Eye on Youth in Titletown USA
As far as old axioms go, “football is a young man’s game” ranks right up there with ol’ tried and true mantras, such as “defense wins championships” and “games are won in the trenches.”
Though the New England Patriots rostered the oldest team in 2019, the team’s average age was only 1.8 years greater than the NFL’s youngest squad, the Cleveland Browns.
Over the past five seasons, in fact, the average ages of the youngest rosters have ranged from 24.2 years-old to 25.4 years-old, whereas the average ages of the oldest teams over that same stretch have fluctuated between 27 years-old and 27.4 years-old.
The common theme among teams on both sides of the relatively narrow spectrum is being able to efficiently turn over the roster on a constant basis.
And this usually means gradually transitioning to younger and/or cheaper options that often comprise 75 to 80 percent of the roster, with the top 10 or so veterans commanding exorbitant salaries.
The trick, of course, is ensuring that the younger nucleus includes a healthy amount of players talented enough to emerge as future cornerstones.
In 2019, the Packers boasted the fifth-youngest club and, as currently constituted, their roster features five players over the age of 30 in Aaron Rodgers, Marcedes Lewis, Mason Crosby, Rick Wagner and Lane Taylor.
So how do Green Bay’s young guns, ages 25 and under, stack up in terms of rising up and being the driving force behind the team’s continuing quest to win Super Bowls in 2020 and beyond?
While some may argue that a few of their competitors (namely the 49ers) are in better shape in that area, one can’t dispute the fact that a large chunk of the 25-and-under crowd wearing the green and gold have already emerged or are poised to blossom as certified difference makers during the upcoming year.
Here are the top 10 in reverse order as we sit about two months away from the start of another riveting season.
10. Dean Lowry
If Lowry were a menu entrée, he’d probably be eggs over easy with a side of home fries. No, there’s not much pizzazz to his game, but going into the 2019 season, the Northwestern product proved to be a competent part of the defensive line — albeit on a rotational basis — with 5 sacks, 76 tackles, 10 tackles for a loss, 10 QB hits and 2 fumble recoveries in his second and third years in the NFL. A new three-year contract and the subsequent release of Mike Daniels meant more snaps for the 3-4 end in a starting role. Lowry, though, didn’t elevate his game to the level that many were expecting. He wasn’t necessarily bad, but his overall performance was spotty, with standout performances early in the year versus the Vikings and in Weeks 15 and 16, but not much in between. More than anything, the Packers need the 6’6” enforcer to generate a few more splash plays. Though he’ll never quite be Daniels in his prime, Lowry moves very well for a man his size and has the strength to consistently put blockers on their heels as a bull rusher. His age and durability suggest he can do more to make his presence felt in his fifth year.
9. Jamaal Williams
Drafted a round earlier than backfield mate Aaron Jones in 2017, Williams may have distinguished himself as the best dancer on the team, but he hasn’t matched No. 33’s big-play ability. Still, JWill has steadily developed into one of the league’s better pass protectors, as PFF assigned him the second best grade among running backs in that category (87.3). Moreover, the fourth-year pro is a pure steady-eddie as a target out of the backfield by recording an 86.7 percent catch rate in 2019. So, while he might not have a whole lot of juice as a pure runner, Williams is at least competent in all areas and generally does more to help rather than hurt the team.
8. Jace Sternberger
An ill-timed ankle injury landed the former third-round pick on injured reserve in 2019, forcing Sternberger to miss the first half of the season. Slowly, however, the tight end began flashing his blocking chops late in the year and into the postseason by lining up as an H-back. And while he caught a touchdown in the NFC Championship, the young playmaker was never truly afforded the opportunity to unleash his ability to separate in man coverage. But Sternberger’s most effective weapon may be his soft hands to reel in high balls and passes outside of his frame. With the addition of rookie Josiah Deguara, the Packers will look to utilize the former Cincinnati Bearcat in the backfield, as Sternberger projects as more of the pass-catching threat who’ll be able to win his battles with his footwork and route-running prowess.
7. Chandon Sullivan
The Eagles’ loss was Green Bay’s gain in May 2019, when Brian Gutekunst wisely decided to invest in the one-time undrafted rookie free agent, who went on to play 350 snaps for his new squad. Sullivan’s performance in the preseason prompted the coaching staff to elevate the newcomer over Josh Jackson and Tony Brown on the depth chart. From there, No. 39 didn’t waste any time in making plays in a variety of roles in the secondary, as he limited opposing receivers to 11 completions on 31 attempts in coverage, per PFF. His 35.5 completion percentage, moreover, was tops among qualifying NFL defenders. Sullivan’s technique and superior footwork allow him to cover all types of receivers, big and small. In addition, the 5’11” corner is a student of the game, who often anticipates his man’s designed route. What’s more, the backfield defender was also efficient in run support by missing a team-low 3.4 percent of his tackles. With Tramon Williams out the mix — for now — expect Sullivan to see lots of time as the team’s primary slot corner.
