By Chris Havel
GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers are counting on two things to ensure their 2021 season ends in a championship, rather than disappointment.
** No. 1 – Roster upgrades among the final dozen or so players on the 53-man roster to improve the team’s overall depth and ability to withstand injuries and/or COVID-19 outbreaks.
** No. 2 – Returning core players – especially ascending stars such as Jaire Alexander and Darnell Savage – to continue their path toward perennial All-Pro status.
It isn’t a reach to suggest the Packers will be better at every position.
Here’s a look at their current 53-man roster on the heels of the NFL’s mandated 3 p.m. Tuesday deadline:
** Quarterbacks (2) – Aaron Rodgers, the league’s reigning MVP, enters his third season in head coach Matt LaFleur’s system surrounded by better weaponry. In short, the Packers’ offense should roll.
Backup Jordan Love is an upgrade over Tim Boyle, who edged out David Blough as Jared Goff’s backup in Detroit, only to break his right thumb. Boyle will be sidelined six to eight weeks, while Love will be standing on the sideline watching Rodgers work his magic.
Love is an upgrade over Boyle on talent alone.
If Kurt Benkert isn’t picked up on waivers, the Packers are expected to sign him to their 16-man practice squad.
** Running backs (3) – Basically, the Packers have replaced Jamaal Williams and Tyler Ervin with A.J. Dillon and rookie Kylin Hill. Dillon is a more powerful runner than Williams, while Hill is a true running back (Ervin was more of a gadget guy) with special teams’ ability.
Rookie Amari Rodgers is considered a receiver, but his skillset should allow him to replace Ervin as the “jet sweep” guy in the attack.
** Receivers (6) – The Packers kept five receivers last year. The notable difference is Randall Cobb replacing Equanimeous St. Brown. Cobb’s ability to read defenses, play in the slot and collaborate with Rodgers will be invaluable as the season plays out.
Malik Taylor earned a roster spot with exceptional play in the preseason, but he knows nothing is guaranteed. He made the 53-man roster last year and started in Week 4 when Adams and Lazard were out with injuries, but there were no guarantees this offseason. Taylor’s contributions on special teams likely factored in the team’s decision to keep six receivers.
** Tight ends (4) – Robert Tonyan is expected to be an even better version of himself, which is saying a lot considering he caught 52 passes for 586 yards and 11 touchdowns last season.
Marcedes Lewis is a rock-solid veteran, while Josiah Deguara continues to impress after missing his rookie season with a knee injury. Dominique Dafney, the fourth tight end, is faster and more sure-handed than Jace Sternberger, who will be on the suspended list for the first four games.
** Offensive line (9) – David Bakhtiari’s placement on the PUP list is bittersweet. While the Packers want their All-Pro left tackle to return as soon as possible, Bakhtiari’s designation removes all temptation to bring him back too soon. He will be out for the first six weeks.
Until then, the Packers’ offensive line (left to right) appears to be: Elgton Jenkins, Jon Runyan, Josh Myers, Royce Newman and Billy Turner. When Bakhtiari returns Jenkins slides to left guard and Runyan returns to his backup role.
Myers is a downgrade from Pro Bowl center Corey Linsley if only because of the rookie’s lack of experience. The Packers believe Myers will develop into a top-flight center. Until then he’ll learn as he goes.
Newman burst onto the scene as a powerful, agile lineman. His size and mobility should lead to crushing downfield blocks in both the run and screen game.
The only question is this: How well does Turner hold up at right tackle? If he struggles the Packers could turn to veteran Dennis Kelly.
Guard-center Lucas Patrick, center Jake Hanson and tackle Yosh Nijman round out the position group.
** Defensive line (6) – The Packers kept five down linemen last year.
All-Pro Kenny Clark, Kingsley Keke, Dean Lowry and Tyler Lancaster all return. The changes are T.J. Slaton replacing the eternally disappointing Montravius Adams, with undrafted free agent Jack Heflin being deemed good enough to merit six down linemen. If Heflin proves to be an upgrade over Lancaster, the group may be back to five if another roster spot is needed.
** Inside linebackers (5) – De’Vondre Campbell is a significant upgrade over Christian Kirksey. Campbell (6-4, 232) has exceptional size and speed, plus he has been a healthy and productive tackling machine during his first five NFL seasons.
Rookie O.J. McDuffie earned a roster spot through special teams’ play. He joins holdovers Oren Burks and Ty Summers, while Krys Barnes effectively replaces Kamal Martin as the No. 2 inside backer.
** Edge rushers (5) – Za’Darius Smith’s back issues likely factored into the team’s decision to keep five OLBs, including the unheralded Chauncy Rivers. A rejuvenated Preston Smith and rising star Rashan Gary, plus holdover Jonathan Garvin, round out the group.
** Cornerbacks (6) – Alexander, the headliner, will lead a group that includes holdovers Kevin King and Chandon Sullivan, first-round pick Eric Stokes and newcomers Shemar Jean-Charles and Isaac Yiadom.
Stokes is an obvious upgrade over Ka’dar Hollman, and Jean-Charles’ special teams’ play is stronger than Kabion Ento’s. Yiadom replaces Josh Jackson in a Packers-Giants swap of disappointing corners.
** Safeties (4) – Savage and the underappreciated Adrian Amos are versatile, talented starters who set the tone on defense. Henry Black and Vernon Scott are quality backups.
** Special teams (3) – Punter J.K. Scott’s inconsistency ultimately cost him his job. The Packers sent a 2023 seventh-round draft pick to the Los Angeles Rams in return for punter Corey Boroquez, who lost his training camp battle with veteran Johnny Hekker.
Boroquez garnered some All-Pro votes while punting in Buffalo last season, but the Bills declined to re-sign him.
Mason Crosby is the team’s ageless kicker, while Hunter Bradley will handle the long snapper duties again.