It’s going to be a long off-season.
Tomorrow caps the 2020 NFL season and to be frank, we are all very lucky and blessed to have even had football. That being said, it doesn’t make the hurt of the NFC Championship game sting any less. The Chiefs battle the Buccaneers at the (neutral?) venue of Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL and the winner will be Super Bowl Champs. Oh, what could have been.
However, in the famous words of country music star Tracey Lawrence, “time marches on”. Sooner than we know it, 4th of July will be in the rearview with the 2021 NFL season within striking distance. When that time comes, the Packers will be looking to avenge back to back NFC championship defeats and reach the Super Bowl, more than likely with Aaron Rodgers at the helm. If that is to happen, core players will have to execute and emerging players will need to ascend.
Here are the Break Out Packers I see taking a big step forward in the 2021 season.
1) Kingsley Keke
The 2019, 5th round draft pick from Texas A&M will look to take a big step forward in the 3rd year of his career. Keke, 24 years old, had a nice 2nd season with the Packers, despite only being available to play in 10 out of 18 games (including playoffs). In his 10 regular season games, Keke tallied 4 sacks and 2 passes defensed.
Projected over a 16 game season, Keke would have had about 6.5 sacks in 2020, had he been able to be on the field. That is a fantastic number, especially for an interior lineman. If Keke continues to develop and find a way to stay healthy, he has a real chance to be a difference making player for several years in Green Bay.
A player that Keke could resemble is former Packers DL Mike Daniels. When Daniels was a rookie in 2012, he had 2 sacks. In his 2nd season, playing a full 16 games, he recorded 6.5 sacks. Daniels had a very productive and impactful career in Green Bay and was one of the best players on that side of the ball through out his time with the Packers.
In fact, Mike Daniels shared some of his thoughts during a December Packers game on Keke:
If you are not paying attention to Keke Kingsley then please tune in!!!
BJ Raji had 6.5 sacks his second year and I had 6.5 sacks my second year. I REALLY want to see @BucketsAll_Day finish with 7 this year !!
— Mike Daniels (@Mike_Daniels76) December 6, 2020
Even though Daniels accidentally called Kingsley Keke, “Keke Kingsley”, his thoughts remain the same. Keke will be a player to hone in on in 2021.
2) Krys Barnes
2020 was Barnes first season in the Green and Gold and also his first in the NFL. The Packers signed Barnes in April of 2020 as an Undrafted Free Agent out of UCLA and by the end of the season, #51 for the Packers had taken over the defense as the primary signal caller with the mic in his helmet.
As the 22 year old heads into the 2nd year of his career, he is a primary candidate to take a big leap forward in 2021. In his rookie season, Barnes had some great moments, like when he forced a fumble on the goal line in Week 15 against the Panthers. He also recorded his first career sack against Texans QB Deshaun Watson, giving Packers fans a glimpse of what it looked like with Barnes and other rookie LB Kamal Martin on the field together, which we should see a lot of in 2021.
Barnes is a hard-hitting linebacker that can really deliver a thump, who is also smart with naturally good instincts. He won UCLA’s outstanding senior award in his last year of college and has a desire and thirst that the good ones have; always get better. Barnes should be a fun player to watch next season.
3) Marquez Valdes-Scantling
MVS made massive improvements from 2019 to 2020 and he deserves a lot of kudos for that. The 2018, 5th round pick from South Florida went from riding the bench in the 2nd half of the 2019 season to 4 catches, 115 yards and a touchdown in the 2020 NFC Championship game.
MVS finished the 2020 regular season with 33 receptions for 690 yards (a whopping 20.9 yards per reception) and 6 touchdowns. He added another 8 catches for 148 yards and a touchdown in the playoffs. The dangerous speedster began to show signs of improvement with other facets of his game, especially later in the season. Valdes-Scantling improved with his intermediate route running, catching, yards after the catch and improvising on broken plays.
If MVS was only what he’s been for the rest of his career, he’d still have a role for an NFL team for many seasons to come because of his speed and his ability to take the top off a defense. Time and time again, MVS proved that he’s incredibly difficult to keep up when he’s running straight.
However, if MVS can continue to improve in other areas, he has a real opportunity to be a very good NFL wide receiver. You can’t teach speed and he already has that. 2020 was a season with many high’s and low’s for MVS and he was able to win the mental battle and keep his confidence throughout the season.
2021 should be a fascinating season to watch MVS and if he can take his game to another level.
Rashan Gary – Gary made a huge leap as a player from 2019 to 2020. With the potential departure of Preston Smith, it could give Gary even more opportunities to make plays on the field.
Elgton Jenkins – Jenkins appears to already be on pace to have an All-Pro caliber career and he’s only entering his 3rd NFL season in 2021. How much more can Jenkins improve?
Darnell Savage – Savage made a nice jump from Year 1 to Year 2. He flashed all over the field, especially in the 2nd half of 2020.
Allen Lazard – The big-bodied receiver has reliable hands, is smart and is an integral part of Matt LaFleur’s offense in the run game. Lazard is an obsessive hard-worker, so a big leap from him in Year 3 wouldn’t be suprising.
AJ Dillon – Dillon may be the Packers starting RB in 2021. He looked strong in the opportunities he had. In Week 16 against the Titans, Dillon had 21 carries for 124 yards and 2 Touchdowns. With fresh legs and a year under his belt, he should take a significant step forward next year.
Jordan Love – Just kidding, we’ll have to wait on this one, Packers fans.
Alex grew up in a family of Chicago Bears fans in the suburbs of Chicago but was always a diehard Packers fan. Alex\’s AIM name when he was in elementary/middle school was PackerAlex. He now lives in Nashville, Tennessee and you can follow him on twitter at @Alex_Mayer93.