The Green Bay Packers open training camp this week, and if I were allowed to watch practices, here are the six players I’d be keeping an especially close eye on:
RASHAN GARY – The exodus of Kyler Fackrell moves last year’s No. 1 pick up a spot on the depth chart, and that means he’ll be counted on to contribute. Gary played only 256 snaps in 2019, but that number figures to at least double this season. The former Michigan star will be expected to give breathers to starting outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, and also provide a pass-rushing threat in the sub-packages. The coaches raved about Gary’s potential throughout his nondescript rookie season; we’ll soon find out whether they were right or full of shit. If it’s the former, the defense has a chance to be better. If it’s the latter, GM Brian Gutekunst will have a lot of explaining to do.
DARNELL SAVAGE – Last year’s “other” No. 1 pick played well enough to make the All-Rookie team, but much more is expected. The 22-year-old Savage has the skill set to be the team’s best safety since Nick Collins in 2011. To get to that level, he’ll need to improve his down to down consistency and make more of an impact in games. The former Maryland star had 16 missed tackles and only seven combined interceptions and passes defensed in 2019. With the exception of Gary, there’s no player on defense with the potential to improve as much as Savage. If he comes even remotely close to reaching his ceiling, that side of the ball has a chance to finish in the top-10 for the first time since the early days of the Obama administration.
EQUANIMEOUS ST. BROWN – The third-year player from Notre Dame became a lot more important the moment key free-agent acquisition Devin Funchess decided to opt-out of the season on Tuesday. While St. Brown has intriguing talent, he didn’t show much in either of his first two training camps. He struggles to create separation down the field despite an impressive 40 time (4.48), but he does have the size (6-5, 215) and toughness to be effective in the middle of the field. The Packers probably viewed St. Brown as the No. 4 or 5 wide receiver going into training camp, but barring the addition of a proven veteran between now and the opener in Minnesota, they’ll need him to play a bigger role. Whether he’s up to it remains to be seen.
JACE STERNBERGER – The Packers are counting on the second-year player even though he showed very little last summer and didn’t catch a pass in an injury-plagued regular season. Sternberger certainly has the skill set needed to become a productive starting tight end, but will he be ready in 2020? That’s a fair question considering he played just one season of major college football, and his development as a pro has been hindered first by injuries and now by the coronavirus. If the 24-year-old isn’t the answer, Aaron Rodgers will have to rely on the likes of Marcedes Lewis and Robert Tonyan. The former is 36 years old and can’t run a lick, and the latter tends to look like George Kittle in the summer and George Costanza in the fall.
CHANDON SULLIVAN – Unless Tramon Williams is re-signed, the defense will be relying on Sullivan to take over as the nickel corner. That’s a lot of responsibility for a player who was released from the Eagles’ 90-man roster just 16 months ago. And while there’s no question that the former undrafted free agent from Georgia State played well last season, his snaps were limited (378), and opposing offenses had very little tape to study. Neither will be the case in 2020. Sullivan could be on the field for 50 snaps a game, and every one of his flaws will be known. Some young players are still able to step up, but plenty of others get exposed. Which scenario winds up applying to Sullivan could likely determine the fate of the pass defense.
RICK WAGNER – The 30-year-old former Lion will need to perform a lot better than he did a year ago to keep the Packers from really missing Bryan Bulaga, who quietly performed at a near Pro Bowl-level for the better part of a decade. Saving money won’t look nearly as good in October as it did in March if Rodgers is under constant pressure because Wagner is unable to get the job done at right tackle. The Detroit coaching staff often felt the need to give him help last season. If Matt LaFleur is forced to do the same, the Packers will have one less option to employ in a passing attack that’s already lacking legitimate weapons.