Our 2023 NFL Preview travels from the Motor City to the not-yet-frozen tundra of Lambeau Field, where the Packers are set to embark on a brand-new era at Quarterback. After eighteen years with the franchise, (four-time MVP Quarterback) Aaron Rodgers finally bid farewell to the team that drafted him back in 2005, heading to the Jets in exchange for a multitude of draft picks, though many are of a conditional nature. His departure now paves the way for Jordan Love to try his hand at becoming the next great passer in Eastern Wisconsin, having spent the last three seasons biding his time behind his venerable predecessor. However, the world outside of Lambeau has seen VERY little of the youngster, leaving many to wonder just what they can expect from the cheeseheads come Fall. Is Love ready to step into the shoes of a Hall of Famer? If not, can the offense support his learning curve? How long can the defense carry them while he finds his footing? Let’s pull back the curtain for a look at all things Packers, shall we?
In the Shadow of Legends
When you think of the Packers, there are probably two figures that come to mind, and coincidentally they’re the last two franchise Quarterbacks to put on that classic yellow helmet. Over the last thirty years, both Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers have made indelible impacts on not just Green Bay, but the sport as a whole, combining to lead the club to TWENTY-TWO playoff appearances since the former was acquired back in 1993, along with FIFTEEN division titles, and three trips to the Super Bowl, including Lombardi Trophies in both 1996 and 2010. Individually, they rank among the greatest to ever play the position, owning TWENTY-ONE Pro-Bowl nods, SEVEN All-Pro selections, and SEVEN more MVP awards between them. It’s remarkable that the franchise managed to follow one with the other, which is relevant at the moment as they finally hand the reins over to (third-year Quarterback) Jordan Love. By now, we all know the story of Love (pictured above), who was selected twenty-sixth overall in the 2020 NFL Draft in an attempt to not only push Rodgers, but eventually replace him down the road, which was the very same tactic that they used on Favre eighteen years ago. It’s awfully ironic that both Rodgers and Love spent the first three years of their respective careers shadowing a legend, with the former being a largely unknown commodity before getting the chance to prove himself. The same can be said for Love, who over the last three seasons has appeared in just ten games, with one start to his name; the Utah State product has completed 60.2% of his passes for an average of 6.78 net yards per attempt, with as many touchdowns as interceptions (3), and a passer rating of 79.7. The 24-year-old has good size and a strong arm, while possessing fluid mobility to escape the pocket and make plays off script, though his collegiate tape revealed decision-making that left a lot to be desired. Again, the same was said of Rodgers when he was coming out of college, who used his formative years to completely remake his mechanics and throwing motion. It remains to be seen how far Love has come under the watchful eye of (Head Coach) Matt LaFleur, who will grant the young signal-caller every opportunity to make an impact in this, his first season officially as the starting Quarterback.
Time to Shine
Make no mistake about it: the Packers’ success this season and in the foreseeable future is tied directly to the growth of the aforementioned Love. However, there is another storyline that is nearly as important in Green Bay, and that is the future of Matt LaFleur. Now, understand that we’re in by no means speculating on the Head Coach’s job security, but we do believe that not enough is being made of the 43-year-old getting set to embark on the next phase of his tenure as the franchise’s leading man without Rodgers for the first time since he was hired back in 2019. Indeed, LaFleur (pictured above alongside Love) hit the ground running in his first year on the job, leading the Packers from a disappointing 6-9-1 campaign to three consecutive 13-win seasons, with a pair of trips to the NFC Championship Game highlighting his run thus far. However, how much of that can be attributed to the brilliant play of Rodgers, who earned back-to-back MVP honors in 2019 and 2020? It’s no secret that coaches look MUCH better when paired with great Quarterback play, even if LaFleur was credited with pushing an antiquated offense into the present day, introducing more balance and modern concepts to the play-calling that he learned from his time working under some of the NFL’s greatest young offensive minds, including Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay. And at the end of the day, that is precisely the discussion when it comes to LaFleur: this is a coach that earned the bulk of his success in support of venerable masterminds or one of the greatest Quarterbacks to ever put on a pair of pads, leaving us all to ponder just how great LaFleur really is. Either way, in launching Love’s career as the starter, he is being presented with a golden opportunity to finally distinguish his own independence separate of Rodgers, Shanahan, and McVay. With more youth and athleticism under Center, it will be interesting how he approaches handling Love this season: will he play it safe, or will he throw caution to the wind and open up the playbook? No matter which path he chooses, the mandate will be improving upon an offense that performed well below standards for two-thirds of the campaign; Green Bay ranked fourteenth in points scored (21.8) and seventeenth in total offense (353.1), along with seventeenth on third down (39.5%) and twenty-fourth in red zone efficiency (51.9%).
