2020 NFL Preview: The Packers' odd offseason plan will be under scrutiny, and not just this year

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2020 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 5. 

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)

Most teams treat the NFL as a here-and-now league. History and common sense say that’s the way to go. Championship windows close very quickly. Coaches and front offices are rarely around more than a handful of years. When you have a shot at glory, you go for it. Worry about the bills later.

That’s why the Green Bay Packers’ offseason was so weird. Given Aaron Rodgers’ age and how close the Packers were to a Super Bowl title last season, we didn’t expect to see them thinking about what happens years down the road.

The Packers needed pass catchers in a bad way. They added unreliable Devin Funchess on a $2.5 million deal. And that’s it. In one of the deepest receiver draft classes in recent memory, the Packers didn’t take any receiver. They took a quarterback, Jordan Love, in the first round. Check that, they traded up to draft a quarterback in the first round.

The Packers’ draft wasn’t just panned by critics, it was ripped apart. Even though draft experts are notoriously friendly graders, a consensus of expert grades left Green Bay with a 1.31 GPA. No other team was under 2.

“I’ve been in this business long enough,” Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst said, via The Athletic. “It’s funny, the reaction, especially to the draft and free agency.”

There are only two ways Love doesn’t become the sequel to “Broncos draft Tommy Maddox,” and that’s either by Rodgers winning another Super Bowl before he retires or Love becoming an outstanding quarterback once he gets a chance. If neither of those things happen, the Packers will have regrets. It seems hard to believe that not one of the receivers who were options for the Packers in the first round like Tee Higgins or Michael Pittman Jr. (or, since the Packers were in a trading up mood, any of the five receivers who went between pick Nos. 15-25) won’t be at least above-average in the NFL. The Packers desperately need someone to go alongside Davante Adams.

Or maybe they don’t.

Despite a quarterback who will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, Packers coach Matt LaFleur seems intent on making the run game the offensive foundation. (“I think Matt certainly wants to run the ball,” Gutekunst said. “I think he’s talked to you guys repeatedly about how much he’d like to run the ball and have the pass work off of that.”) When they drafted running back A.J. Dillon in the second round and tight end/H-back Josiah Deguara in the third round, it seemed to drive the point home.

This formula worked out fine for the Packers up until the NFC championship game last season. They went 13-3 with a balanced offense. Perhaps the Packers believe Rodgers isn’t the type of player who can carry a team like he used to and will be near the end soon. Maybe this is just LaFleur’s preferred method and it doesn’t matter who he inherited at quarterback. There’s a chance all of the angst surrounding the Packers’ approach is overstated, too.

Picking Love redefines the Packers. There will be a constant question regarding when he’ll take over, and whether Rodgers is a good teammate to him. It will be impossible to not consider what moves the Packers could have made had they not used that first-round pick on a quarterback. If the Packers rush Rodgers out the door — and they almost have to considering the investment in Love, though we’ll get to that conundrum later in the preview — and Love is a bust, we’ll be talking about it many years from now. This wasn’t just the normal “best player available” head-scratching pick. It’s the biggest storyline surrounding the Packers for the next 5-10 years.

Of course, if the Packers win another title with Rodgers, nobody will care what else happens. Green Bay was very close to it last season. But are the Packers closer to that goal heading into the 2020 season?

Packers coach Matt LaFleur and Aaron Rodgers should have high hopes after a 13-3 season. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)
2020 season: Offseason grade

The Packers’ draft was confusing. To come away without a receiver, but with a 247-pound running back in A.J. Dillon when Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams are already on the roster was a shock. Free agency wasn’t much better. The Packers lost offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga and replaced him with Rick Wagner, which is a downgrade. They replaced linebacker Blake Martinez with Christian Kirksey, a good player who was injured for 23 of 32 possible games the past couple years with the Cleveland Browns. It’s hard to identify one position in which the Packers are definitively better in 2020 than they were last season. For a team that should have Super Bowl aspirations, how does that happen?

GRADE: F

2020 season: Quarterback report

The Packers’ offseason makes a lot more sense if you look at it through this lens: The team no longer thinks Aaron Rodgers is a top quarterback and it doesn’t see him returning to that level. Everything would make sense then — investing a first-round draft pick in a quarterback, putting resources into the running game, not treating 2020 like it’s in a championship window. Rodgers turns 37 this season and arguably hasn’t been great since 2016. He has become a risk-averse quarterback who has moments of brilliance and certainly has still been good overall, but has not been at an MVP level. Maybe that’s due to an erosion of his supporting cast in the passing game other than Davante Adams. Perhaps it’s coaching, though you can’t blame Mike McCarthy anymore. Do the Packers think Rodgers is sliding and won’t get it back, or is so difficult to work with they just want to be done with him? It’s hard to say. But it would explain an offseason that baffled everyone.

2020 season: Most important non-QB

Given everything around Davante Adams in the passing game — it’s possible their starting lineup at receiver and tight end around Adams will be some combination of Allen Lazard, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Devin Funchess, Marcedes Lewis and Jace Sternberger — a reasonable argument can be made that Adams is among the most valuable non-quarterbacks in the NFL. If Adams goes down again or doesn’t play at his normal level, what would the Packers do? Adams has made three straight Pro Bowls and seems likely to make it four, considering he’ll get all the targets he could ever want.

2020 season: BetMGM odds breakdown

The Packers were 13-3 last season. If you want some idea of how regression is expected to hit the Packers, take a look at their over/under win total at BetMGM, which is just 9. And the under has gotten the most action with the odds shifting to -139 (bet $139 to win $100). There’s not much faith in the Packers this season. While that might be an overreaction to a confusing offseason, it’s another reminder that getting 13 wins again is a very, very tough ask.

