There were a lot of reasons the Packers went 14-4 and reached the NFC Championship game last season. They were extremely resilient in finding ways to win close games. They remained healthy while many of their opponents were ravaged by injuries. And they received productive seasons from most of the players who were supposed to have productive seasons, including Aaron Rodgers, Aaron Jones, Davante Adams, Kenny Clark, Za’Darius Smith and Jaire Alexander.
But those weren’t the only reasons the Packers got to within a game of the Super Bowl in head coach Matt LaFleur’s first season. The truth is, no team improves by eight wins unless some lesser-known players step up, and that’s exactly what a couple of young veterans did a year ago.
The coaches and the media spent the entire summer foolishly hyping Montravious Adams, but it was Tyler Lancaster who filled the void created by Mike Daniels’ surprising release on the eve of training camp. The former undrafted free agent from Northwestern started slowly in his sophomore season, but he was clearly the second-best D-lineman on the depth chart by Halloween – a depth chart that included veteran Dean Lowry, who was given a $20 million extension in late July, and talented fifth-round pick Kingsley Keke.
The burly Lancaster would be a backup in a perfect world. He’s solid at the point of attack, but he offers little as a pass rusher. That’s a problem when quarterbacks throw the ball as often as they do on first down. Still, it’s scary to imagine just how much worse the 23rd-ranked run defense would’ve been without the 315-pounder taking on double teams. Unfortunately, the lasting image of Lancaster isn’t a good one. He played poorly in the championship game. Like almost all of his teammates, he was abused from start to finish by Kyle Shanahan’s masterful scheme and the physicality of the 49ers’ blockers and the speed of their runners.
If general manager Brian Gutekunst does his job this offseason, Lancaster will be a backup come September, preferably at his natural position of nose tackle. Without having to worry about the edges, the 25-year-old is much more effective playing over an interior lineman. That’s where his above-average size and strength allows him to be most effective. In the video below, watch how Lancaster (#95) manhandles guard Bryan Witzmann and makes the tackle before the runner even has a chance to get to Blake Martinez.
The reason Lancaster is best-suited to be a role player is his inability to get pressure on the quarterback. Despite running 4.95 at his pro day, he’s not much of an athlete. He has below average initial quickness and thus often finds himself idled at the line of scrimmage. Despite having success running against the Packers last season, opposing offenses still threw the ball over 100 times on first down. That kept Lancaster on the field and kept pass rushers Rashan Gary and Kyler Fackrell on the bench. In the video below, Philip Rivers of the Chargers completes a pass on first down. As is often the case, Lancaster has barely moved from his original spot. That’s a good trait to have against the run; it’s not so good against the pass.
While it’s scary to think where the run defense would’ve been without Lancaster, it’s even scarier to think where the special teams would’ve been without defensive back Will Redmond. What Tyler Ervin did for the return game in December and January, the former Mississippi State star did for the coverage units all season long.
Despite schemes that were a bit simplistic under first-year coordinator Shawn Mennenga, the Packers only gave up 24 yards on kick returns and 9 yards on punt returns. Both of those numbers ranked in the top two-thirds of the NFL, and achieving such respectability should in large part be credited to the superb work of Redmond.
While no one player can single-handedly affect specIal teams, the 26-year-old came pretty darn close last season. It was amazing to see how many times he was the first man to greet the returner. In the video below, watch how Redmond (#25) uses his quickness to avoid the jammer at the line of scrimmage and then turns on his legit 4.3 speed to beat him down the field. This scene was repeated throughout the season.
Perhaps even more impressive was Redmond’s work covering kicks. That’s because quickness and speed are only part of the equation. A player must also be tough as nails because he’s often going to take a pounding from much bigger athletes on his way down the field. And while that exact scenario happened to Redmond on numerous occasions last season, it never dissuaded the skinny 190-pounder from doing his job. In fact, there were countless times when he both took a big hit and still managed to be in on the tackle.
Jarrett Bush lasted nine seasons in the NFL primarily due to his work on special teams. Redmond, who has the skill set to be a better defensive player than Bush, has a chance to stick around for nearly as long. To that end, he just signed a one-year deal that all but ensures him of spending a third season with the Packers.
And while no defense would want to count on Redmond playing significant snaps, he does have the ability to be a capable fourth safety. The 49ers drafted him in the third round in 2016 because of his unique athleticism, but it soon became obvious that he lacked the cover skills to be a starter. In the video below, watch how he struggles to stay with tight end Darren Waller. Yes, Waller is a very good player, but he’s still a tight end. In spite of his great speed, Redmond almost always seems to lose a half-step in transition.
While Lancaster and Redmond were the biggest unsung heroes of 2019, they weren’t the only ones. Offensive lineman Lucas Patrick and defensive back Chandon Sullivan also deserve credit for jobs well done. Patrick held his own in 128 snaps at center, and Sullivan filled in capably as the No. 4 cornerback after former second-round draft pick Josh Jackson did his best Quinten Rollins impression in training camp.