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Breakout players and unsung heroes helped propel Packers back to postseason

From first-round picks to undrafted rookies, Green Bay had plenty of young players step up in 2020

CB Chandon Sullivan and LB Rashan Gary
CB Chandon Sullivan and LB Rashan Gary

GREEN BAY – The Packers have seven Pro Bowlers, six All-Pros, an NFL Offensive Player of the Year contender and the frontrunner to win NFL MVP.

Yet, Aaron Rodgers will be the first to point out how there comes a point in every NFL postseason where it's not the stars and the household names who decide the outcome of a game.

It's James Starks coming out of nowhere to rush for 123 yards in a wild-card win over Philadelphia, Jarrett Bush grabbing a key interception in Super Bowl XLV and even a young Jordy Nelson jolting the offense that day with 140 receiving yards and a TD.

As the Packers get ready to embark on yet another playoff run – the 10th in Rodgers' 13 seasons as Green Bay's starting QB – it's likely another unsung hero or emerging prospect will come through in the clutch.

"There's so many guys who haven't been in that (Super Bowl) mix before," Rodgers said. "The Super Bowl is obviously a big part of the way that quarterbacks are judged and teams in general are judged. It has always and will always take a team to do it. Hopefully, this is the team to do it this year."

The Packers, sitting at 13-3, are battle-tested with a plethora of young players who have emerged this season to propel the Packers to a second consecutive 13-win regular season and the top seed in the NFC playoffs.

Some, such as Pro Bowl cornerback Jaire Alexander or 2019 All-Rookie performers Elgton Jenkins and Darnell Savage, made an early name for themselves, while others have stepped their game up during perhaps the most unique season in NFL history.

Here's a look at a few young players who emerged in Green Bay's lineup this season:

LB Krys Barnes, rookie

The UCLA linebacker was the lone college free agent to open the 2020 season on the Packers' 53-man roster, marking the 15th consecutive year Green Bay has carried at least one undrafted rookie in Week 1.

Despite not having a physical offseason program, Barnes quickly commandeered the defensive communication headset on his way to an 80-tackle campaign. He started 10 of the 13 games in which he appeared, playing 421 snaps.

The 6-foot-1, 235-pound linebacker also had five tackles for loss, one sack and a forced fumble of Carolina quarterback Teddy Bridgewater on the goal line in Week 15 that was a pivotal play in the Packers' 24-16 win over the Panthers.

As the every-down "Mike" linebacker down the stretch, Barnes registered a career-high 14 tackles in Green Bay's regular-season finale in Chicago.

"He's done his job and he's really good as far as the demeanor, getting guys lined up. It's not chaotic in there," defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said. "He can go ahead and make a decision and whatever check or the front, if that's involved, he gets it done and he makes plays."

TE Dominique Dafney, rookie

The Packers had big plans for Josiah Deguara this year before the rookie third-round pick's season-ending knee injury forced Green Bay to find a new H-back for Matt LaFleur's offense.

Enter Dafney, whose college football career included stints at Iowa Western Community College, the University of Iowa and finally Indiana State for one season.

While not on scholarship with the Sycamores, the future Packers tight end had a chance to flash his offensive versatility as a ball-carrier in Indiana State's wildcat formation during the final month of his redshirt senior year.

Dafney, who was signed to Green Bay's practice squad on Oct. 12 and promoted to the active roster in December, caught two passes for 26 yards (including a 13-yard TD against Chicago) in five games. His special-teams skills have also been apparent, racking up two coverage tackles on 44 snaps.

"I know how important special teams is but everybody wants to play offense," Dafney said. "Just getting that opportunity to show my full versatility and the full aspects I bring to the table and attributes I bring to the table, it meant the world to me to be honest. Finally, somebody believes in me, the whole thing. They trust I'm going to be able to make plays."

RB AJ Dillon, rookie

The second-round pick out of Boston College gained a lot of attention during training camp for both his power running style and quad development.

The 6-foot, 247-pound running back appeared to be turning a corner on the field, too, before a bout with COVID-19 sidelined him for five games. He worked his way back into the lineup for two weeks before a breakout performance against Tennessee on Dec. 27, relieving an injured Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams.

The 22-year-old running back piled up 124 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries, making Dillon the youngest player in team history to post 100-plus rushing yards and two-plus rushing TDs in a game, according to Elias. He earned NFL Rookie of the Week honors for his performance.

With Jones and Williams back in the lineup, the Packers take a healthy and versatile backfield with them into the playoffs.

"We can just get into gear and get into our best form going into the playoffs," Williams said of the position group. "We just want to make sure we're at our best and let them know the running back room is ready to go and do our part to start making our Super Bowl run."

LB Rashan Gary, second season

The 12th overall pick in last year's NFL Draft had as strong a training camp as anyone on the Packers' roster and it translated on the field in 2020.

