We interviewed Green Bay Packers beat reporter, Zachary Jacobson (@itszachariahj on Twitter). We gleaned his thoughts on the Packers RB plans, the WR2/3 spot, the TE situation, and more…
1. How do you see the RB situation shaking out this year and beyond? Aaron Jones
and Jamaal Williams are both scheduled to be unrestricted free agents in 2021.
I think the Packers spent a second-round pick on AJ Dillon keeping two possibilities in mind. The first of which being the benefits of pairing him with Aaron Jones and establishing some kind of thunder-and-lightning tandem, while the second is that he could very well be their starter in 2021 once Jones is no longer with the team. While both sides have already been in close communications on extending his deal, Jones would likely have to string together a second consecutive year of staying healthy and producing before the Packers throw big money his way. With that being said, Dillon still has a ways to go before he skips over Jamaal Williams — also going into the final year of his deal, as you’ve mentioned — on the depth chart. That includes honing in on every nuance of the position, i.e., grasping the offense, pass-catching and especially pass protection, which is an area Williams excels in.
2. Allen Lazard has seemingly locked down the #2 WR spot and also gained Aaron
Rodgers trust. Could you see him doubling his stats from last year (35/477/3)?
When I filed a story in May (very prematurely) projecting the Packers’ receiving leaders for 2020, I actually had Allen Lazard turning in a modest 40/500/5. While not a significant leap from a season ago, he was third on the team in receiving yards behind Equanimeous St. Brown’s 550 in my projections. It’s not so much a testament to his abilities as it will be the Packers having less dependency on him and being able to, for the first time in a long time, spread the ball around via a variety of condensed formations. Lazard isn’t moving from his spot opposite Davante Adams as the team’s No. 2 receiver, but the personnel could have a sporadic impact on his snaps and his numbers. Here’s a link to the aforementioned story: https://247sports.com/nfl/green-bay-packers/Article/Jacobson-Projecting-the-Packers-receiving-leaders-for-2020-147135165/
3. How do you see the TE situation shaking out? A lot of people are high on Robert
Tonyan and Jace Sternberger, while Josiah Deguara has also reportedly had a
People are going to make a big deal out of Robert Tonyan training with George Kittle in the same way they made a big deal out of Marquez Valdes-Scantling training with Randy Moss. We know what Tonyan is at this point, but Jace Sternberger is, and will likely be the starter throughout the season. The Packers invested a third-round pick in him a year ago and while he played sparingly as a rookie, we should see him gradually find a role which could definitely take some time, considering he plays a notoriously difficult position. Marcedes Lewis’ gig as one of the team’s elder statesmen and run-blocking aficionado is no secret; he also showed last year that he still has some gas left in the tank as a receiving option. Classifying Josiah Deguara as a tight end would be a disservice to the different positions he’s going to fill in Matt LaFleur’s offense. The Packers are going to apply him in-line, in the backfield as an H-back — a role Sternberger filled towards the end of last year — and even in the slot. The versatility he showcased at Cincinnati will undoubtedly carry over into the league in the form of 12 and 22 personnel.
4. We saw some tweets about how Kenny Clark’s newly signed contract is heavily
back loaded. He has a cap hit of around 7 million in 2020 and 2021, then it jumps
to over 20 million for the last 3 years of the deal. The Packers also have a
potential out in Aaron Rodgers contract after the 2021 season. Do you think
that’s just a coincidence or is 2022 the year we should expect the Jordan Love
era to begin?
This was definitely a commonly-shared misconception when the contact numbers came out. I’m still in the camp that the sudden inflation in 2022 accounts for the steep salary cap increase by the time the COVID-19 pandemic is presumed to be over with. The first two years, however, are in accordance with the drop in salary cap, hence why the number is so low and why free-agent deals in the next year or two could be unusual compared to what we normally see. While it may seem like a coincidence, I did believe that was right around the time the Packers were going to move on from Aaron Rodgers anyway… But, of course, so many variables are going to go into that. Including how Jordan Love performs and how Rodgers’ play descends, if it does.
