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Five young Packers to watch in 2020

GM Brian Gutekunst bullish on development of first- and second-year players

CB Chandon Sullivan
CB Chandon Sullivan

GREEN BAY – As the NFL offseason calendar turns to March, most of the attention is centered on who will be the next big free-agent acquisition in a couple weeks and which combine standout has the best chance of making an instant impact.

To be certain, the next two months will have a significant effect on how the 2020 NFL season unfolds. Look no further than the Packers, whose four free-agent signings and eight-player draft class contributed mightily to the team winning as many games (13) in 2019 as its two previous seasons combined.

Yet for every Za'Darius Smith or Elgton Jenkins that comes through the door, there also are unheralded holdovers such as Allen Lazard and Lucas Patrick who come out of nowhere to make a name for themselves over the course of a long season.

The Packers have the necessary cap room to again be competitive in free agency and 10 selections in this year's draft to improve the roster. Predictably, there also will be a few more returning young players who come out of the woodwork to make a mark on next year's squad.

With that in mind, here are five under-the-radar players to keep an eye on in 2020:

TE Jace Sternberger

The Packers thought highly enough of Jace Sternberger's skill set and upside to draft the 6-foot-4, 251-pound tight end in the third round (75th overall) last April, the highest Green Bay has drafted a tight end in nearly 20 years.

Sternberger, who started his college career as a receiver at Kansas, was named Texas A&M's team MVP for the 48 catches, 832 yards and 10 touchdowns he produced in his lone season in College Station.

Sternberger's first NFL season was marred by early injuries and misfortune. He suffered a concussion and jaw injury during a co-op practice with Houston in August before spending the first half of the regular season on injured reserve with an ankle injury. He didn't technically have a catch in seven regular-season appearances but Sternberger got stronger as the year wore on.

"It was a process but I thought he started to get a good handle on things toward the end of the season," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said. "I thought (tight ends coach) Justin Outten did an incredible job with him, just putting in the extra time needed for him to get up to speed. I thought he was playing some good ball at the end of the season in the limited reps that he got."

The 23-year-old tight end impressed with his blocking, versatility and athleticism. He filled in as an H-back after fullback Danny Vitale missed the final three games of the year with a knee injury. Sternberger then became the 38th player to catch a touchdown from quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the NFC Championship Game against San Francisco.

"I think Jace in time has a chance to be the kind of guy that can be a mismatch for us," Gutekunst said. "He has some dynamic ability in the passing game. We're pretty excited about what he did as a blocker."

CB Chandon Sullivan

The Packers immediately pounced on Chandon Sullivan after the Philadelphia Eagles chose to release the 5-foot-11, 189-pound cornerback days after the 2019 NFL Draft.

The Packers had their eye on Sullivan for a while. While undrafted a year earlier, the former Georgia State standout led all cornerbacks with a 40½-inch vertical at the combine. His 11-foot-2 broad jump was second only to Ohio State's Denzel Ward, who was drafted fourth overall by Cleveland.

The Eagles' loss turned out to be Green Bay's gain. Sullivan not only made the Packers' 53-man roster out of training camp but also carved out a role in the secondary. He finished the year as the Packers' dime cornerback, racking up 30 tackles, six passes defensed, one interception and a forced fumble in 350 defensive snaps over 16 games.

"I'm really proud of him and how he stepped up in the moments that he did," Gutekunst said. "He was put in some pretty tough spots. Not only for a young player but also he had to play a lot of different spots for us whether it was safety, nickel, outside. I think he showed his versatility and I'm excited where he can go."

Take a look at photos of Packers CB Chandon Sullivan from the 2019 season.

WR Equanimeous St. Brown

A former sixth-round pick out of Notre Dame, Equanimeous St. Brown made some noise near the end of his rookie season in 2018.

The 6-foot-5, 214-pound receiver caught 21 passes for 328 yards in 12 games with seven starts, including a breakout performance against the New York Jets (five catches for 94 yards) in Week 16.

St. Brown was in the conversation for a starting role entering training camp before suffering a significant ankle injury during the Packers' third preseason game against Oakland.

Green Bay chose to place St. Brown on injured reserve before setting its initial 53-man roster, officially ending the 23-year-old receiver's season before it began. He's since made a full recovery and is expected to be ready for the 2020 season, according to Gutekunst.

"We value E.Q. quite a bit," Gutekunst said. "We think he's got a bright future with us. He had some pretty serious injuries that we felt needed time. No regrets about that at all (about putting him on IR)."

DT Kingsley Keke

The rookie fifth-round pick only played 94 defensive snaps in 14 games but still plowed his way to 10 tackles. He added three more (one for a loss) in the NFC title game on only 11 snaps.

Kingsley Keke, who was college teammates with Sternberger at Texas A&M, was known for being a durable and reliable run-stuffer on the Aggies' defensive front. The Packers hope the 6-foot-2, 288-pound defensive tackle follows the same steady progression he made at Texas A&M, where he finished with seven sacks during his senior year.

Defensive lineman Justin Madubuike lined up alongside Keke for three seasons and praised the Packers' second-year defensive lineman, both for his in-game leadership and the advice he gave the draft prospect before the combine.

"Kingsley is one of my great friends. I literally spoke with him three days ago," Madubuike said. "Playing that seven-overtime game versus LSU and against Kentucky and against Arkansas and winning all those games are just very special, things I'll remember for the rest of my life. And that's one of my boys, so he's definitely my big brother. He always gives me good advice."

LBs Oren Burks

The Packers have two more weeks to formalize their plans at inside linebacker with starters Blake Martinez and B.J. Goodson both set to hit the open market.

Whatever happens, former third-round pick Oren Burks will look to establish himself in the starting lineup next season.

The 6-foot-3, 233-pound linebacker has been the frontrunner to start opposite of Martinez the last two offseasons before suffering shoulder and chest injuries in training camp that have sidelined him at the start of the regular season.

Burks, still only 24, has started only four of his 26 regular-season games to this point. He's been a core special-teams player, racking up a team-high 19 coverage tackles over the past two seasons.

Gutekunst's optimism doesn't end with Burks. He's also excited about second-year linebacker Ty Summers, a seventh-round pick out of TCU a year ago.

Summers played exclusively on special teams as a rookie, leading the unit with 311 snaps played. Green Bay also will return former Oklahoma linebacker Curtis Bolton, who made a convincing argument to win a starting job in Burks' absence last August before tearing his anterior cruciate ligament against Oakland.

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