Where does your franchise stand heading into 2022? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.
One high from last season: I mean, it has to be the "I own you" moment. In Week 6, Rodgers scrambled for a touchdown at Soldier Field, looked at a woman in the stands giving him "the double bird" (I will neither confirm nor deny it was my aunt) and said, "I own you." Bears fans like myself would have to consider it the most overplayed highlight of 2021, but you have to acknowledge that he does, indeed, own Chicago (22-5 lifetime record vs. the Bears, with 6,549 passing yards and a 61:10 TD-to-INT ratio). Along with Detroit (18-6, 6,055 yards, 52:8) and Minnesota (16-10-1, 6,803 yards, 56:7), if I'm being fair.
One low from last season: Another playoff disaster against the 49ers. The Packers have struggled against San Francisco lately, compiling a 4-7 record over their last 11 meetings, including four straight playoff losses. Last season's 13-10 defeat in the Divisional Round was especially heartbreaking for Packers fans (though I, as a Bears fan, loved it). The 49ers didn't even score an offensive touchdown and they still won, with former Bears kicker Robbie Gould (guess Rodgers doesn't own him) nailing the deal-sealing boot.
Head coach: Matt LaFleur. I like LaFleur. I was a fan of this hire back in 2019 (here's proof). And let's be real: He's done an amazing job, compiling a 39-10 regular-season record -- that's the highest win total by any coach in his first three years with a team. He's led the Packers to two straight No. 1 seeds after guiding them to the No. 2 seed in Year 1, ultimately logging a pair of NFC Championship Game appearances. And, I mean, he somehow got Rodgers -- already an elite quarterback when LaFleur arrived -- to elevate his play over the last three seasons.
I'm just going to say that, with Rodgers as your quarterback, the expectation levels exceed what LaFleur has achieved so far. That said, a lot of teams would love to have that kind of "problem" -- and overall, LaFleur has been tremendous.
Quarterback: Aaron Rodgers. Dude got his money. Rightfully so, as he's obviously one of the best quarterbacks in the game. And yes, Packers fans, if you want to say that he's the best, I'm not going to spend too much time arguing with you. He led the NFL with a 111.9 passer rating and became the first quarterback in league history with at least 13 wins in three consecutive seasons. And he just won his second straight MVP award -- the first player to go back-to-back since Peyton Manning in 2008 and '09. (With five total MVPs to his name, Manning is the only player with more than Rodgers, who boasts four.) There's just one thing missing here. We know what it is. I mean, I'm curious how Packers fans felt about watching "The Match" recently, a made-for-TV golf showdown that pitted Rodgers and Tom Brady against Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen. Rodgers made a birdie to win the whole thing. And if I'm a Packer backer, I'm wondering, Where was that clutchness in last season's playoffs? Because it certainly wasn't the defense's fault.
Projected 2022 MVP: Aaron Jones, running back. I mean, Aaron Rodgers is the obvious answer here, but let's take a moment to recognize what a player Green Bay's other Aaron has become. The former fifth-round pick boasts three straight seasons with 1,000-plus scrimmage yards and double-digit touchdowns. And while his overall production was down a bit in 2021, I expect he's going to take on a bigger role in 2022. In the wake of Davante Adams' departure, I know a lot of you are looking to the receiver room to replace his production, but I think a healthy portion of the offense will run through the backfield. Not only is Jones a weapon as a runner, but he's racked up 148 catches and 11 receiving touchdowns over the past three seasons. Shoot, the last time we saw him -- in Green Bay's Divisional Round loss to San Francisco -- Jones had nine catches for 129 yards. The 27-year-old's gonna be dynamic in all facets this coming season. Remember this at fantasy draft time. Also, shoutout to A.J. Dillon, who just busted out with 1,116 scrimmage yards and seven scores in his second pro campaign. Like I said, Green Bay's backfield is gonna ball this fall.
New face to know: Sammy Watkins, wide receiver. The Packers typically don't splurge much in free agency. After losing Davante Adams, they didn't panic and sign a bunch of mid-carders to try and replace the All-Pro wideout. Watkins is a proven veteran who, when healthy, can make some huge plays. Remember how crucial he was in the 2019 Chiefs' title run, racking up 288 receiving yards in three playoff games? And I wouldn't rule out Odell Beckham Jr. taking a look at this situation at some point during his rehab, too.
2022 breakout star: Rashan Gary, outside linebacker. Well, he broke out to Packers fans last year, but I'm talking about making his presence felt at a national level. He was like a guy who was crushing it on the independent wrestling scene, but now he's going to make a leap to the WWE. Gary led the team with 9.5 sacks, wreaking even more havoc than that figure entails. His 28 QB hits -- which led Green Bay and ranked seventh in the NFL -- do a little more justice. And I expect both of those numbers to swell this season, forcing the broader football world to pay attention.
