Alexander blossoms into shutdown corner
Much like last season, the Green Bay Packers won 13 regular-season games, captured the NFC North title, earned a first-round bye in the playoffs 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 offense during a virtual offseason, 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 offense and was as consistently productive and efficient 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 finished
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 flew 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 field goals. Including the postseason, he connected on all 20 of his field 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 offense 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 finished first in DVOA among tight ends. His 586 receiving yards finished 13th among tight ends, but he was arguably the NFL’s most efficient
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’ first-round pick in 2019 labored through a slow start to 2020, but once the light bulb finally came on, Gary was disruptive and looked like a consistent difference-maker. Including the postseason, Gary finished 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 suffered a seasonending injury in Week 1. With Deguara out and first-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 fifth-round pick, was well on his way to being a Week 1 starter when he injured his knee during camp and missed the first six weeks of the season. After returning, Martin played sporadically but flashed 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 first-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 terrific blocking, gave the star runner a lane, and he broke a pair of tackles in the open field 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 fit 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 first-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 finished 11-5 and won the AFC South, but the Packers made easy and stylish work of this victory.
Worst moment: End of first half, NFC championship game
It’s hard to imagine a more calamitous end to a first 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 final play of the first 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 five.
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 (five interceptions, 15 pass breakups) and make himself a lot of money during a contract year in 2020. None of it happened. King broke up five 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 shuffle different combinations along the offensive line and remain effective, both in terms of protecting Aaron Rodgers and creating running lanes. Wagner ended up as the 23rd highest-graded offensive 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 offense 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 offensive line to find the best five 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 shuffling, the Packers offensive 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.