Packer Plus

Alexander blossoms into shutdown corner

- Zach Kruse

Much like last season, the Green Bay Packers won 13 regular-season games, captured the NFC North title, earned a first-round bye in the playoffs and beat an NFC West foe in the divisional round before falling in the NFC championsh­ip game to a team they lost to earlier in the season.

The second season under coach Matt LaFleur was a special one in Green Bay, even if it ended in a similar disappoint­ment on the doorstep of the Super Bowl.

Possibly a fortunate 13-win team last year, the Packers were a truly dominant team this season, and it took an avalanche of missed opportunit­ies to keep them out of the Super Bowl.

It’s time to hand out some awards for 2020:

Offensive MVP: QB Aaron Rodgers

Some tinkering with the offense during a virtual offseason, a far greater comfort level in the scheme overall in Year 2 and all the work he put into building stronger legs contribute­d to Aaron Rodgers producing what can only be described as a renaissanc­e season in 2020. The league MVP threw an NFL-high 48 regular-season touchdown passes, led the league in completion percentage at 70.7 and nearly broke his own single-season passer rating record. He captained the NFL’s highest-scoring offense and was as consistent­ly productive and efficient over 16 games as any quarterbac­k in the game’s history. Matt LaFleur’s diverse scheme made life easier on Rodgers, but he was brilliant as the Packers’ point guard.

Defensive MVP: CB Jaire Alexander

Alexander has long known he would emerge as one of the game’s best and most celebrated cornerback­s. In 2020, his own prediction came true in a big way. The third-year cornerback finished

the season as a second-team AllPro and the highest-graded player at his position at Pro Football Focus. He allowed 4.9 yards per attempt and a passer rating of 68.3 into his coverage during the regular season. In the postseason, he gave up as many catches (two) as he had intercepti­ons. Week after week, No. 1 receivers flew into his aerial space and exited with nothing. He doesn’t turn 24 until next week.

Special teams MVP: K Mason Crosby

An all-around disappoint­ing year on special teams was salvaged slightly by Crosby’s perfect season on field goals. Including the postseason, he connected on all 20 of his field goal attempts. He also made an NFL-high 59 extra points during the regular season. Of his 20 attempts, four came from 50 yards

out or more. Overall, he missed only four of 67 extra point attempts, making him responsibl­e for just four lost points during the entire 18-game season.

Breakout player, offense: TE Robert Tonyan

Entering 2020, Tonyan had just 14 career catches in 27 games. An opportunit­y to be the primary passing target at tight end in LaFleur’s offense opened the door to a true breakout season. Tonyan caught 11 touchdown passes during the regular season, matching a team record at the position and tying Travis Kelce for the most among NFL tight ends in 2020. He averaged 9.9 yards per target, caught 89 percent of his overall targets and finished first in DVOA among tight ends. His 586 receiving yards finished 13th among tight ends, but he was arguably the NFL’s most efficient

player at the position. It’s still hard to believe he didn’t make the Pro Bowl over Evan Engram.

Breakout player, defense: OLB Rashan Gary

The Packers’ first-round pick in 2019 labored through a slow start to 2020, but once the light bulb finally came on, Gary was disruptive and looked like a consistent difference-maker. Including the postseason, Gary finished with 46 total pressures, good for second on the team. Of the 46 pressures, 35 came between Week 10 and the NFC title game. Trusting his natural gifts and playing faster were keys to his rapid progressio­n. If he can carry over what he accomplish­ed to end Year 2 and continue improving into Year 3, Gary could be a

dominant force opposite Za’Darius Smith in 2021.

Best offensive rookie: RB AJ Dillon

H-back Josiah Deguara likely would have been a strong candidate for this award had he not suffered a seasonendi­ng injury in Week 1. With Deguara out and first-round pick Jordan Love inactive for every game, Dillon is the easy pick. He carried just 46 times for 242 yards and two touchdowns while catching two passes for 21 yards over 11 games, but it was his Week 16 performanc­e – featuring 124 rushing yards and two scores during a snowy primetime game at Lambeau Field against the Tennessee Titans – that made his season. He averaged 5.3 yards per carry and looked hard to tackle at times, especially late in the season with fresh legs. Keep in mind, Dillon missed nearly two months while battling COVID-19.

Best defensive rookie: LB Kamal Martin

Martin, a fifth-round pick, was well on his way to being a Week 1 starter when he injured his knee during camp and missed the first six weeks of the season. After returning, Martin played sporadical­ly but flashed ability as a penetratin­g run defender and blitzer. The next step is mastering the defense and playing more under control. Undrafted rookie Krys Barnes, who led all first-year players in snaps, was considered strongly here, but his play overall was too inconsiste­nt down to down and game to game. It’s possible Martin and Barnes will be the starting inside linebacker tandem in 2021.

