penn State’s Sean Clifford, and a kicker, sixth-rounder Anders Carlson, who will presumably succeed Crosby.
Putting it all together
All told, this year looks like a youth movement is afoot in Green Bay. Gone are the team’s three grizzled old veterans: Rodgers, Lewis, and Crosby. Replacing them at their positions are a 24-year-old fourth-year NFL quarterback in Love, a pair of rookie Day 2 tight ends, and a Day 3 rookie kicker. Meanwhile, the receivers room is the youngest in the NFL.
There will likely be some growing pains for the Packers offense as a whole, though head coach Matt LaFleur will surely try to lean on the running game behind a veteran offensive line and the two-headed rushing attack of Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon. Still, expectations for this team are lower and questions are more numerous than at any point since Rodgers’ first season as a starter in 2008.
All of these moves may be intended to set up the Packers for long-term success, but it puts the Packers in an unusual position, with the longest odds of any team to win the NFC North at DraftKings Sportsbook. Green Bay is tied with the Chicago Bears at +400, trailing the Vikings at +275 and the upstart Detroit Lions at +140. Still, the Packers have a schedule that feels manageable, featuring the awful NFC South division and a top-heavy AFC West.
If Love and his receivers click early and the defense can get quality contributions from its young role players, don’t be surprised if this Packers team is still in division contention coming into the final weeks of the season. Then again, it’s also possible that Love struggles in his debut season as a starter, the team’s depth is tested due to several key injuries, and the Packers end up trying to stay out of the NFC cellar.