Biggest question marks for Packers entering 2021 season

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The Green Bay Packers won 26 combined regular-season games and advanced to the NFC title game during each of the last two seasons. General manager Brian Gutekunst used every salary-cap trick in the book to keep his roster intact and then convinced his three-time MVP quarterback to return for at least one more season, creating what is certain to be a pressure-packed year of football for a Super Bowl-caliber team in Green Bay in 2021.

All teams have question marks entering the season. The best teams come up with the right answers.

Here are the biggest question marks facing Matt LaFleur’s team entering this season:

The offensive line

(AP Photo/Joshua Bessex)

The Packers are deep, talented and versatile at running back, wide receiver and tight end, Aaron Rodgers is coming off one of his finest seasons and Matt LaFleur has established himself as one of the game's premier playcallers. On paper, this is a dangerous group that should score a lot of points. The big question mark is along the offensive line, where a combination of departures and injuries require last season's elite group to be shuffled to start 2021. Gone is All-Pro center Corey Linsley, who will be replaced by inexperienced rookie Josh Myers. Also missing is All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari, who is out for at least the first six weeks while recovering on the PUP list. Myers will likely be flanked on his right side by rookie Royce Newman, and moving Pro Bowler Elgton Jenkins to left tackle leaves behind a hole at left guard. The Packers are certainly deep along the offensive line – and the versatility of Adam Stenavich's room is terrific – but there's still a significant risk of regression for this highly important position group. Failures along the offensive line created a pair of losses last season to the current NFC gatekeepers. And other contenders in the conference should have strong pass-rushing fronts. The Packers will need Bakhtiari healthy and both rookies playing at a high level by the end of the season and into the postseason, where so many games are won and lost by the ability to affect the quarterback. How the Packers gel together up front on offense after Bakhtiari returns may determine is this just another good team or a legit Super Bowl team.

Joe Barry and the defense

Defensive coordinator Joe Barry is shown during the first day of Green Bay Packers rookie minicamp Friday, May 14, 2021 in Green Bay, Wis.

The Packers are certainly not lacking in talent on defense. In fact, this defense might have as much individual talent as any defense in football. Seriously. Not many teams can claim to have three legitimate edge rushers, an interior wrecking ball and three Pro Bowl caliber players in the secondary. Joe Barry's job is to elevate the entire defense by highlighting the elite individual talent and hiding the weaknesses. Football is the ultimate team game, and a defense is often only as good as its weakest link. Top quarterbacks and playcallers find the weaknesses and hammer them relentlessly. Mike Pettine couldn't figure out how to hide his defense's issues at cornerback, inside linebacker and interior defensive line, so he lost his job. Barry will take this Packers defense into 2021 with many of the same issues. Matt LaFleur made the switch at defensive coordinator because he saw an opportunity to get better, and to push his defense past just good and closer to great. Expectations should be set high for Barry. With this much talent, there can be no grace period.

Jaire's sidekick

(AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)

It can be argued that the No. 2 cornerback spot opposite All-Pro Jaire Alexander – and, to a lesser degree, the slot cornerback position – kept the Packers defense from being among the NFL's elite last season. Alexander is the definition of a shutdown cornerback. Even quarterbacks with legitimate No. 1 receivers didn't throw his way with any frequency. Much of the volume in the passing game was directed at Kevin King and Chandon Sullivan, who weren't always up to the task. The Packers brought back King and took Eric Stokes in the first round, likely hoping the arrival of Stokes would either push King back closer to 2019 levels or provide a quality replacement. The team needs at least one – or a combination of the two – to improve the efficiency of the position when Alexander takes away one-half of the field. This is where the greatest leap forward is possible for the Packers. If King or Stokes is good in 2021, the Packers pass defense could be amongst the NFL's very best. If not, a familiar fatal flaw may surface.

Inside linebacker trending

Dan Powers-USA TODAY NETWORK

The spinning wheel of veteran inside linebackers continued this offseason. Antonio Morrison, B.J. Goodson, Christian Kirksey and now De'Vondre Campbell, who is on his third team in three years. The Packers are expected to start Campbell next to Krys Barnes at linebacker. Joe Barry's front should make life a little easier on the position, but this is still one of the NFL's worst inside linebacker groups entering the regular season. Does it matter? A good defense must either have elite difference-makers at the position or at least some level of competency. The problem is when the position is a major weakness against the run and pass. Can Campbell and Barnes push the Packers inside linebackers from obvious weakness to just average? You can still have a great defense with average linebackers surrounding by elite players at the premium positions.

Especially the special teams

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The Packers finished last season among the NFL's worst on special teams, thanks largely to disastrous finishes in net punting and returns on punts and kicks. As a result, the team replaced coordinator Shawn Mennenga with assistant Maurice Drayton, drafted rookies capable of handling punts (Amari Rodgers) and kicks (Kylin Hill), and traded for a new punter (Corey Bojorquez). Special teams are often a reflection of a team's quality of depth at certain positions, such as linebacker, cornerback and safety. Can Drayton put all the pieces together and create real improvement? Margins are razor-thin in the NFL and special teams can swing games. Getting to an acceptable level of competence would be a strong first step.

Getting the edge

(AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski)

Consider this a three-pronged question mark. How will Za'Darius Smith's back hold up over a 17-game schedule? Will Preston Smith be incentivized into a bounce-back season? And can Rashan Gary emerge as a legitimate difference-maker? The Packers' edge rusher group could be among the best in football. It could also fall apart fast if Za'Darius Smith can't stay on the field, Preston Smith repeats last season's disappointing effort and Gary doesn't keep ascending. The whole complexion of the defense changes if the edge rushers aren't game-wreckers. To be perfectly fair, the Packers' pass-rush as a whole was underwhelming in 2020.

Under pressure

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Football players and coaches are programmed to think one game at a time, but it would be impossible for this team – after two NFC title game failures and the uncertain future of a future Hall of Fame quarterback – not to understand and feel the pressure going into 2021. Aaron Rodgers and everyone at 1265 Lombardi Ave. knows what's at stake. This could be the last chance for this group to go win a title, and Rodgers' last chance to get back to the Super Bowl with the Packers. Pressure can bring out the best in some and crush others. Will this locker room bottle up that energy and make something positive of it, or will it build – especially during the unavoidable tough moments of a season – and create fissures? Matt LaFleur must keep a bunch of individuals with unclear futures focused on a single goal for five or more months.

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