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Exit Interview: Green Bay Packers

The team’s big defensive signings paid off and Matt LaFleur coached this team to a bye. But is everything OK with Aaron Rodgers and his receivers?

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As each club is eliminated from the postseason, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Today it’s the Green Bay Packers, who were demolished in the NFC championship game by the San Francisco 49ers.

What Went Right

I’d say going 13-3 and getting a first-round bye makes for a pretty solid season, especially for a team that had plenty of questions coming in. Those included: Would Matt LaFleur be able to maximize Aaron Rodgers’s later years in a way Mike McCarthy couldn’t? Would the defense—fueled by free-agent signings Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, and Adrian Amos—be able to come together quickly? And would a new offensive system finally be able to jump-start the Green Bay running game? Most of those questions were answered positively this season.

Za’Darius Smith went scorched-earth against Packers opponents this year, especially in big games. In a Week 16 contest against the Vikings, with the NFC North title on the line, he hit Kirk Cousins five times, sacked him 3.5 times, and recorded nine total pressures. Earlier in the year against Dallas—back when Dak Prescott still looked like an MVP candidate—he had another four QB hits and two sacks. Smith finished the regular season with a career-high 13.5 sacks, Preston Smith added another 12, and both proved to be worth the big deals the Packers inked them to in March.

The rest of the defense leveled up too. After finishing 29th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA in 2018, the group was 15th this year. Much of the credit for that improvement has gone to the Smiths—and deservedly so—but plenty of homegrown players also had big roles. Defensive tackle Kenny Clark had a solid year, recording six sacks and 62 pressures, which was second only to Aaron Donald among interior defensive linemen. Jaire Alexander took a step forward in his sophomore season, and the Green Bay secondary as a whole had much more injury luck this year than in seasons past.

On the offensive end, LaFleur’s influence didn’t necessarily pay dividends for Rodgers (more on that later), but it certainly did for the team’s other Aaron. Jones had a breakout season, rushing for 1,084 yards (and becoming the first Packers back since Eddie Lacy in 2014 to have a 1,000-yard season), and adding another 474 yards through the air. He developed major skills in the pass-catching game and had a nose for the end zone all season: He finished tied for the league lead with 19 total touchdowns. Jones should be a star for this Green Bay offense for years to come, and for the first time in more than a decade, the Packers have a reliable running game to pair with their future Hall of Fame quarterback.

What Went Wrong

Speaking of the future Hall of Fame quarterback: It was a bit of an all-over-the-place season for Rodgers, and that included the playoffs. He was masterful in the divisional round against Seattle, connecting with Jimmy Graham on many clutch throws and tossing eight passes to Davante Adams for two touchdowns and a Packers postseason record 160 yards. And he was largely solid during the second half of Sunday’s NFC championship game, though that was too little too late. He finished the regular season with the lowest interception percentage in the league, still threw for more than 4,000 yards, and had moments when he looked like Aaron Rodgers. The problem was how few and far between those moments were.

Rodgers and his receivers had consistency issues all season, and while some of that can be blamed on a relatively young wideout corps (one that was without Adams for four weeks) and the demands of learning the team’s first completely new offensive system in 14 years, a lot of it also falls on Rodgers. There were plenty of throws he outright missed, plenty of times he held on to the ball for too long even while getting great protection from his line, and plenty of times he simply threw the ball away rather than try to make a play with his legs (which was a Rodgers hallmark up until a few years ago) or thread the needle to a receiver. Growing pains are tough, and after another offseason working with LaFleur and receivers like Allen Lazard and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, hopefully connections will form and things will begin to click. But Rodgers never looked settled in this offense at any point in the season, and that has to be cause for concern.

Free Agency

Most of the core of this team is locked in through next season, so the Packers don’t have too many immediate free agency concerns. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga will hit the open market this spring, and Green Bay could try to bring him back for the right price. He has been injury-prone throughout his career, though, and the team may decide to look elsewhere depending on Bulaga’s asking price. Cornerback Tramon Williams will also be a free agent. The Packers could decide to sign the 36-year-old to a one-year deal to keep a veteran presence in the team’s young secondary, but if another franchise offers him a larger deal, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him walk, either. One of the Packers’ biggest priorities will probably be re-signing Mason Crosby, who made over 90 percent of his field goals this season for the first time in his career and doesn’t seem to have lost much of anything on his distance.

The Packers made plenty of big free-agent splashes last season, so they likely won’t be huge players in the open market this spring. That said, the team is projected to have over $32 million in cap space (which ranks 21st in the league), so don’t think they’ll just stand pat, either.

The Draft

The Packers have a full cupboard of picks this year, so there will be plenty for general manager Brian Gutekunst to work with. In his first two seasons as GM, Gutekunst has developed a stellar draft record (outside of the Rashan Gary selection in the 2019 first round), and he should be in for another solid haul in 2020.

Green Bay could certainly use help at receiver—as we’ve seen throughout the season—and the 2020 draft class is chock-full of great options. The Packers’ first-round pick likely won’t be high enough for them to snag Jerry Jeudy or CeeDee Lamb, but Clemson’s Tee Higgins may be available, or potentially Alabama’s Henry Ruggs III, depending on how far he falls. Also expect Green Bay to add some offensive line talent during the draft’s first few rounds.