Play of the Year: Aaron Jones dagger vs. Eagles

Aaron Jones’ 77-yard touchdown run to put away the Eagles in early December summed up the season. A well-designed play, with pre-snap motion and terrific blocking, gave the star runner a lane, and he broke a pair of tackles in the open field before getting a bunch of help from teammates on his way to the end zone. Scheme, talent, execution, teamwork. This play, which secured the Packers’ ninth win of the season, had all

the identifyin­g marks of the LaFleur’s team in 2020.

Best game: Week 16 vs. Titans

Several games fit the bill here, but there’s no arguing against a 26-point win in the snow at Lambeau Field in prime time against a playoff opponent. The Packers got three first-half touchdown passes from Aaron Rodgers to open a 19-0 lead over the Titans, and two A.J. Dillon touchdown runs in the second half slammed the door shut on a 40-14 win. Davante Adams caught 11 passes for 142 yards and three touchdowns, and the Packers defense delivered two turnovers and held All-Pro Derrick Henry to just 98 rushing yards. The Titans finished 11-5 and won the AFC South, but the Packers made easy and stylish work of this victory.

Worst moment: End of first half, NFC championsh­ip game

It’s hard to imagine a more calamitous end to a first half in a big game. Aaron Rodgers threw an intercepti­on. The defense dropped an intercepti­on and gave up a fourth-down conversion. And a disastrous play call coupled with even worse execution led to a gamechangi­ng touchdown on the final play of the first half. The Packers had a chance to take a 17-14 lead going into

halftime of the NFC title game. Instead, the Bucs got the 39-yard touchdown from Tom Brady to Scotty Miller and went into the half up 21-10. The Packers ended up losing by five.

Biggest disappoint­ment: CB Kevin King

Last year’s pick for breakout player of the year, King had a chance to build on all the production from 2019 (five intercepti­ons, 15 pass breakups) and make himself a lot of money during a contract year in 2020. None of it happened. King broke up five passes and didn’t have an intercepti­on over 11 disappoint­ing regular-season games. According to PFF, he missed 11 tackles, gave up a passer rating of 115.0 into his coverage, committed six penalties and ranked 27th among 32 defensive players on the Packers in overall grade. His career in Green Bay will likely end with one of the worst individual postseason performanc­es by a defensive player in team history.

Best addition: OT Rick Wagner

The Packers passed on bringing back Bryan Bulaga and instead signed Wagner to a cheap, two-year deal. It was a genius move. Wagner played nearly 800 snaps and gave up just three sacks and 19 total pressures, per PFF. He was instrument­al to the Packers’ being able to shuffle different combinatio­ns along the offensive line and remain effective, both in terms of protecting Aaron Rodgers and creating running lanes. Wagner ended up as the 23rd highest-graded offensive tackle in the NFL at PFF. Not bad for the price.

Most underrated player: OT Billy Turner

Turner certainly had his struggles as a 16-game starter at right guard in 2019, but his ability to play any and all positions at a high level in 2020 was pivotal to the No. 1 scoring offense in football. He played 363 snaps at left tackle, 244 at right guard and 423 at right tackle. Turner’s versatilit­y allowed Matt LaFleur and Adam Stenavich to mix and match pieces of the offensive line to find the best five every week, especially once the Packers lost left tackle David Bakhtiari.

Assistant coach of the year: OL coach Adam Stenavich

Despite constant injuries and player shuffling, the Packers offensive line gave up only 20 sacks of Aaron Rodgers and paved the way for a 4.8-yard rushing average in 2020. Huge credit goes to Stenavich, who consistent­ly put the pieces together in the right way and developed undeniable depth along the offensive line this season. Corey Linsley and David Bakhtiari were All-Pros, Billy Turner and Elgton Jenkins played three or more positions and Lucas Patrick and Rick Wagner both played consistent­ly well on the right side.

Player to watch in 2021: Dillon/Gary

Depending on how free agency shakes out, Dillon could be an important part of a one-two punch at running back or the clear-cut No. 1 runner. Either way, his role is going to grow substantia­lly. On defense, Gary will be going into Year 3 and is likely to have a starting-level role as an edge rusher. If the Packers move on from Preston Smith, Gary is going to be one of the most important defensive players in 2021. A big chunk of the Packers’ success next season will be dependent on Dillon and Gary.

 ?? MIKE DE SISTI / MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL ?? Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander breaks up a pass intended for Tampa Bay receiver Chris Godwin in the NFC championsh­ip game. Alexander is becoming an elite defender in just his third season.
MIKE DE SISTI / MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander breaks up a pass intended for Tampa Bay receiver Chris Godwin in the NFC championsh­ip game. Alexander is becoming an elite defender in just his third season.
 ?? DAN POWERS / USA TODAY NETWORK-WISCONSIN ?? Packers running back AJ Dillon averaged 5.3 yards a carry for the Packers in limited action.
DAN POWERS / USA TODAY NETWORK-WISCONSIN Packers running back AJ Dillon averaged 5.3 yards a carry for the Packers in limited action.

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