Three key dates:
- Week 3 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Packers open with games against the Vikings and Bears (why schedule divisional games so early?) before hitting Tampa Bay for a huge September test. Tampa knocked off Green Bay in the 2020 NFC Championship Game -- and that came after a 38-10 smackdown during the regular season.
- Week 8 at Buffalo Bills (Sunday Night Football). This will be a trendy Super Bowl matchup for a lot of people. Or at least the cast of Good Morning Football. I can dig. Buffalo is a good team. Green Bay's a good team in a less competitive conference. That said, while the NFC North's certainly manageable, Green Bay's schedule isn't easy.
- Week 12 at Philadelphia Eagles (Sunday Night Football). There is a Mike McCarthy REVENGE GAME, with the Cowboys visiting Lambeau in Week 10. But this roadie in Philadelphia is bigger to me in the grand scheme of things. Packer backers aren't worried about McCarthy anymore -- not with LaFleur racking up Ws and division titles. Meanwhile, this Eagles team loaded up in the offseason.
Will the Packers be able to ...
... replace Davante Adams? Yes. Next question. I mean, let's be honest: The Packers have a long history of replacing great wide receivers. Donald Driver ... Greg Jennings ... Jordy Nelson ... James Jones ... Randall Cobb -- whenever a productive pass catcher moves on, someone always picks up the torch. That'll happen again in 2022. Cobb's actually back on the roster -- having returned via trade last offseason -- but the soon-to-be 32-year-old won't carry this passing attack. I already mentioned Aaron Jones, who will likely end up as Green Bay's top offensive complement to Rodgers. And Sammy Watkins also got some love above. I implore you all not to sleep on Allen Lazard this season. I know his numbers haven't been prolific during his first four seasons in Green Bay, but he's flashed solid potential. And hey, even Davante didn't eclipse 500 yards receiving until Year 3. Then there's this nugget: In his last seven starts without Adams, Rodgers is 7-0 with 19 passing touchdowns against just one interception.
... No, seriously -- can they replace Davante Adams? I want to spend a little more time here on this DA situation, because we talked about this pretty extensively on Total Access the other day. The football guys -- like my man Willie McGinest -- think Rodgers' numbers will be just fine without Adams. Well, let's look back to 2015, when Rodgers lost Jordy Nelson to a torn ACL just before the regular season kicked off. The quarterback, who was fresh off another MVP campaign, proceeded to post the lowest figures of his starting career in completion percentage (60.7), passing yards per game (238.8) and passer rating (92.7). Now, Matt LaFleur wasn't Rodgers' coach that season. Aaron Jones wasn't there, either. (After starting his career with two straight 1,000-yard seasons, Eddie Lacy showed up to training camp out of shape in 2015 and wasn't nearly as effective that season.) And the defense should be better this time around.
One storyline ...
... people shouldn't overthink: Drafting two defensive players in the first round. With two selections on the draft's opening night, most people expected Green Bay to use at least one on a receiver. That was not the case. For the 20th straight draft, the Packers didn't take a wideout in Round 1. Instead, they went with a pair of defenders: LB Quay Walker and DT Devonte Wyatt, two stars from Georgia's national championship defense. And this was actually the third time in the Rodgers era that Green Bay selected two defensive players in the first round of a single draft: Rashan Gary and Darnell Savage joined the Pack in 2019, while B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews came aboard in 2009. This works. In fact, the Packers have spent 11 of their last 12 first-round picks on defense. The lone exception? Jordan Love. And that pick sparked Rodgers' rebirth!
... people shouldn't overlook: Jaire Alexander's four-year, $84 million extension. Some people seem to think Rodgers -- whose new deal makes him the highest-paid player in the NFL at $50.3 million per season -- took all the money away from Davante. Not the case. In fact, the Packers offered Adams more money than the Raiders, something NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported in March and Adams confirmed last week. After Adams relocated to Las Vegas, though, Green Bay made Alexander the highest-paid corner in league history at $21 million per season. Yet another healthy investment of resources into the defense. For good reason. While Alexander was injured much of last season, the 25-year-old has already established himself as one of the league's elite cover men. According to Pro Football Focus, he has allowed just 452 receiving yards on 660 coverage snaps since 2020. The man's a true LOCKDOWN corner.
For 2022 to be a success, the Packers MUST:
- Win the Super Bowl. I don't put many teams in this category, but Green Bay certainly belongs. Despite the loss of Davante Adams, this might be the most complete Packers team of the LaFleur era. The offense is still led by the back-to-back reigning MVP, with two potent RBs by his side. The defense is quite stout, as evidenced by the unit's inspired performance in January's playoff loss. It would be foolish to overlook the Packers in 2022 -- a season in which Rodgers will turn 39 years old. The time is NOW.