GREEN BAY – This summer, no different than most in the NFL, was littered with pundit rankings, polls and commentary leading into start of the 2020 regular season.
The usual suspects appeared in the championship forecast. Defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City, Baltimore, San Francisco, New Orleans and Seattle were unanimously viewed as frontrunners in their respective conferences.
Tampa Bay, now quarterbacked by Tom Brady, has been a popular dark horse, along with Philadelphia, Dallas and Buffalo.
And then there are the Packers, who went undefeated in the NFC North last season and won 14 games under first-year head coach Matt LaFleur. Coming off a 6-9-1 campaign in 2018, it marked the largest single-season turnaround in franchise history.
Yet, Green Bay rarely has been identified by the mainstream media as a top contender despite the fact that 19 of the 22 starters in January's NFC title game return and 44 of the 53 players on the active roster finished last season with the Packers.
Two-time MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers doesn't seem to mind the skepticism. In fact, Rodgers welcomes it entering Sunday's regular-season opener in Minnesota.
"I like where we're at as far as kind of flying under the radar even though we went 13-3 last year," Rodgers said. "We've got a chance to prove what kind of team we are to start the season out on Sunday, and I look forward to the opportunity."
Rodgers isn't alone in feeling that way. Most of the Packers' locker room carries a significant chip on its shoulder after repeatedly being told what it lacks this offseason.
For all the naysayers the Packers had in 2019, there seemed to have been twice as many armchair general managers pontificating about what was needed for Green Bay to improve.
Cap space was needed, onlookers felt. So veteran guard Lane Taylor was a likely roster cut after missing all but two games last season with a torn biceps muscle, right? No.
Instead, Green Bay retained the seventh-year veteran and Taylor proceeded to win every one-on-one rep he took during training camp. He now appears to have recaptured a starting job on the offensive line.
"I really appreciate how tough he's been not only physically but mentally, coming back from injury bouncing around the offensive line," left tackle David Bakhtiari said of Taylor, who entered the league with him in 2013. "To see him not only grow and mature but show his mental fortitude really speaks upon his type of character and him as a football player."
What about receiver? Surely, the Packers needed to draft one in the opening rounds to complement three-time Pro Bowler Davante Adams, after finishing last season with former undrafted free agent Allen Lazard as their No. 2 option.
Green Bay made one addition there, signing former Carolina receiver Devin Funchess in free agency. But when Funchess chose to opt out due to family reasons related to COVID-19, the Packers stood pat. They entrusted Lazard and former fifth-round pick Marquez Valdes-Scantling to step up.
Valdes-Scantling did just that, drawing praise from LaFleur, Rodgers and practically everyone on the roster for his performance this summer, displaying refined route-running through training camp.
Meanwhile, Lazard is hungry to prove his 35 catches for 477 yards and three touchdowns during the last 11 games of the 2019 season were no fluke.
"I've been flying under the radar for quite some time. I still feel like I'm underpublicized, I guess you would say," said Lazard, who was among the Packers' final cuts of camp last summer.
"At the end of the day, it went from competing to get on the roster to now snaps, now I'm competing for reps. Now, I'm competing with Davante. Now, that's who I'm chasing next. It's always setting a different standard, setting a different milestone and always chasing something."
Since everyone had the Packers pegged for a receiver, naturally GM Brian Gutekunst used the team's second-round pick to draft Boston College running back AJ Dillon last April.
The addition of a bruising, power back like Dillon raised questions in the minds of some about where Jamaal Williams fit into the Packers' plans well into training camp.
Instead, Williams is again poised to be a featured part of the blueprint for the backfield. Having received a checklist of items to improve from position coach Ben Sirmans, Williams reported back to Green Bay in the best shape of his career.
Wanting to improve his route running against man coverage, Williams reached out to Adams this offseason for pointers. He ran sand hills in the Arizona desert for conditioning and caught passes from local quarterbacks.
During his August media carwash, Rodgers continued to single out Williams as an underrated player who had taken a leap.
"We talked about some of the things I felt he needed to work on to become a more complete player. He went out this offseason and did that," Sirmans said. "You can see it more in his quickness, his ability. He wanted to improve his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. You can see that he's done that."
The list goes on and on for the 2020 Packers – from the consternation about not drafting a defensive lineman for the first time in 24 years to the Smith Bros. not being ranked among the NFL's top 10 pass-rush duos after a season in which the two combined for 25½ sacks and more than 140 pressures.
Outside perception can be whatever others want it to be, but the Packers feel they're built to contend with a young and hungry roster eager to silence doubters. On the eve of a season unlike any other, Rodgers and Co. are ready to put words into action.
"I don't know how you can play this game and not get butterflies before every game," said Rodgers, now in his 16th season. "It's maybe a little bit more in the first game, but it's that excitement, it's the love, the love meets the excitement, and you know they're putting 15 (minutes) on that clock. Period says one and you're about to head to the field.
"It's a pretty special feeling, especially the older you get as you realize how long you've been at this, how much you've learned over the years, a lot of memories kind of flood your brain quickly from other opening games or certain games at certain fields, so it will be definitely an exciting time to start the season off."