Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are out to prove last year's 13-3 record was no fluke
Throughout the offseason, Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst had been repeatedly asked whether he would consider using an early draft pick on a quarterback. And time and time again, he answered in the affirmative.
And so, in the days leading up to the 2020 NFL Draft, the person who'd be most affected by such a selection — two-time NFL MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers — was asked how he would feel if Gutekunst did indeed do as he said he might.
"Look, I'm realistic. I know where we're at as an organization and where I'm at in my career," Rodgers replied. "I still feel like I have a ton of years left playing at a high level. I'm confident enough. I've always felt like it doesn't matter who you bring in, they're not going to be able to beat me out any time soon. I feel really confident about my abilities and my play.
"I'd obviously love to bring guys in that are going to be able to play and compete right away. (But) I understand it's a business. I wouldn't have a problem."
We shall see. Because 15 years to the day after the Packers drafted Rodgers to be Brett Favre's eventual replacement, Gutekunst drafted Utah State quarterback Jordan Love in the first round, trading up to take Rodgers' heir apparent at No. 26 overall.
And as a result, the specter of the clock ticking on Rodgers' time in Green Bay and as the Packers' starter looms, even with the Packers coming off an unexpected 13-3 finish and berth in the NFC Championship Game under first-year coach Matt LaFleur. Whatever drama comes with the way the Packers added Rodgers' likely successor — and failure to add meaningful pass-catching help despite the fact that 13 wide receivers were picked in the first two rounds — will add another layer to what already figures to be a challenging encore season after last year's surprisingly successful run.
"In my mind, I think Aaron is by far the best quarterback I've ever been around. I think he's the best ever to play the game," LaFleur said after the draft. "I hope he can play until he decides he doesn't want to play anymore."
Although every team in the league entered the spring unsure of how disruptive the COVID-19 pandemic would be to their offseason work, LaFleur had been particularly eager to get back with his team and onto the practice field so he could build on the offensive foundation that had been set during his first season. He was eager to revamp the offensive verbiage to get Rodgers in and out of the huddle more quickly; expand the playbook to include an up-tempo approach he never really got to as a play-caller last year; and integrate more creative play-calling and play-action passes after using some holdover schemes from predecessor Mike McCarthy's system.
Instead, any changes had to be instituted virtually, with players scattered about the country and forced to endure video-conferenced meetings and workouts. How that will impact Rodgers as he tries to get more comfortable with LaFleur in Year Two remains to be seen. Rodgers completed 62 percent of his passes for 4,002 yards with 26 TDs, four interceptions and 36 sacks, finishing with a passer rating of 95.4. It was the third-lowest single-season passer rating of his 12-year career as the Packers starting QB, and a rating that put him a middling 12th in the NFL last season.
The Packers did add to the run game, with bruising 247-pound second-round pick AJ Dillon set to pair with quick and sudden Aaron Jones, who is coming off his first 1,000-yard season and tying for the NFL lead in touchdowns (19) with Carolina's Christian McCaffrey. Much of LaFleur's offensive philosophy is predicated on running the ball effectively and marrying it with a successful downfield play-action game. A 1-2 punch of Jones, who is in the final year of his deal, and Dillon would surely make Rodgers' job easier.
At receiver, Gutekunst admitted he tried to trade up for the few wideouts he liked in the draft class but didn't have the requisite ammunition after trading up to take Love. That means that behind elite No. 1 receiver Davante Adams remains Allen Lazard, who began last season on the practice squad but ended it as the No. 2 wideout; Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who disappeared during the second half of the year and played one snap in the NFC title game; and a handful of largely unproven players thereafter. Devin Funchess was added as a free agent but he has opted out of playing due to concerns about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Having moved on from veteran tight end Jimmy Graham after two disappointing seasons, it's second-year man Jace Sternberger's job to lose after not catching a single regular-season pass as a rookie. Meanwhile, the offensive line must replace decade-long starter Bryan Bulaga at right tackle, with Detroit Lions castoff Ricky Wagner penciled in there. But with franchise left tackle David Bakhtiari and reliable center Corey Linsley both in the last year of their deals, it could be the last hurrah for one of the league's top units.
The image of the San Francisco 49ers rushing for 285 yards in their NFC Championship Game win over the Packers — such a thoroughly dominant performance on the ground that quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo attempted only eight passes all game — won't soon be forgotten. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's crew had trouble stopping the run for most of the season, and other than swapping out inside linebacker Blake Martinez — who left for the New York Giants in free agency — for ex-Cleveland Browns tackling machine Christian Kirksey, very little changed personnel-wise on that side of the ball.
While nose tackle Kenny Clark is one of the league's best at the position, the Packers need better performances up front and more stout efforts from their pass-rushing edge stars Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith. As good as those two were at getting after the quarterback, combining for 25.5 regular-season sacks, they'll have to set the edge better and get some help from 2019 first-round pick Rashan Gary, who barely played as the No. 12 overall pick as a rookie.
The defense's strength is in the back end, where cornerback Jaire Alexander is among the league's rising stars at the position. His running mate, Kevin King, finally stayed healthy and led the team in interceptions (five), while safeties Darnell Savage and Adrian Amos could make for a top-flight tandem with another year together.
Veteran kicker Mason Crosby bounced back from some costly 2018 misses with his best statistical season in 2019, making 91.7 percent of his field-goal attempts and earning a new three-year, $12.9 million deal. Given the kicker carousel their rivals have experienced, it was money well spent. Punter JK Scott and long-snapper Hunter Bradley, both drafted in 2018, improved in Year Two, but Scott's strong start gave way to inconsistency. He needs to be better. The late-season addition of Tyler Ervin off waivers energized a return game that was on life support, and Ervin could be a field-tilter for a special teams group that rarely generated big plays over the past decade or so.
While it'd be unfair to call last season's 13-3 record (coming within one win of a Super Bowl berth) a mirage, there's no denying the Packers got every break imaginable and were blessed with unusually good health through LaFleur's first year. It's hard to imagine the football gods shining on them again to that degree. In fact, the 2020 outfit could be a better team than last year's — and yet finish with a worse record and check out of the playoffs earlier.