Shouldering the Load
With many pundits around the NFL expecting the Packers to take a step back offensively as they get the aforementioned Love acclimated to his starting role, the defense will be carrying a much larger role in the proceedings, particularly early on in the campaign. Over the last four seasons, Green Bay has been solid if unspectacular on this side of the football, ranking no worse than seventeenth in points allowed and eighteenth in total defense, including seventeenth in both categories last season. Over the last decade, this is a franchise that has used the majority of their draft capital on defensive talent, and as such there are many interesting pieces to be found along the roster. Last season, LaFleur and (General Manager) Brian Gutekunst spent both of their first-round picks on defenders, selecting a pair of Georgia Bulldogs in the form of (Linebacker) Quay Walker and (Defensive Tackle) Devonte Wyatt. That pattern continued this past April, with the cheeseheads picking (Iowa Edge-Rusher) Lukas Van Ness with the thirteenth overall pick in an attempt to further bolster the front-seven. (Defensive Coordinator) Joe Barry’s troops got pushed around more often than they cared to admit last season, ranking twenty-sixth against the run (139.5) and twenty-eighth in yards per rush allowed (5.0). This unit missed the presence of (Veteran Edge-Rusher) Za’Darius Smith, who signed with (division rival) Minnesota in Free Agency and was excellent at setting the edge in run defense, which is something that Van Ness excels at. Speaking of excelling, the Packers were very good at defending the pass, which is a must in today’s NFL; Barry’s charges yielded the sixth-fewest passing yards in the league (197.0), while snaring the fifth-most interceptions (17), though they certainly benefitted from the fact that no team had to defend fewer passes (478). (Pro-Bowl Cornerback) Jaire Alexander (pictured above) is one of the best in the NFL, racking up fourteen defended passes and a career-high five interceptions last season, with opposing Quarterbacks completing 59.8% of their passes aimed his way and a passer rating of 63.7, representing a career-low for the 26-year-old.
Projected Finish: 6-11
After a few years of trade rumors, Aaron Rodgers finally bid farewell to the Packers after eighteen largely successful seasons. However, he left at the right time, particularly given the youth movement that the team is undergoing on the offensive side of the football. With (All-Pro Receiver) Davante Adams traded to the Raiders, the veteran Quarterback experienced quite a few growing pains with a young and inexperienced Receiving Corps, and with his mammoth salary making it prohibitive in adding veteran pass-catching talent, it was best for all parties involved that he made his exit. Oh, and it’s not like Green Bay was setting the league on fire either as they failed to make the playoffs for the first time under LaFleur. As we stated earlier, the offense struggled for large portions of the campaign, and it is our opinion that they even finished as high as they did on the strength of Rodgers, who was also playing through a broken thumb on this throwing hand. For all intents and purposes, this is going to be every bit a learning experience for Love and the rest of the offense, with the defense likely having to carry them until they can manage to get ahead of the proverbial curve. Thankfully, the NFC is very top-heavy with room to maneuver below, while the NFC North appears to be far from arduous. With that said, among the four teams in that division, it is Green Bay who has the most question marks, which makes it difficult to see them getting back to the playoffs after last year’s disappointing finish.