6. Allen Lazard
Lazard’s improbable rise as one of Aaron Rodgers’ primary targets was among the team’s best storylines of the year. The towering 6’5” pass catcher emerged as a much-needed playmaker during last season’s Week 6 come-from-behind victory over Detroit on Monday Night Football, as both Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Geronimo Allison proved incapable of converting their targets into big plays. Lazard came down with a clutch 35-yard shot in the fourth quarter that helped Green Bay notch a vital division win. AR12 continued to show confidence in No. 13 from that point on due to Lazard’s awareness to go off-script and run back to his quarterback when the pressure was on. Also, the Big XII product’s willingness to sell out by elevating or diving for balls slightly outside of his area code also endeared him to Rodgers and the coaching staff alike. Lazard’s steady improvement throughout 2019 should have Packer backers thrilled about what lies ahead.
5. Darnell Savage
The 2019 first-round pick hit the ground running showing no hesitancy in his game. Whether in Cover 2, Cover 6 or any other coverage scheme, Savage let his instincts take over in the way he broke on a number of balls. And as well as he performed in zone coverage, the ex-Maryland Terrapin also showcased the strength and running ability to stick with inside receivers or tight ends in man coverage to the point where the Packers are considering lining up the strong safety as a slot corner. He’s versatile enough, in fact, to serve as a box safety, nickel defender, a deep half or deep middle defender, as well as possessing the timing/explosiveness to contribute as a blitzer. In run support, Savage used his range to track down ball carriers in the open field and occasionally clobber them with the force of a swinging wrecking ball. In total, Savage started 14 games, while producing 55 tackles, 2 interceptions, 2 pass breakups and 2 forced fumbles. If you’re finding it hard to contain your enthusiasm for what the young defensive back can deliver with another year of experience, the coaching staff and millions of fans share that same sentiment.
4. Elgton Jenkins
The youngster couldn’t have handled his transition to the pros any better considering that in addition to moving from center to left guard, Jenkins also stepped in for injured starter Lane Taylor in Week 3 and performed like a 10-year veteran. To wit, the interior lineman allowed zero sacks over 571 passing attempts. Jenkins was especially effective (and surprisingly consistent) as a pass protector, who ranked eighth among offensive guards in pass block win rate, per ESPN. Where the quick study fell short was in the penalty department, as he was called for 10 infractions, including six holding calls and three false starts. The 2019 second-round pick quickly mastered picking up Aaron Rodgers’ hard count and exhibited the athletic ability to mirror defensive lineman’s lateral moves, along with bringing the power and balance to dig in his heels when holding off bull rushers. This young man has the look of a future First Team All Pro.
3. Jaire Alexander
The über confident and competitive cover man took another step in his progression by increasing his deflected passes from 11 to 17 in his second year, and even led the league in forced incompletions in the first six weeks of 2019. But where Alexander proved to truly make the leap into becoming one of the league’s premiere lockdown corners is in how he bounced back from his forgettable performance versus Amari Cooper in Week 5 by nullifying Marvin Jones the following week on Monday Night Football and limiting him to 2 receptions for 17 yards. In that same game, the Philadelphia native came off his man to chase down Kenny Golladay on a 66-yard pass play that could have resulted in a touchdown, but instead forced the Lions to settle for a field goal in a very tight game. Alexander’s commitment to improve and short memory to move on from bad games and/or plays has helped him in reading his opponent’s head fakes and double moves. Moreover, No. 23’s dogged relentnesses shows up in his efforts to work the ball free from the clutches of his adversary after a completion. His versatility to play man, off-man and zone coverage should continue to serve him well in future years.
2. Kenny Clark
The fifth-year pro is coming up on his walk year and it’s incumbent upon the Packers to re-sign Clark given the young lineman’s annual strides in rushing the passer (6 sacks and 17 hurries in 2019) and stopping the run, as he posted a career-high 89 tackles. Another area where the 314-pound nose tackle excelled is in demonstrating toughness by playing a full season of games despite battling a nagging back injury. Clark’s first-step quickness and jolting punch off the snap makes him one of the more difficult players to block at his position. This past season, he ranked in the top five among interior linemen in pressures on third down and pressure rate on third down, per NFL Next Gen Stats. The future is golden for the rising widebody; it’s up to the Packers brain trust to ensure that his future remain in Titletown over the long term and not in Detroit or on some other division rival’s roster.
1. Aaron Jones
It took Green Bay three years, but they finally used the electrifying Jones to his full potential, as the man known as “Showtyme” gained over 1,500 yards from scrimmage and scored a combined 23 touchdowns in the regular season and playoffs. Jones is a rare cat who can churn out yards in between the tackles, but can also turn on the jets and leave tacklers in the dust once he’s in the open field. To that end, the 25-year-old ball carrier averaged 4.1 yards per carry on red zone runs up the middle, placing him as the top producer in that category, according to NFL.com’s Nick Shook. The reporter also points out that No. 33 generated 53 runs of 15-plus mph, fourth-best in the NFL.——————
When ~Reverend~ Ralph Mancini is not tackling hard news in New York City, he enjoys analyzing his favorite sports team, the Green Bay Packers. You can follow him on twitter at ReverendRalph.