Gary, who turned 23 last month, assumed a bigger role in the Packers' defense in Year 2, finishing with 35 tackles, 11 quarterback hits and five sacks. While rotating behind Preston Smith and Za'Darius Smith, Gary saw his snaps nearly double from 244 in 2019 to 456 over 15 games with four starts.

The 6-foot-5, 277-pound outside linebacker factored into the improvements Green Bay's run defense made, as well. He maintained his edge to contribute to the Packers holding All-Pro running back Derrick Henry to just 98 yards on 23 carries in Green Bay's 40-14 blowout win over the Titans.

"He's playing with a lot of confidence right now," outside linebackers coach Mike Smith recently. "I couldn't be more happy the strides that he's making and he's continued making. He freaking loves football. It's amazing.

"These days you don't see athletes and guys that are built like this; talking about just old-school athletes that love to put their pads on and love to hit every play and have the mindset of just being tough and all that type of stuff, that's who he is."

DL Kingsley Keke, second season

After coming on strong late in his rookie season, Keke snatched a starting spot in Pettine's defense in his second NFL go-around.

The former fifth-round pick out of Texas A&M led Green Bay's defensive line with four sacks, following a pair of two-sacks performances in New Orleans in Week 3 and against Philadelphia in Week 13.

Keke had played in every game this season (with nine starts) prior to sustaining a concussion against Tennessee.

"We've been talking about it all season, all offseason with Keke, just his ability, how explosive he is," defensive lineman Kenny Clark said. "I've been trying to tell him to just use more power to set up his moves. He's really good athletically and he's a guy that can get around anybody."

G Lucas Patrick, fourth season

The 6-foot-3, 313-pound guard kept an open mind during a topsy-turvy 2020 offseason.

Having signed an extension with the Packers last December, Patrick reported for training camp knowing he'd likely be the next man up at the three interior offensive line positions. He prepared his body and was among the first to wear a COVID-19 mouth guard in case he was asked to step in.

And through a series of injuries up front, Patrick was thrust into a starting role in Green Bay's regular-season opener in Minnesota.

That move was made permanent after veteran Lane Taylor was lost for the season due to a knee injury. After starting just six games and playing 642 offensive snaps over his first three NFL seasons, Patrick started 15 games and finished second on the offensive line with 939 offensive snaps played.

Patrick and the Packers' offensive line finished the year on a high note, limiting Akiem Hicks and a formidable Chicago defensive line to just one sack of Rodgers in the finale.

"He's a true pro," LaFleur said. "That whole line, talk about true professionals, having the adversity that we had last week and then watching Billy Turner go in there, Lucas come back in and at the level that they competed across the board versus a very good Chicago Bear defense. It's awesome to watch. It's been like this the whole season."

CB Chandon Sullivan, second season

The former undrafted free agent out of Georgia State came onto the scene as the Packers' dime cornerback as a rookie before winning the nickel job this past summer.

Sullivan maintained his grasp on those duties all season, registering 41 tackles with six passes defensed and an interception of Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford in the Packers' end zone back in Week 3.

The 24-year-old Sullivan was the only Packers cornerback to play in all 16 regular-season games (10 starts).

"I'm just so much smarter this year," Sullivan said. "Last year, I felt like I played and moved around a lot. This year, I kind of settled in at the nickel position. Just learning overall schemes and learning how to slow the game down mentally before I move a muscle is probably the biggest help I've had this year from Coach (Jerry) Gray. I'm very fortunate to have him."

TE Robert Tonyan, third season

A strong argument could be made Tonyan was the Packers' breakthrough player of 2020.

The former Indiana State quarterback and receiver blossomed into a reliable starting tight end for the Packers in his third NFL season.

Tonyan was second on the team with a career-high 52 receptions for 586 yards (11.3 avg.) and 11 touchdown receptions, tying Paul Coffman's single-season franchise record set in 1983 for the most TD catches by a tight end. That also tied All-Pro Travis Kelce for most among tight ends in the league this season.

The 27-year-old Tonyan also had one of the most impressive games in team history for a tight end against Atlanta in Week 4, when he caught six passes for 98 yards and three touchdowns – becoming just the third TE in franchise history to post three receiving TDs in a game (Keith Jackson in 1996, Jermichael Finley in 2011).

The fact Tonyan wasn't voted to the Pro Bowl following his career year was a point of contention with the Packers' locker room last month.

"Going into it and talking to Bobby, this wasn't one of his goals coming into the season. That was just an added bonus," tight ends coach Justin Outten said.

"But to show him how close he was without even putting that in his mind and just putting his nose down and working his tail off, that things like that could occur, it's just fuel on the fire for a guy like that that's come a long way and made a name for himself."

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