The Green Bay Packers surprised a lot of people with their 13-3-0 record in 2019, winning their division and earning a first-round bye in the playoffs under rookie head coach Matt LaFleur. But if the team hopes to contend again in 2020, certain players will need to step up their play next season to make it happen.
Here is a look at five Packers players who should have significantly bigger roles on the team in 2020 than they did in 2019. Potential unrestricted free agents are not included on this list and neither are players who were injured for most of 2019 and are expected to come back full-time next season.
1. OLB Rashan Gary
The time has come for Gary to show what he can do. The coaching staff knew they would be bringing the former Michigan star along slowly during his rookie season as he adjusted to a new position, but now, the kid gloves should be off, and Gary should be playing a bigger role in 2020.
Expect Gary to line up on the edge or inside on obvious passing downs and expect him to play more than the 24 percent of defensive snaps he played in 2019.
Outside linebackers coach Mike Smith likes what he’s seen so far from Gary. “He’s starting to play faster, more aggressive. And that’s kind of always who he’s been – an aggressive type kid,” Smith said in December. “But when you know what’s going on, you play a lot faster. I thought this last week he did some good things. He had a couple of busts in the game but still had some good rushes. Every week, he’s seeing that stuff and recognizing it. It’s fun to see. He’s got a long way to go, but it’s still fun. He’s going to be a good one.”
Gary has elite skills and his injured shoulder should be healthier in 2020. Look for him to be on the field a lot more next season.
2. TE Jace Sternberger
Sternberger missed the first half of his rookie season when the Packers placed him on the IR, but by the end of the playoffs, he was getting more reps in the offense.
With Jimmy Graham not expected back, the top tight end position will be wide open in 2020. Sternberger is the early favorite to take over the position barring a very high draft pick or another big-ticket free agent.
Sternberger worked hard to improve his blocking and did a solid job in that department. By the playoffs, he was starting to show promise as a receiver and Aaron Rodgers threw to him in some key situations in those two games.
The Texas A&M product has good size and speed for his position and has shown a willingness to work hard. Now he needs to earn his quarterback’s trust and show he is ready to take on a bigger role in this offense in 2020.
General manager Brian Gutekunst praised Sternberger during his season-ending press conference. “The flexibility he gives us, obviously he’s got a lot of speed that can stretch the seam,” Gutekunst said. “He’s a matchup problem for linebackers and safeties. At the end there, you saw Matt [LaFleur] put him in the backfield and move him around a little bit. I think that’s what you’re going to see with Jace. I think he can be one of those guys as he develops where he can play from a lot of different places.”
3. WR Allen Lazard
Lazard started the season by being cut by the Packers although he was picked back up and with the team in time for the season opener. By season’s end, he established himself as the team’s number two wide receiver behind Davante Adams.
“I’m really happy for Allen,” LaFleur said in a December press conference. “Here’s a guy who from the day we’ve got here has just been about the right stuff. He gives it his all each and every day. He plays physical, that’s his game and he’s contributed on special teams, so he’s earned his opportunities.”
The Iowa State product barely saw the field until the fourth quarter of the Week 6 game against Detroit. Look for him to be a part of the offense from the start of the 2020 season.
Even if the Packers bring in a free agent at this position and/or add a receiver high in the draft, Lazard will be a key contributor next season. If he continues to learn and grow, he should take his game to the next level. His excellent size will make him an asset that Rodgers should not ignore.
4. DL Kingsley Keke
The Packers selected Keke in the fifth round of the 2019 NFL Draft and the Texas AM alum showed some promise during the preseason.
During the regular season, Keke played in 14 games, making 10 total tackles. He showed flashes of ability in limited action, playing in only nine percent of the team’s defensive snaps and seeing some action on special teams.
Keke has quickness and a variety of moves to get to the quarterback and should see his role expand with experience assuming he makes a jump in his second season.
Look for Keke to play a bigger role on defense in his second NFL season.
5. ILB Oren Burks
Oren Burks has suffered injuries in the preseason in each of his two NFL campaigns. When he’s been healthy, he’s struggled to get onto the field on defense, playing only six percent of the Packers’ defensive plays in 2019.
“Since coming back [from the injury], I think he’s improved each week and during this stretch run he’s going to be a big part of what we do,” defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said of Burks late in the season.
With both Blake Martinez and BJ Goodson scheduled to be unrestricted free agents this offseason, Burks should have a chance to get additional playing time in 2020 even if the Packers bring in a draft pick or two at the position.
Burks has speed and was an asset on special teams where he saw most of his action last season. He could be a good fit at the hybrid safety/ILB position that defensive coordinator Pettine likes to incorporate into his defenses.
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