As the 2021 NFL Draft drew to a close, it was clear Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst had succeeded at patching up many of the small holes on a roster that had been good enough to get his team to back-to-back NFC Championship Games — but not quite good enough to get the Packers back to the Super Bowl.
He added three offensive linemen to replenish the depth up front. He bolstered a defense that has disappointed time and time again despite major capital investments. And he added an intriguing offensive weapon in former Clemson wide receiver Amari Rodgers, who might be the perfect versatile chess piece for head coach Matt LaFleur’s offense.
Too bad no one really wanted to talk about any of that — and understandably so. Why? Because there was another Rodgers — Aaron Rodgers, a future first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer fresh off his third MVP after a monster 2020 — reportedly vowing to never play for the organization again because of his unhappiness with his contract situation, the team’s commitment to him beyond 2021 and his not being included in conversations about personnel and decisions affecting the team.
All of which left Gutekunst talking far more about his relationship with Rodgers, his missteps in communicating with him and whether the relationship was salvageable than about whether the Packers had done enough to compete for a berth in Super Bowl LVI.
Insisting he would not trade Rodgers under any circumstances, Gutekunst even seemed to make a direct plea to Rodgers — a sales pitch, if you will, to convince him that he’d be coming back to a contender that could finally get over the hump.
“We obviously have a very good football team here. We have a great organization. We’re very committed to him,” Gutekunst said. “I’m just optimistic that (Rodgers returning) is what’s best for the Green Bay Packers. And I truly believe that’s what’s best for Aaron Rodgers, as well. The value that he adds to our football team is really immeasurable. He brings so much to the table not only as a player but as a leader. He’s so important to his teammates, to his coaches, so yeah, that’s the goal.
“He’s our quarterback. He’s our leader. We’ve been working through this for a little while now, and I just think it may take some time, but he’s a guy that kind of makes this thing go. He gives us the best chance to win, and we’re going to work towards that end.”
Gutekunst is right. The Packers are always a contender with Rodgers under center. Without him? They hope they don’t have to find out.
It’s beyond obvious that the Packers would be in deep trouble without Rodgers, who set career highs for touchdown passes (48) and completion percentage (70.7) and finished with a 121.5 passer rating, one point shy of the NFL record he set in 2011, when he won his first MVP. Even Gutekunst, who set this entire drama in motion by trading up to pick heir apparent Jordan Love in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft, euphemistically acknowledged that Love, without a full training camp or preseason games last summer, is nowhere near being ready to start after not wearing his No. 10 jersey on game day all of last year.
The offense’s other important Aaron, running back Aaron Jones, did return after agreeing to a four-year, $48 million extension on the cusp of free agency. In addition to back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons, Jones has been a do-everything back and touchdown machine (30 TDs in 30 regular-season games the past two years). Now, he’ll be paired with bruising-but-nimble 247-pound bulldozer AJ Dillon, who moves up the depth chart following a star-crossed rookie year after Jamaal Williams’ free-agent departure.
The Packers have arguably the best receiver in football in Davante Adams, while the cast of characters behind him — Allen Lazard and Marquez Valdes-Scantling in particular — have their games elevated by Rodgers’ presence. Valdes-Scantling, while still inconsistent, rose from the dead last season, going from persona non grata at the end of the 2019 season (and playing one measly snap in the NFC title game that year) to being the team’s best downfield threat.
Rodgers also has been reunited with a familiar face with the acquisition of Randall Cobb from Houston. Green Bay's second-round pick in the 2011 draft, Cobb spent his first eight seasons with the Packers during which he served as a reliable target for Rodgers and also made the Pro Bowl in 2014.
No offensive player has burst onto the scene in Green Bay in recent memory like tight end Robert Tonyan, who caught 11 touchdown passes and appears to be following the path of his football BFF, 49ers All-Pro tight end George Kittle. The Packers will augment Tonyan’s game-breaking skill with old hand Marcedes Lewis and versatile Josiah Deguara, whose promising rookie season ended with a torn ACL.
Up front, the biggest question is not how the Packers will replace first-team All-Pro center Corey Linsley — a major challenge, to be sure — but whether five-time All-Pro David Bakhtiari, who tore his ACL during a Dec. 31 practice, will be cleared in time for the opener. If he’s not, Billy Turner and Elgton Jenkins, who played all over the line in 2020, will again be on the move.
Despite having a defense that improved significantly during the season until giving up a pivotal touchdown in the closing seconds of the first half of the team’s NFC title game loss to Tampa Bay, the Packers parted ways with coordinator Mike Pettine and replaced him with Joe Barry, whose past defenses never ranked higher than 28th in the 32-team league.
Up front, nose tackle Kenny Clark remains one of the league’s best at the position, but he’s coming off an injury-derailed season, and beyond Kingsley Keke, there’s little to be excited about in this group.
Edge rushers Za’Darius Smith (from 93 pressures to 51) and Preston Smith (from 12 sacks to four and from 55 quarterback pressures to 26) both regressed to varying degrees statistically from their boffo debuts in 2019, with Preston accepting a pay cut to return. They must rebound and become field-tilters again for Barry’s defense to soar. The team also is hoping that Rashan Gary, the 12th overall pick in the 2019 draft, and veteran De'Vondre Campbell will y provide depth in this department.
After the Buccaneers showed the Packers how fast, playmaking inside linebackers could affect a game, the hope is Krys Barnes, Kamal Martin or rookie Isaiah McDuffie will have an impact at the undervalued position.
On the back end, cornerback Jaire Alexander earned his first Pro Bowl selection and is among the league’s rising stars. Oft-injured Kevin King returned on a one-year prove-it deal, but first-round pick Eric Stokes out of Georgia should challenge for playing time immediately.
Veteran kicker Mason Crosby made every field goal he attempted, but punter JK Scott and long-snapper Hunter Bradley, drafted in 2018, were once again inconsistent. Both will face competition in training camp and must be better to keep their gigs. Speaking of needed improvement, new special teams coordinator Maurice Drayton has promised more production on returns. Amari Rodgers could deliver exactly that.
For the better part of three decades, the question has lingered: Are the Packers a great organization, or have two gold-jacket quarterbacks — Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers — covered up their shortcomings with brilliant play at the game’s most vital position? Unless the front office and Rodgers are on the same page, we will find out. With Rodgers, even against a murderous schedule, the Packers are an NFC favorite. Without him, they are likely to be cropped out of the playoff picture — and in danger of a return to the mediocrity of the 1970s and ‘80s.