Green Bay Packers

Who's Poised to Break Out Next Year?

Photo Credit: Benny Sieu (USA TODAY Sports)

Who still can’t get the NFC Championship out of their mind? I get it, the game was a couple of weeks ago now; it still bothers some of us. The interest level of this Sunday’s championship is almost at an all-time low for yours truly because of how confident myself and countless others were in the Green Bay Packers. Anyways, this is our first step forward in looking past and on to 2021.

Let’s call it our first therapy session.

With many roster decisions facing the front office in free agency and the potential for a couple “cap casualties,” there is some unknown with Green Bay, like most other teams. Another unknown is with those who will certainly be back and their growth and development. Who are the players that are most likely to take their individual game to another level in 2021 for Green Bay?

AJ Dillon

Whether or not you’ve chosen to face the music yet or not, the reality is that it will be very, very difficult for Brian Gutekunst and the Packers to find enough room to re-sign Aaron Jones. Someone will more than likely back up the Brinks truck for Jones, and while it will be deflating that he won’t be in green and gold next year, the dude deserves a fat contract and a standing ovation for what he did in Green Bay.

Jamaal Williams is also a free agent to be. Williams would start in a lot of backfields in the NFL. While he won’t draw the attention or the contract that Jones did, he still will have plenty of suitors. It’s plausible that the Packers are able to work something out with Williams that is more financially friendly than what it will cost to retain Jones.

Enter AJ Dillon.

His potential for a breakout season is two-fold. One is just circumstance based off what was said above: Jones is likely gone, and Williams is also a free agent. The Packers drafted AJ in the second round in 2020. You normally don’t draft a running back in Round 2 unless there is a plan for him to become the eventual starter in the backfield. That time could be as early as 2021 for Dillon given the Packers’ situation at the position.

Secondly, after returning from an extended stay on the COVID-19 list, Dillon slowly earned more opportunities. He was on full display in the Packers’ December win against the Tennessee Titans, rushing 21 times for 124 yards and two touchdowns. While it had the potential to be his coming out party as a rookie, the Packers’ backfield proved to be just too dynamic. And even though it was a sample size of one game, the Packers got a glimpse into what sort of back Dillon can be. In 2021, he should have ample opportunity and could be the outright starter entering training camp.

Robert Tonyan

This one might catch you off guard. I get it, the dude had 10 catches for 100 yards, and one touchdown total in 15 games played in 2019. In 2020? 52 catches for 586 yards and 11 touchdowns. I know what you’re thinking: Tonyan just had his breakout season right?

My counter: What if there are more lairs to peel back on this onion?

Tonyan was outstanding this past season and a welcoming surprise to damn near everybody. But could there perhaps be another tier he is able to climb to?

The stats were much needed for a position that the Packers have tried solving for years now with guys like Jimmy Graham and Martellus Bennett. Tonyan appears to be the long term answer.

Why then, shouldn’t we expect more going forward? It’s entirely possible he hasn’t maxed out at his ceiling yet.

I’m not suggesting the expectations should be Travis Kelce, George Kittle, or Darren Waller.

Look at someone like T.J. Hockenson or Hunter Henry. While Tonyan was tied for the league lead for tight ends with 11 touchdowns, he could definitely up the catch and yards total. Hockenson had a stellar year in Detroit, finishing with 67 catches for 723 yards and six touchdowns. Henry posted 60 catches for 613 yards in just 14 games played. Tonyan can improve and has the talent to plant his flag firmly in the second tier of tight ends in 2021.

It also helps having solid quarterback play to get you the ball, a box the Packers can confidently check off.

Rashan Gary

Gary has a lot of untapped potential.

Preston Smith could be one of the aforementioned “cap casualties” for Green Bay, opening up more snaps for Rashan. Regardless of what happens, expect Gary to start the transition of being the guy at that left outside linebacker position in 2021.

We started to see a passing of the torch of sorts as the 2020 season unraveled. While Preston Smith was still out there, you could see Mike Pettine find ways to get Gary on the field more because he was disruptive.

A first round pick from two years ago, coaches across the board rave about Gary’s motor and potential. While with a large batch of players it’s easier to predict what the floor and what the ceiling is, Gary is truly a wild card in the best sense possible. He could forecast as a Pro-Bowler for years to come and flirt with the All-Pro teams; he truly could be that good.

Entering his third year in 2021, it’s clear the Packers need to make him a priority and get him involved as much as possible. His steady improvement almost on a game by game basis in 2020 has warranted him getting all the reps possible next season. Get as giddy as you want about Rashan, the guy looks to be the real deal.

Krys Barnes

Undrafted after starting three years at UCLA, not many expected the year Barnes put together. The linebacker was running around in the playoffs with a full on club on his left hand still causing fits for the opposing offense and making plays.

I’ll admit, this pick is somewhat biased, Packers fans have been starving waiting for an inside linebacker to blossom and stay for the long haul, and Barnes might be the answer. He finished second on the teams in tackles, and whenever Matt LaFleur asked about Barnes, he always talked about how good of a feel for the game he has and how he’s great at diagnosing what the offense is doing.

While I don’t see Barnes projecting as some All-Pro future Hall of Famer, the hope is he keeps developing and eventually becomes a lock it in, reliable starting linebacker wearing the green and gold for many years to come.

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