Packers' Breakout Players to Watch in 2021 Training Camp

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistJune 7, 2021

Packers' Breakout Players to Watch in 2021 Training Camp

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Heading into training-camp season, the biggest question surrounding the Green Bay Packers is the future of quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The reigning MVP appears determined not to play for the Packers again, and Green Bay appears determined not to trade him.

    "We remain committed to resolving things with Aaron and want him to be our quarterback in 2021 and beyond," CEO Mark Murphy wrote in his monthly column on the team's official website.

    While fans probably don't enjoy waiting to see how Rodgers' situation unfolds, there are some positives on which to focus heading into camp. The Packers still have a championship-caliber roster that can prop up whoever is at quarterback—be it Rodgers, Blake Bortles or Jordan Love.

    Should a few players from that roster break out in 2021—as tight end Robert Tonyan did with 586 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns last season—Green Bay's odds of success will only increase.

    Here, we'll examine three breakout candidates who could emerge as big pieces of the playoff puzzle in 2021. Since we're focusing on breakout candidates, additions like rookie cornerback Eric Stokes won't qualify. Instead, we'll examine returning players and why they could be at their all-time best this season.

LB Krys Barnes

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    Undrafted linebacker Krys Barnes emerged as a defensive force for the Packers as a rookie last season. The UCLA product stepped into a starting role immediately and became one of the centerpieces of Green Bay's linebacker corps.

    Barnes finished with 80 total tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. However, he also missed three games on the reserve/COVID-19 list and played fewer than 50 percent of the defensive snaps in seven of his 13 appearances.

    With a full season and a bigger defensive role, Barnes could become a legitimate star at the second level.

    "He's obviously a guy that has made plays when he's gotten in the game," inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti said, via the team's official website. "He works extremely hard, communicates well, can play ahead of plays."

    Barnes should see an expanded role in 2021 too. Last offseason, Green Bay signed Christian Kirksey to be the Mike linebacker and a defensive leader. With Kirksey being released this offseason, those responsibilities should go to Barnes on a full-time basis—he took them when Kirksey was sidelined last season too.

    During camp, it will be interesting to see how Barnes progresses and what sort of role the Packers have in store for him this season.

OLB Rashan Gary

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    Leon Halip/Associated Press

    In 2019, the Packers used the 12th overall pick on Michigan edge defender Rashan Gary. While Gary brought tremendous upside to the Green Bay defense, he didn't immediately step into a significant role. In the same offseason, the Packers signed Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith, and Gary has been brought along slowly.

    As a rookie, Gary played just 24 percent of the defensive snaps. That number jumped to 44 percent last season, and it's not unreasonable to think that Gary will have an even bigger role in 2021. That would be huge for the Packers because when Gary was on the field last year, he was a difference-maker.

    Despite playing less than half of the time, Gary finished with five sacks, 19 quarterback pressures, 11 quarterback hits, five tackles for loss, 35 total tackles and a fumble recovery.

    According to Next Gen Stats, Gary finished ninth in disruption rate last season.

    It would make sense for the Packers to elevate Gary into a more prominent role this season, as both Smiths may not be long-term parts of the future. Both are scheduled to become free agents next offseason.

    Fans should get an idea of just how the Packers plan to use Gary in 2021 during training camp.

RB AJ Dillon

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    Matt Patterson/Associated Press

    Last year, the Packers used a second-round pick on Boston College running back AJ Dillon. While he didn't see a ton of playing time as a rookie—he played just nine percent of the offensive snaps—there are reasons for this.

    For one, Dillon missed five games on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Secondly, he was stuck behind running backs Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams on the depth chart.

    Dillon still contributed, though, averaging 5.2 yards per carry and racking up 124 rushing yards and two touchdowns in his only game with double-digit carries. He finished his inaugural campaign with 242 rushing yards, 21 receiving yards and two scores.

    While Jones should remain the starter this season, Williams left for the rival Detroit Lions in free agency. This should open up the No. 2 role for Dillon, and it's an important one. Last season, Williams played 40 percent of the offensive snaps and finished with 505 rushing yards, 236 receiving yards and three touchdowns.

    Dillon's presence will be even more valuable if Rodgers isn't under center to start the season. Dillon and Jones have the potential to be one of the best backfield duos in the league this season and could become the Packers' new offensive centerpieces if Rodgers isn't there.

    The Packers will get a long look at their new two-headed rushing attack in camp later this summer.

         

    *Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference.

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