Green Bay Packers

These 5 Guys Are Facing the Most Heat In Green Bay This Season

Photo Credit: Jonathan Jones-USA TODAY Sports

It’s the dawning of a new era in Titletown, where you can make the argument that this team could win ten games or be a five-win operation (or, most likely, somewhere in-between).

Everything is on the table in this transition year. A talented roster finds itself strapped with a lot of Aaron Rodgers’ dead cap money, a historically inexperienced group of pass catchers, and a rookie kicker.

If the Packers are going to surprise people this season, it will be because these guys handled the pressure and delivered. For my money, here are the five guys facing the most heat in 2023:

5. AJ Dillon

A surprise right out of the gate. What is the 1B running back doing on this list? Well, part of it is self-imposed. Dillon has fallen in love with the state of Wisconsin and is the honorary mayor of Door County. He and Jordan Love are thick as thieves; he wants to be a Packer for life. This is his chance: He’s in a contract year and has the opportunity to earn the unquestioned lead role in ’24. (Aaron Jones has a $17 million cap number next season).

Dillon was underwhelming last season, averaging just a tick more than four yards per carry and not taking the step you’d hope for in Year 3. If he can do that this season and give Green Bay the thunder and lightning backfield fans dream about, he can earn a nice second contract and another three or four seasons in Titletown. But if he looks like the ’22 version, the Pack’s RB depth chart will look much different a year from now.

4. Darnell Savage

The Packers’ defense is loaded with No. 1 draft picks, eight in all. But Savage is the guy whose play has not looked anywhere worthy of that lofty draft status. With Adrian Amos gone, this is his last chance to grab the lead safety role and earn a second contract. Picking up his fifth-year option and paying him $8 million this year had to keep the front office up at night.

But Savage has shown glimpses that he belongs. If he can quiet the concerns about the defense’s black hole at safety, he has a chance to get paid by somebody – maybe even Green Bay. The Packers did very little to give him top-level competition in camp, ignoring the position in the draft until the seventh round (I really hope they don’t regret passing on Brian Branch in the second round) and signing a couple of young veterans in Tarvarius Moore and Jonathan Owens.

Savage could become the unquestioned leader of the safety group, and he could also find himself buried on the depth chart by Halloween.

3. Josh Myers

When the Pack picked Myers late in the second round of the ’21 draft, virtually every draft expert had Creed Humphrey rated as a better center prospect. The Kansas City Chiefs pounced on him with the very next pick, and the rest is history. Humphrey is an All-Pro and in the conversation as the best in the game, while Myers will spend this summer desperately trying to hold on to his spot as the starting center.

Lurking behind him is second-year jack-of-all-trades Zach Tom, who appears to be one of the five most talented linemen on the roster. However, he plays in a position group that returns all five starters from 2022. Tom could be in play for the right tackle spot, too.

Then there’s Jake Hansen, who’s like a cockroach. He somehow keeps coming back year after year. He flamed out at guard (remember his inspired play in the opener last season?) but is healthy and listed as the backup center on the depth chart. He’s playing for his NFL life this summer.

Myers played through an assortment of injuries last season, but there are no excuses now. Either he grabs hold of his opportunity, or he’ll end up holding his helmet on the sidelines on Sundays.

2. Jordan Love

Gotcha! You figured Love was the slam dunk No. 1, right? In reality, 2023 is all about Love as we watch him emerge from his three years of hibernation to take the reins of this storied franchise from back-to-back Hall of Famers. We all get that.

Love has two years to prove that he can be the franchise quarterback Brian Gutekunst and Matt LaFleur believed he could be when they shocked the world and traded up to draft him. Love has plenty working in his favor: a top-ten offensive line, a top-tier running back duo, and a talented defense. But his pass catchers are green, very green. Hopefully, they’ll add gold to their resumes very soon. It will take time for them to master their craft, particularly the pair of rookie tight ends, a position that rarely yields much first-year production.

The chemistry will be a work in progress. But in the meantime, we’ll observe whether Love demonstrates the talent we expect from a young quarterback: poise, pocket awareness, decision-making, arm talent, etc. If 2023 ends and there are still many questions about Love’s future, he’ll jump a spot to the top of this list, with a bullet, a year from now.

1. Joe Barry

In the end, it had to be Barry. To be honest, I’m still annoyed that he’s back for a third season as the defensive coordinator. If his unit doesn’t get the most out of the talent the front office has accumulated, Barry will be out the door after the season. He has eight No. 1 picks at his disposal, plus talented veterans like Preston Smith, De’Vondre Campbell, and Rasul Douglas.

He finally made some adjustments late in ’22 that yielded results and provided some hope for the future. The defense started taking the ball away, and he allowed his best player, Jaire Alexander, to play some man and match up against great receivers — a challenge he covets, as we all do. There is premier talent at all three levels, Alexander, Rashan Gary, and Kenny Clark.

Obviously, the defense took a hit when Gary tore his ACL in midseason, causing the pass rush to curl up in the fetal position. There are positive signs that he and fellow ACL recoverer Eric Stokes will be ready to go when the season starts, which would be a considerable boost. But Barry needs to make sure the two second-year Bulldogs, Devonte Wyatt, and Quay Walker, take a big step in year two. And most importantly, he needs to figure out how to stop the run. The team continues to fester near the bottom of the league in that category. With a young, revamped line and considerable potential at inside linebacker, Barry’s unit’s top priority must be fixing the run defense.

To this point, LaFleur has resisted listening to the outside noise and has stayed loyal to Barry, likely because he doesn’t want to admit he made a mistake giving him the chance to lead the defense three years ago. Imagine the optimism around this unit if he had brought in Brian Flores or Ejiro Evero to take over this season.

Until Love and the passing game find its footing, the defense needs to be the identity of this team. If Barry can harness the talent and put a top-ten unit on the field, this team can contend in the mediocre NFC North. If he can’t, the drumbeat for Jim Leonhard in ‘24 will be deafening come January.

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