5. Is there anyone impressing in camp that isn’t getting enough attention?
Undrafted rookie cornerback Stanford Samuels immediately comes to mind. You’re hearing all about Rashan Gary, Josh Jackson, AJ Dillon and whoever else, but Samuels has been beyond impressive so far. From consistently breaking up passes to tallying his first interception earlier this week, the former Florida State standout could very well see himself making the Packers’ initial 53-man roster. They’ve had at least one undrafted rookie free agent make their roster out of camp each year for the last 15 years and Samuels could keep that streak alive and well. The odds are in his favor too considering he’d be bolstering a position that doesn’t really have much to write home about outside of Jaire Alexander and Kevin King. The Packers are hoping for a third-year leap from Jackson now that he’s playing exclusively on the perimeter and Chandon Sullivan — a former undrafted defensive back in his own right — is banking on repeating the success he showed a season ago. Samuels’ speed and ball skills could help round out the room.
6. Will Tyler Ervin really be a factor on offense?
That’s the plan. It wouldn’t be a shock to see the Packers weaponize Tyler Ervin in a Percy Harvin-like role as a gadget player while still deploying him on special teams — a dismal area he ignited last year. Just based off of his versatility of being able to play on offense and return ability, Ervin’s a lock for the roster. It’s just a matter of playing guessing games as to figuring out where the Packers would get him opportunities. It would appear that they’re in the process of converting him to a receiver, which complicates the depth chart at both running back and wide receiver, but in turn, gives Matt LaFleur a fun tool to get creative with. Ervin won’t serve as some statistical dynamo, but he’ll be schemed into situations where he’ll be able to win with his speed.
7. Who will be the WR3? What kind of role do you see this player having?
Right now, Equanimeous St. Brown seems like the favorite to man the slot job. Davante Adams will have his share of opportunities to shift inside, but Allen Lazard is far better suited for the perimeter and Marquez Valdes-Scantling isn’t shifty or agile enough for the slot. St. Brown, however, has the lanky, wide wingspan that could help create mismatch problems at any spot on the field. Even if he has struggles with creating separation from the slot, his ability to either go vertical or outstretch to haul in a pass makes him a worthwhile candidate. Far from your prototypical slot receiver, but apparently just the type that Matt LaFleur takes a liking to. This is going to be predicated on how he rebounds from the ankle injury that kept him out all of last year. So far, a formidable training camp for St. Brown hasn’t marked any setbacks and he’s had the entirety of his rehab to grasp the mental side of LaFleur’s offense — now it’s just a matter of continuing to apply it to the field.
8. The Packers were middle of the pack in rushing attempts per game last season.
Do you foresee them trying to run the ball more this year? It’s probably game
dependent, but the way they drafted points to more rush attempts.
It’s certainly game-dependent and the plan is presumably going to change on a week-to-week basis, but on the surface, one could only assume that the Packers are going to lean on the running game. It’d be wrong to say that they’re going to focus on the run and take the ball out of Aaron Rodgers’ hands, but the Packers are definitely going to stem their operations off of what they’re able to do on the ground. Strong dosages of play-action, heavy personnel with multiple tight ends on the field at once and a lot of work for Aaron Jones and co. It’s something that general manager Brian Gutekunst has even hinted at. This coincides with what I mentioned earlier that there’s going to be less dependency on certain receivers; those on the bottom end of the roster, i.e., Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Jake Kumerow, Reggie Begelton, etc., aren’t going to be receiving a call-to-arms and forced to produce at inopportune times. It’s also why Devin Funchess opting out of the upcoming season due to coronavirus concerns didn’t move the needle much. Funchess may not have been higher than fourth on the Packers’ depth chart at receiver, and with this offense featuring fewer receivers on the field at a time, they may not need to dig that far for aid unless they’re staring into the face of injury. The opportunities for Funchess, Valdes-Scantling, etc., would’ve been few and far between barring certain situations.
Huge thanks to Zachary for letting us do this interview and giving us such insightful responses. Give him a follow on Twitter and check out his articles at packersreport.com. Here are some of his latest articles:
“Packers’ Aaron Rodgers going backwards — but for good reason” – https://247sports.com/nfl/green-bay-packers/Article/Packers-Aaron-Rodgers-going-backwards-but-for-good-reason-150641880/
“Packers’ (mostly) homegrown TE room beginning to take shape” – https://247sports.com/Article/Packers-mostly-homegrown-TE-room-beginning-to-take-shape-150488383/
“No longer piss-poor: Packers’ MVS has opportunities ahead of him” – https://247sports.com/Article/No-longer-piss-poor-Packers-MVS-has-opportunities-ahead-of-him-150352815/
Stay tuned for more beat writer interviews!