GREEN BAY – It's been a few years, but Aaron Jones is no stranger to the role of underdog.
The Packers running back practically majored in the subject at the University of Texas-El Paso, where he rushed for 4,114 yards while the Miners won 18 games over his four seasons. Despite his productivity, Jones still fell to the fifth round of the 2017 NFL Draft due in part to scouts labeling him as a change-of-pace back.
Six years later, Jones is a Pro Bowler, team captain and the third all-time leading rusher in franchise history. As the Packers prepare to press on without four-time MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Jones sees many parallels between his humble beginnings and where his team stands in its present form.
"I'm used to it, being an underdog or being slept on, personally, so it's a position I love to be in," Jones said. "Nobody sees you coming at all. Everybody's relaxed when they're thinking about you, or they don't think you're capable of it."
In 2023, Green Bay is out to prove it's still a team not to be trifled with in the NFC. Over the past 30 years, it's not often the Packers haven't been considered one of the prohibitive favorites, but a changing of the guard at quarterback has created questions of what life after Rodgers will entail.
Green Bay's roster skews young, with only three players older than 30, but don't call it a rebuild. Several returning veterans, including cornerbacks Keisean Nixon and Rasul Douglas, have tweeted in recent weeks how public perception is fueling their internal drive.
Hope springs eternal for the Packers, whose locker room is ready to rally around new starting quarterback Jordan Love. As much as things have changed, the former first-round pick is in a familiar spot after taking most of Green Bay's first-team reps the past two summers while Rodgers was away from the team during the offseason program.
Lauded for his balanced temperament at Utah State, Love has kept that same mindset as the Packers' new QB1. Prior to reporting to Green Bay, Love got some reps in with Jones and receiver Romeo Doubs while home in California.
"My main focus is to try to bring guys along," Love said. "Trying to give everybody else confidence in themselves, confidence that I believe in them, I trust them and just try to bring guys up. I never want to be negative around guys. We all want the same goal. We all want to be great."
Offensive cohesion will take time, but the Packers remain as deep and experienced as ever on the defensive side of the ball. Returning all but three starters from a year ago, Green Bay's defense features eight former first-round picks, including 2023 top pick Lukas Van Ness.
The Packers are still waiting on two of those first-rounders, linebacker Rashan Gary (knee) and cornerback Eric Stokes (knee/ankle), to return from injury but the expectations for defensive coordinator Joe Berry's unit are at an all-time high.
It's similar to the position the defense was in last year, though a slow start and a wave of midseason injuries contributed to the Packers dropping to 17th in scoring defense (21.8 points per game) and total defense (336.5 yards per game), while finishing 26th against the run (139.5 ypg).
Defensive lineman Kenny Clark, a two-time Pro Bowler and one of three returning captains, understands the league might be "sleeping on" the Packers this season and that's OK. Whether onlookers follow or fade, Clark and Co. know it's up them it to get the job done from Week 1 on.
"We definitely gotta start faster," said Clark of the defense. "It starts with just tackling and stopping the run. Whenever guys are in third-and-long situations, we usually got them off the field and made plays on the ball, got sacks or whatever the case may be. That's our whole goal."
As much as Jones cherishes his six seasons with Rodgers, he's equally enthusiastic about Love stepping behind the wheel of the offense. In many ways, it mirrors Jones' own two-year development process that led into his first 1,000-yard rushing season in 2019.
Collectively, the Packers are optimistic for 2023 and beyond. As returning veterans begin to gel with the incoming rookie class, Green Bay feels as though it has all the necessary firepower to show the naysayers the Packers are still one of the NFL's standard-bearers.
"When you prove people wrong, it's one of the best feelings in the world," Jones said. "I think that's what we're going to do this year – prove a lot of people wrong. We're not worried about anybody's opinions. We know what's going to be written out there or where they're going to have us selected to finish."