Green Bay Packers

How Far Away Are the Packers From Having a Championship Core?

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel (USA TODAY Sports)

It’s easy to get enamored with the idea of what a strong draft might do to put the finishing touches on the Green Bay Packers roster. But before getting caught up in that potential, there’s an important question that still needs to be answered. Is the Packers’ core even strong enough to lead the team to a Super Bowl title this year?

Before that question can really be answered, it’s important to address what a “core” really means. You could spin that into many different directions, but the NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah has had a long-standing checklist as to what that looks like.

That’s 12 positions, out of 22 starters and 53 players on the roster, where a championship team needs to have an impact player. If a team can fill in the remaining gaps with above-average talent, or at least be really good at hiding their deficiencies, then they have what it takes to be a Super Bowl contender.

So what does that foundation for Green Bay actually look like? This offseason, Packers director of football operations Russ Ball did everything in his power to keep that core intact for this season. What it looks like beyond that is a total crapshoot, but there’s no denying that Green Bay will be bringing back plenty of that core talent this year.

But is it enough? Let’s break down Jeremiah’s checklist item by item:

QUARTERBACK (1)

Even though he’ll be turning 38 this year, Aaron Rodgers has shown that he’s still got plenty left in the tank, given that he won the MVP award this past season. Could he hit a wall? I mean, it’s possible, but I’m willing to bet that he’s got enough motivation to prove that he’s still got it next year.

Consider this item checked off.

PASS RUSHER (2)

It’s safe to say that Green Bay has at least one bona fide pass rusher in Za’Darius Smith. He recorded 12.5 sacks a season ago, good for fifth in the league, on the heels of a 13.5-sack season in his first year with the Packers. He also recorded 23 quarterback hits, which ranked in the top 10 of the league as well. He’s been to back-to-back Pro Bowls, and he certainly fits the bill here.

Do the Packers have a second pass rusher? They are certainly hoping so, but one of two things would absolutely need to happen.

One would be for Preston Smith, who could have been a cap casualty cut this year, to need to return to his 2019 form in which he tallied 12 sacks and 23 quarterback hits. Those numbers cratered to four sacks and just 11 quarterback hits this past season. The second would be for Rashan Gary to continue his ascendance after a sophomore season. He raised every counting stat on his ledger, most notably increasing his quarterback hits to 11 from just three in his rookie season.

Rashan Gary and Preston Smith ended last year with very similar stats, but for the Packers’ defense to truly get to a Super Bowl-caliber, one — or both — will need to ramp those up even more next year. They have one of these foundational pieces right now in Za’Darius Smith, but Green Bay still needs someone else to assert themselves as the second elite-level pass rusher on the roster.

OFFENSIVE PLAYMAKER (3)

This category would seem to buck the idea that the Packers still need to find that WR2 to complement Davante Adams, who is most definitely one of these three checkmarks here. Considering that the Packers did indeed bring back Aaron Jones and are banking on the continued performance of Robert Tonyan, it’s not a stretch to say that Green Bay has this item checked off using only one wide receiver. As much as I like what guys like Allen Lazard and Marquez Valdes-Scantling can bring to the Packers’ offense, it would be a big leap to say that those guys are standout players on a week-to-week basis.

Re-signing Jones was never about his ability, but rather the precipitous decline that seems to befall most running backs and the idea that the Packers would be paying for past performance rather than future potential. Jones absolutely fits the bill as the second player in this category.

Tonyan broke out last season with elite tight end numbers, totaling 52 catches for 586 yards and 11 touchdowns. He’s going to be much more scouted and more game-planned against, but with the respect that Adams still draws and the fact that he seems to be one of Rodgers’ favorites, I’d go ahead and consider him the third and final checkmark in this category.

DEFENSIVE PLAYMAKER (3)

In a follow-up to the above tweet, Jeremiah noted that this category is in addition to the two stud pass rushers that a defense needs. In this category, the easy slam dunk is Jaire Alexander, an All-Pro caliber player who is in the conversation of best cornerbacks in the league.

Kenny Clark would be the most logical person to fill that second slot, a player who has proved himself to in the upper echelon of defensive tackles in the league. Pro Football Focus had Clark rated as the seventh-best interior defensive lineman entering last season. And although he had some struggles in the regular season after suffering a groin injury in Week 1, Clark played his best football in the playoffs and certainly looks to continue to prove why the front office gave him a 4-year, $70 million extension this past August.

The third player in this category isn’t such an open-and-shut case. Whichever player between Preston Smith and Gary doesn’t end up filling the pass rusher No. 2 role further up on this list could be an option here. So could either one of the two Green Bay’s starting safeties in Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage.

Amos and Savage ended the season on an incredibly high note, and the hope is that for at least one of the two, they might be able to make a leap into the cream of the crop of the league. In his age 28 season, it’s likely that Amos won’t continue to ascent, but the hope is that he can continue a nice plateau. Savage, on the other hand, has shown flashes of brilliance in just his second season, and the trajectory is there that he could end up being this third piece.

Between pass rusher No. 2 and safety No. 1, this category should be considered filled.

QUALITY OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (3)

This category has the most questions, which is concerning, given its importance in anchoring the Packers’ offensive foundation of keeping Rodgers healthy and making room for Jones to operate. It doesn’t take too much brain wrangling to envision that if David Bakhtiari hadn’t gone down with a torn ACL, Rodgers would have been hoisting his second Super Bowl trophy. Four months after that injury, coupled with the loss of All-Pro center Corey Linsley, and this position has questions.

Sure, if Bakhtiari is healthy, that’s a premium position filled. However, it’s impossible to say when that might happen. At the very least, fans will hope for a late-season return to the left tackle position, with Bakhtiari immediately playing at his All-Pro level. Maybe his rehab is going better than expected, and he’ll be his usual dominant self in Week 1. It’s just hard to write that in stone as a guarantee.

Elgton Jenkins has been a revelation in his first two seasons with the team, proving his value all across the line. If he can zero in on one position, such as left guard, the thought is he could be even that much better. With the rest of the line much less certain, the Packers may value his flexibility more, and he could see time at just about anywhere on the line. Wherever he lines up, he’s shown that he can be above-average, so we’ll consider him capable of filling one of these roles.

Billy Turner filled in admirably at left tackle while Bakhtiari was out and could end up playing either right tackle or right guard when the offensive line shakes out. Lucas Patrick has also shown versatility and will contribute somewhere. Jon Runyan Jr. will need to play a part on this line somewhere, and a rookie such as Sam Cosmi, Creed Humphrey, or Liam Eichenberg would be expected to play a big snap count right away should Brian Gutekunst go that route.

The cohesiveness of this unit may make or break the Packers season, and as of right now, there are still many questions. It’s tough to say who that third stud on this line would be, and that’s assuming Bakhtiari’s health. If Turner and Patrick can be above average, there still can’t be a glaring weakness somewhere, as that gets exposed on a routine basis.

So, let’s add it up. Of the 12 core, foundational pieces that Jeremiah is looking for, how many do the Packers have? I’m willing to say nine — Rodgers, Za’Darius Smith, Adams, Jones, Tonyan, Alexander, Clark, and Jenkins, plus Bakhtiari when he’s healthy. That leaves three that aren’t rock solid, and a trio out of Preston Smith, Gary, Amos, Savage, Turner, and Patrick will need to fill that void.

This year, three of those six will need to perform at a near-Pro Bowl level if Green Bay wants to be as balanced as they need to for the Packers to be still standing come Super Bowl time.

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