“They didn’t do anything to help Aaron Rodgers,” we were told. The Packers need to “win now” they said. There were so many complaints and criticisms of the Packers after the 2020 NFL Draft, you’d be excused for wondering if they’d moved Lambeau Field to Detroit. Yet there the Packers were on Sunday night, beating a 10-4 Tennessee Titans squad. Currently tied atop their division in the AFC South, and one win away from a Super Bowl appearance in 2020, the Titans were hardly a bunch of pushovers.
The Packers didn’t just beat the Titans, they pretty much dominated them (final score: 40-14). Having locked up the NFC North two weeks ago, the 12-3 Packers are currently the NFC’s top seed and have the opportunity to lock up home field advantage and a first-round bye with a win in next week’s Chicago finale.
Naysayers will say we’ve seen this movie before. Last year, the Packers rode into the NFC Championship game with a 13-3 regular season record but were quickly exposed by a far superior 49ers team. In that game, many of the team’s ugliest warts reappeared – most notably, the porous run defense – leading to a 37-20 49ers blowout.
According to the pessimists, if the Packers were ever going to get over the hump, they needed to flip the script in the 2020 draft. From their vantage point, Rodgers’ window was closing, and it was up to GM Brian Gutekunst and the Packers front office to get him help now. That meant drafting for positions of perceived “need” and abandoning the long-term, draft-and-develop roadmap which the Packers have relied on for their consistent success, winning the NFC North seven of the last ten seasons.
As we all know, Gutekunst did the opposite. He traded away the team’s 4th round pick to nab a backup quarterback in the 1st round. He took a 3rd string running back in the 2nd round. And then he selected a role player tight end in the 3rd round. Packers fans, and much of the media, lost their collective minds.
Through 14 games, the Packers had seen little from their top 3 picks. Love, as expected, was carrying a clipboard and taking notes. Deguara tore his ACL in week 4, ending his season. And Dillon, buried on the depth chart behind two established starters, only had 24 carries on the year. But Dillon’s opportunity came knocking in week 16. With Jamaal Williams inactive and Aaron Jones battling through a toe injury, Dillion broke out in a big way, turning 21 carries into 124 yards (5.9 avg) and 2 TDs.
Suddenly, with the cold winter winds swirling in Green Bay, the Packers offense had unwrapped an exciting new Christmas toy for the playoff run and beyond: a 247-pound battering ram named AJ Dillon.
Of course, Dillon isn’t the only reason the Packers might be headed for glory this season. On defense, third year corner Jaire Alexander is routinely shutting down the league’s top receivers, earning him a spot in this year’s Pro Bowl. Alongside Alexander, is second year safety Darnell Savage, who continues to flash. Against Tennessee, Savage finished with five tackles, three pass deflections, and an interception (he should’ve had two). Savage’s interception was the result of a pressure by last year’s first round pick, Rashan Gary, who has been all over the field this year, creating havoc. Other significant defensive contributions this season have come from Kingsley Keke (5th round/2019), Kamal Martin (5th round/2020), and Krys Barnes (UDFA/2020).
On the offensive side of the ball, let there be no confusion: the Packers wouldn’t be where they are this year without the MVP-level play from Rodgers and the career year from Adams. But, as Adams himself acknowledged, a lot goes into his and Rodgers’ success. Topping that list is Rodgers’ protection, which has been tremendous in 2020 (the Packers have allowed the 2nd fewest sacks in the league). There again, the Packers have been supported by the draft. 2019 second round pick Elgton Jenkins, at just 24 years old, became the first Packers player to start games at guard, tackle and center since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, earning his first Pro Bowl nod in the process. Jenkins has been assisted by another Packers rookie, 2020 sixth round pick, Jon Runyan Jr. Pressed into early action due to injuries, Runyan has given the Packers quality depth this season, and looks to have a bright future ahead.
Watching all the Packers’ promising young stars, you almost forget the incredible work Gutekunst has done in free agency, reshaping the Packers defense with the additions of Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Adrian Amos, and shoring up the offensive line with veterans Billy Turner and Rick Wagner.
Taken holistically, the Packers are clearly a team with as good a shot as any this year – a team with all the necessary tools to “win now”. But perhaps more importantly, the Packers have also set themselves up for success in the years ahead. Dillon’s breakout game wasn’t just exciting for the current season, but it gives the Packers some confidence and security at the position should Jones walk in free agency after this season is over.
And while certain teams like Washington, Chicago, The NY Giants, and others ponder uncertain futures at the quarterback position, Gutekunst has Green Bay sitting on a mountain of riches with the MVP Rodgers and the developing Love – a good problem to have, as they say.
Could the Packers have taken a swing on a player like Tee Higgins, Denzel Mims, or Michael Pittman instead of selecting Love in the 2020 draft? Certainly. But the Packers were looking toward their future, drafting and developing as they almost always do, building another winner. It’s an approach that rarely wins them accolades in the moment, but unquestionably, it’s the primary reason they’ve managed to stack success over the long term.
Legendary Philadelphia Eagles coach Buddy Ryan once said, “If you listen to the fans, you’ll be sitting up there with them.” Gutekunst and the Packers front office have done well to heed this advice. AJ Dillon’s big Sunday night breakout is just the latest reminder.