Matt LaFleur, Brian Gutekunst photo

As the Packers begin a season they expect will culminate in a playoff berth, general manager Brian Gutekunst, left, and coach Matt LaFleur are banking on the improvement of the team's young players. Content Exchange

Tom Oates, who recently retired as a full-time columnist, has returned to write occasional columns for the State Journal.It was an NFL offseason like no other.

Spring workouts were scrapped, training camps started late, exhibition games were canceled.

The upshot of that pandemically altered offseason schedule? Teams had precious little information when it came to finalizing their rosters.

“I think you’re running on faith a little bit,” Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst said.

He just as easily could have been talking about his football team.

As the Packers begin a season they expect will culminate in a second consecutive playoff berth, they are placing their faith almost exclusively on improvement from within.

Some of that improvement will come naturally as the Packers should have more continuity with their schemes during coach Matt LaFleur’s second season. Mostly, however, the Packers are banking on individuals getting better at their craft, namely the large group of young players they drafted or signed the past few years, some of whom have been disappointments, all of whom are inexperienced and unproven.

Make no mistake, even though the Packers were 13-3 and one win away from the Super Bowl last season, they need to get significantly better if they hope to take the final step. For starters, they weren’t even in the same league with San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game. Meanwhile, other NFC contenders such as New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, Dallas, Minnesota and Seattle made significant moves to get better during the offseason.

The Packers mostly stuck with what they had. Going into their season opener at Minnesota on Sunday, 43 of the 52 players on the roster (one spot remains open) were with the franchise last season. The Packers lost a ton of experienced snaps when they allowed offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga, tight end Jimmy Graham, inside linebacker Blake Martinez and nickel cornerback Tramon Williams to leave town, but they didn’t go out of their way to fill holes from the outside.

Gutekunst drafted with an eye toward the future when he traded up for first-round quarterback Jordan Love, who predictably enters the season ranked third on the depth chart. The Packers added only two mid-level free agents — inside linebacker Christian Kirksey and offensive tackle Rick Wagner — who are on the active roster and only two of their draft picks — second-round running back A.J. Dillon and third-round tight end Josiah Deguara — have a chance to play immediately, though the truncated offseason has tempered the expectations for rookies across the league.

When the Packers released their first depth chart last week, the only one of the 22 listed starters who wasn’t with the organization last season was Kirksey. And though Kirksey is a more dynamic linebacker than Martinez, he has been nowhere near as durable. The other major departures will be replaced from within.

That’s a sizable risk because the Packers were more opportunistic than overwhelming while winning 13 regular-season games last season. They were 8-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less and they were remarkably injury-free, two things that historically even out in subsequent seasons. Though only Baltimore had a better record than Green Bay, the Packers’ point differential — they outscored their opponents by only 63 points — ranked ninth. And then there was the sobering conclusion, the 37-20 playoff loss to the 49ers in which they trailed 27-0 at halftime and their defense was literally and figuratively run off the field.

It’s hard to see how the Packers have closed the gap on the 49ers after their quiet offseason. Indeed, they may have lost ground.

The Packers do have notable strengths with quarterback Aaron Rodgers, running back Aaron Jones, wide receiver Davante Adams, the left side of the offensive line, nose tackle Kenny Clark, edge rushers Za’Darius and Preston Smith and the starting secondary. In most other areas, they’ll be counting on young players to take a giant step up in productivity.

In that sense, the Packers’ fortunes in 2020 will depend largely on wide receivers Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Equanimeous St. Brown and Tyler Ervin, tight ends Robert Tonyan and Jace Sternberger, defensive ends Montravius Adams and Kingsley Keke, edge rusher Rashan Gary, inside linebacker Oren Burks and defensive backs Chandon Sullivan, Josh Jackson and Raven Greene. If recent history is any indication, relying on so many players formerly buried on the depth chart to grow into significant contributors at the same time is not realistic.

In the NFC title game, those 12 players accounted for only 72 non-special teams snaps. Valdes-Scantling, Gary and Sullivan, who are expected to play major roles this season after impressive training camp performances, were used for one, three and eight snaps, respectively, in the team’s most important game of the season. Despite missing an offseason of work due to the COVID-19 outbreak, those 12 are being counted on to elevate the Packers this season.

Gutekunst preaches patience, saying only that he looks for young players to show up and play significant roles at some point during their initial NFL contracts. The clock is ticking.

Yes, the offense should function more efficiently in LaFleur’s second season and the defense has some serious star power. But the Packers roster remains largely intact and they will need a slew of young players to turn potential into production if they hope to get close to last year’s win total.

<&rdpStrong>Three things to watch in Sunday’s game vs. Vikings</&rdpStrong>

<&rdpEm>Tom Oates, who recently retired as a full-time columnist, has returned to write occasional columns for the State Journal.</&rdpEm>

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