At the start of the season, I thought the Green Bay Packers would be a somewhat improved team, one capable of getting to 10 wins and possibly securing a wild card playoff berth.
My reasoning? First-year coach Matt LaFleur would be a breath of fresh air for the offense, quarterback Aaron Rodgers would have a bounce-back season after playing with a bad knee in 2018 and general manager Brian Gutekunst’s four-man foray into free agency added proven veterans to a badly depleted roster, especially on defense.
For the Packers to become a genuine contender instead of a team just sneaking into the playoffs, however, I picked out five players who I thought had to have breakout seasons.
My reasoning? If running back Aaron Jones, wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling, inside linebacker Oren Burks, cornerback Kevin King and rookie safety Darnell Savage could add speed and become playmakers at previously weak positions, they could accelerate the rebuilding process and push the Packers to another level this season.
After the San Francisco 49ers put the Packers in their place Sunday, it’s time to revisit my preseason prediction. Sure, Green Bay has had a good season, raising expectations with an 8-2 start and some close wins over quality teams. At 8-3, it seems likely the Packers will exceed 10 wins and make the playoffs, especially since only one team with a winning record — the Minnesota Vikings — remains on the schedule.
Still, the numbers tell the story of a decidedly average team. The Packers are 13th in points scored and 14th in points allowed, but most of their key offensive and defensive statistics rank in the bottom third of the NFL. Although it’s possible LaFleur just got caught trying to outthink the room with his game plan at San Francisco, it’s more likely the 49ers’ lopsided victory exposed a roster that has improved but isn’t yet ready to compete with the big boys.
A look back at my five key players reveals why the Packers are still behind the 49ers and several other teams in the NFC. Jones has become a dynamic playmaker, at least when the Packers realize he’s on the field. The others? Not so much. King and Savage have been OK, but just OK. And Valdes-Scantling and Burks are major disappointments.
Jones: The third-year back has great talent and, healthy for a change, he’s showing it as a runner and receiver. Jones’ emergence as a force might be the biggest reason the Packers offense has improved. He’s rushed for 627 yards and caught 35 passes for 354 more, putting him 10th among NFL running backs in total yards per game. But his biggest impact has come near the goal line. He has 14 touchdowns, which is second in the NFL.
The biggest question with Jones has always been health, but LaFleur has been using him intelligently in tandem with Jamaal Williams. Unfortunately, LaFleur has ignored Jones’ pass-receiving skills since wide receiver Davante Adams returned from a toe injury. In four games with Adams sidelined, Jones had a major impact with 6.2 catches and 70 yards per game. In the three games since Adams’ return, he has caught one pass for minus-1 yard.
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King: Staying healthy has always been King’s biggest problem and, though he has missed some time, he has played in every game this season. King’s problem now is inconsistency. He has the length and speed to be a No. 1 cornerback, but he still has too many breakdowns in coverage.
King does have a team-leading three interceptions and shows a nose for the ball. He belongs on the field, but one gets the impression there’s so much more there.
Savage: After an impressive training camp, the first-round draft pick looked like a rookie who belonged early in the season. He made several big plays, including an interception.
Then Savage injured his ankle in the fifth game, missed the next two and hasn’t been the same player upon his return. Opponents are still killing the Packers by throwing down the middle and, while that’s not all on Savage, he has been virtually invisible in recent weeks.
Valdes-Scantling: The lanky receiver has given the Packers some spectacular plays, though they’ve been few and far between. More was certainly expected in MVS’s second year, but knee and ankle injuries reduced his role and cut into his snap count.
The unfortunate part is MVS should be contributing much more than he is. He has height, speed and looks like he could be the deep threat the Packers have been seeking. But when Adams went down, MVS didn’t step up. Indeed, he’s had two catches for 11 yards in the past four games. His route-running isn’t consistent and he doesn’t attack the ball in the air very well. More important, he hasn’t earned Rodgers’ trust.
Burks: Based on his work in virtually every defensive sheme early in camp, Burks was being counted on to start alongside alongside Blake Martinez and use his speed and coverage skills to run with receivers over the middle while still holding firm against the run.
However, a torn pectoral muscle sidelined Burks for a long stretch and he has barely played — three solo tackles — since his return. That inactivity speaks volumes about Burks’ play because defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has resorted to using a safety in tandem with Martinez, which has hurt the run defense.