2020 season: Yahoo's fantasy take

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Davante Adams battled injuries in the first half of 2019, and didn’t even make an October start. But once he got his sea legs, monster numbers followed — including the playoffs, Adams rocked a 75-917-7 line in his last 10 games. Put that pace onto a full season, and we’re talking about the No. 1 receiver in fantasy. 

“Taking a first-round fantasy wideout isn’t for everyone, of course. The opportunity cost is a little scary — you won’t get one of the name-brand running backs. But Aaron Rodgers generally has a very small circle of trust in his passing game, and Adams looks like Option 1, 2, and 3 as the Packers get ready for the fresh season. Although Adams has made the Pro Bowl three years running, it’s possible he still has a career year percolating in the future. Perhaps 2020 is the perfect time to get on board.“

[Create or join a 2020 Yahoo Fantasy Football League for free today] 

2020 season: Stat to remember

Of the Packers’ 41 sacks, 25.5 came from Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith. If you’ve ever muttered that free agency doesn’t work, you’re ignoring hits like the Packers had from the Smiths, a pair of high-priced additions last offseason. Za’Darius Smith, in particular, had a huge year. He led all pass rushers (at least 250 rushes) in Pro Football Focus’ pass-rush productivity stat. The Packers should be happy the Lions spent more on Trey Flowers because he knew “The Patriot Way,” allowing Green Bay to get the gem of the 2019 free agency class and cheaper than Flowers, too.

In a league that is desperate to find pass rushers, the Packers landed two last offseason, and that transformed their defense.

2020 season: Burning question

When will Jordan Love become the starter?

Let’s get this out of the way: While it’s a tidy narrative, the Packers drafting Love in 2020 is not the same as them drafting Aaron Rodgers in 2005. When the Packers drafted Rodgers, they’d been doing the will he/won’t he retirement speculation game with Brett Favre since the end of the 2002 season. Rodgers has given no indication he wants to retire or that he’s on the verge of slipping to a point that he’ll be forced out. The Packers have no obvious reason to think Rodgers is stepping away soon and they need a replacement. They just wanted Love, who has talent but also threw 17 interceptions at Utah State last season.

The Packers can feasibly trade Rodgers next offseason, but that means: A $31.556 million dead salary-cap hit, according to OverTheCap.com. That would blow away the NFL record, and shooing away a first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback for an unproven prospect who didn’t light up the Mountain West Conference last season. The Packers would actually save $4.6 million on the cap in 2021 because they wouldn’t pay Rodgers’ base salary, but that’s a huge dead cap hit for a player who wouldn’t be on the roster.

If the Packers don’t move on from Rodgers in 2021, that cuts down a huge benefit of drafting Love, which is having him on a cheap rookie contract. The Packers are guaranteed to have Love for four seasons, and would have to make a decision on his fifth-year option after the 2022 season. No matter how you look at it, there’s no ideal timetable for Love to take over. In evaluating the Love selection, that has to be accounted for, too.

2020 season: Best case scenario

The Packers were 13-3 and even if the NFC championship game loss to the 49ers was ugly, they were in the NFL’s final four. Even with an offseason that was light on improvements, the same core is back. It’s not like anyone else in the NFC North is scary. If the Packers can win the division again, it’s not hard to envision Aaron Rodgers getting hot in the playoffs for a few games. Rodgers has won just one Super Bowl, and has been there only once, and that’s light for a quarterback of his caliber. There’s still time to change that.

2020 season: The nightmare scenario

The Jordan Love situation isn’t going away. The Packers invited constant questions about Love and Aaron Rodgers until Rodgers is gone. The speculation could be a detriment. And it’s not like Green Bay was as dominant as its 13-3 record. A little bit of regression, combined with quarterback questions and a pass-catching group that aside from Adams is subpar, and it’s no lock the Packers even make the playoffs.

2020 season: The crystal ball says ...

NFL teams shouldn’t think about five-year plans. Trying to draft a quarterback “for the next 10 years” is even more laughable. Look around. Which teams are giving coaches and general managers five years to work things out? Not many. That’s why the Packers’ offseason was surprising. The pick of Jordan Love seemed to ignore that the timeline doesn’t really work for them to maximize value from the pick, not to mention there will likely be another Love-type prospect in next year’s draft ... and the draft after that, and the draft after that. The Packers did themselves and Rodgers a disservice by not being more proactive to win it all in 2020. Players like Rodgers don’t come along often and Super Bowl windows aren’t open for very long. If the Packers don’t make it back to a Super Bowl with Rodgers, Love better be really, really good to make people forget about it.

2020 Season: Previous Previews

32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31. 
Washington Football Team
30. 
Cincinnati Bengals
29. 
Carolina Panthers
28. 
New York Giants
27. 
Detroit Lions
26. 
New York Jets
25. 
Atlanta Falcons
24. 
Miami Dolphins
23. 
Las Vegas Raiders
22. 
Los Angeles Chargers
21. 
Houston Texans
20. 
Arizona Cardinals
19. 
Minnesota Vikings
18. 
Chicago Bears
17. 
Los Angeles Rams
16. 
Cleveland Browns
15. 
Pittsburgh Steelers
14. 
Denver Broncos
13. 
Indianapolis Colts
12. 
Philadelphia Eagles
11.
Seattle Seahawks
10. 
Green Bay Packers
9.
New England Patriots
8.
Tennessee Titans
7.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
6. 
Dallas Cowboys
5.
Buffalo Bills
4. 
San Francisco 49ers
3.
New Orleans Saints