There are many different ways that an NFL team can improve from one year to the next. Most often, an impact draft pick or high-priced free agent can help shift the tides, but the Green Bay Packers will need to look for an internal candidate to be the player who helps elevate the team from contenders to champions.
Last year a number of players fit that bill — Rashan Gary and Kingsley Keke come to mind — but none more so than tight end Robert Tonyan, who caught 52 passes for 586 yards and a whopping 11 touchdowns, tied for fifth-most in the league. Even though those numbers somehow weren’t enough to garner a Pro Bowl nod, Tonyan tied Green Bay’s franchise record for most touchdown catches by a tight end in a single season. He also tied All-Pro Travis Kelce for the most scoring grabs by a tight end last year. He put his name on the map in Week 4, amassing six catches for 98 yards and three touchdowns in the Packers 30-16 win over the Atlanta Falcons.
Tonyan’s ascendance helped quiet the noise surrounding general manager Brian Gutekunst’s decision not to select a wide receiver in last year’s. As much as he may want to, Aaron Rodgers couldn’t throw every single pass to Davante Adams, but Tonyan proved to have a rapport with his quarterback and capitalized on the opportunity. He separated himself from Jace Sternberger within the position group and wasn’t deterred by the team selecting Josiah Deguara in the third round as competition. Tonyan had a whopping 14 catches in his career prior to last season, but simply balled out last year and will be heavily relied upon once again next year.
The Packers are about tapped out as far as free agency goes, and it can be difficult to address every need through the draft. So who will be their breakout player next year?
Here are a few candidates:
Kamal Martin, LB
The fifth-round rookie out of the University of Minnesota began to make a name for himself during training camp, but MCL surgery shortly before the regular season put that promise on hold until Week 6, when Martin started in a 35-20 win over the Houston Texans. He found himself on the COVID-19 list two weeks later and saw more and more of his snaps shift from defense to special teams as the season wore on, culminating with just 18 snaps at linebacker in Green Bay’s two playoff games.
Why could he break out? The formula is simple: talent and opportunity. Christian Kirksey is gone, having signed with the Houston Texans. Krys Barnes figures to be in the mix, but new defensive coordinator Joe Barry is going to need more than one linebacker to contribute. Martin has proved to be adept in coverage, but he must improve his ability to corral his athleticism while filling gaps in the run defense to wrap up and make tackles.
Had it not been for injuries in college, Martin would likely have been a much higher draft pick. He’ll have a full off-season of NFL training under his belt as he enters Year 2, improving the smarts needed to pair with the physical specimen that he is. If he can stay healthy and make the jump that quality guys do from their first year to the second, Green Bay might have a critical piece of its defense cemented with an ascending player.
Ka’dar Hollman, CB
Nearly every mock draft I’ve seen has the Packers leaning towards taking a defensive back in the first round to supplement the talent they have in the secondary, like Jaire Alexander and Darnell Savage. Taking a cornerback early still sounds like a good plan, but the Packers might have something with Ka’dar Hollman, who will be entering his third season after being selected in the sixth round out of Toledo two years ago. Hollman hasn’t quite shown the potential of being a complete corner, but there’s enough of a specific skill set to make him an integral part of the defense when he’s on the field.
That skill? Running really, really fast. Hollman is a sub-4.4 type of fast, which lends itself well into playing press coverage. Let the Darnell Savages of the world be the ballhawks in the secondary and allow Hollman to get out there and man-up his guy, blanketing him with his speed and athleticism. He’s not going to be tasked with covering a Mike Evans-type, but the hope is that Hollman will be a guy who won’t let a player like Scotty Miller get by him for a huge gain.
Being this year’s Tonyan won’t be merely about production for a guy like Hollman, but rather thriving within a specific role.
Lucas Patrick, OL
Over the past decade, the Packers have excelled at finding value on the offensive line, whether it be through mid-to-late-round draft picks or even undrafted free agents who can come in and deliver. Green Bay has been able to take draftees like David Bakhtiari (fourth round) and Corey Linsley (fifth round) and see them develop into All-Pros, and it’s that type of development that the Packers hope continues with Lucas Patrick.
An undrafted free agent out of Duke in 2016, Patrick has gone from a spot starter in his first three seasons to an integral part of the offensive line in a hurry. With Bakhtiari rehabbing an ACL injury and Linsley departed to Los Angeles, Patrick is going to have even more of a responsibility to perform at a high level in protecting Aaron Rodgers.
What specific position Patrick will anchor next year remains to be seen. If Gutekunst and Matt LaFleur can find the arrangement of linemen they feel will work during training camp, allowing Patrick to commit to a specific position can only serve as a positive. The hope is that it’s replacing Linsley at center, allowing Elgton Jenkins to excel in his role as an elite pass blocker at either guard or tackle.
If whatever combination of Jenkins, Billy Turner, Jon Runyan Jr., and a draft pick to be named later can really gel with Patrick on the interior of the offensive line, not only will Rodgers be happy, but the odds are good that a newly extended Aaron Jones can continue to do what he does best.
Simply being adequate isn’t what Green Bay is hoping for, but if Patrick can hit his prime and flourish in a role at center, the entire offense will benefit with him as a linchpin. Solidifying that position would allow Gutekunst to spend his most valuable draft capital elsewhere and, in turn, add those higher-level prospects at positions of greater need.