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State of the 2021 Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers dilemma has franchise at a crossroads

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2021? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Packers organization, Packer Backers around the world and those who remember Don Majkowski:

There are a lot of people who complain that Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens was kind of a rip-off because it was basically the same plot as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. I mean, there are some similarities, but there's enough nuances in both that really set them apart. And honestly, I really enjoyed the heck out of each film. Almost equally.

I bring this up because the end of the Aaron Rodgers era in Green Bay is beginning to feel like a rip-off of the end of Brett Favre's time in Titletown. But no: Once again, while it feels similar, there are some differences. And as a Bears fan, I'm enjoying this reboot as much as the original, if not more. Let's talk 2021.

How the Packers got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2020 season.

The highs:

  • Aaron Rodgers, spurred on by the selection of Jordan Love (don't act like that wasn't a thing), winning the league MVP award. I totally called that, too, on NFL Fantasy Live. Nobody does petty like Aaron Rodgers. Incredible season. I know I was hyped on Miles Sanders in fantasy last year, too, but I hope you listened to me about Rodgers.
  • Aaron Jones having a very good follow-up season to his breakout 2019 campaign. He did have touchdown regression (called it), but turned in a another solid performance. He's also re-signed for the next four years! So that's great news for the Packers.
  • Securing the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Nobody is going to Lambeau in the playoffs and winning there! Right? Oh ...

The lows:

  • Losing the NFC Championship Game at home to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The big play came with just over two minutes remaining in regulation, when the Packers had the ball inside Tampa's 10-yard line, trailing by eight points. But instead of going for the touchdown (and two-pointer) to tie the game, coach Matt LaFleur took the three points. And Green Bay never got the ball back. The play that did not go over well with the starting quarterback. And was even referenced during his stint as the guest host of Jeopardy! Which he was actually pretty good at.

2021 VIPs

Head coach: Matt LaFleur. I've got to be honest with you: I'm kind of shocked at how well LaFleur has done as coach of the Packers. He's won 26 games in his first two seasons. Back-to-back trips to the NFC title game. And of course, we can debate whether it was the smart move to go for that late field goal against the Bucs. But you have to give credit where credit is due. He turned being a friend of Sean McVay into an offensive coordinator's gig with the Tennessee Titans. I kid. But in Nashville, he didn't even use Derrick Henry like Arthur Smith did. And yet, he still became head coach of one of the most storied teams in football. His 26 wins are the most of any Packers coach through two seasons.

I know some naysayers will give all the credit to Aaron Rodgers. I'm not one of those people. Mike McCarthy didn't reach 13 wins in any of his final seven seasons with the franchise.

Quarterback: Aaron Rodgers? I made a joke last year by listing Jordan Love in this spot. A tongue-in-cheek needling to Packers fans. But now I kind of feel bad about that. Sort of like when you're golfing with your buddies and your pal puts one 3 feet from the pin on a Par 3, and you remark, "Nice par." Next thing you know, dude's putt lips out and he does get a par. And while you find the whole thing hilarious, you have to feel a little bit bad that you jinxed him. That's where we stand with Rodgers right now.

Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks to ever do it. At age 37, he's still playing at an MVP level, as evidenced by, you know, being the reigning MVP. But this current situation has to be unnerving to Packers fans who have lived through this with Brett Favre. Seriously, how could this have happened again? Team president Mark Murphy was kind of a newbie during the Favre thing, so any miscues on his end were understandable. And hey: Rodgers taking over worked out pretty well for the Pack. But how does Murphy allow it to get like this with No. 12, fresh off what could be considered his best individual season yet? I'm not saying that you need to let your quarterback make all of the personnel decisions, but throw him a bone. When you have an all-time QB, keep him happy. Because when you don't have an all-time QB -- remember, I'm a Bears fan -- life is a bit tougher.

Rodgers, who didn't report to the team's mandatory minicamp last week, has openly expressed his discontent with the Packers and direction of the organization. He's done a run as the host of Jeopardy! He'd rather spend time with Bryson DeChambeau, of all people.

So, I don't know. The Bears fan in me would love to see Rodgers sit out the season. The Bears fan in me has also been burned by Rodgers showing up at the last minute and torching us. So I might be a bit biased here.

Projected 2021 MVP: David Bakhtiari, left tackle. I listed Bakhtiari last year in this space, and again, I apologize for how accurate I was. Bakhtiari was the most valuable player on the Packers last season -- after Rodgers, of course. Bakhtiari suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice at the end of December, a development which obviously had a huge impact on the Packers' offensive line. A lot of Green Bay fans will tell you it was the one thing keeping the Pack from the Super Bowl. His return is vital to this team. No matter who the quarterback is.

2021 breakout star: AJ Dillon, running back. I mean, the Packers drafted Jordan Love when they didn't need a quarterback last year. And second-round pick Dillon also seemed like a luxury to a team with Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams. He's more than that. Dillon played very well down the stretch for the Packers last season. And he's expected to have a bigger role now, with Williams in Detroit. In fact, if you're a ZERO RB fantasy enthusiast, Dillon should be on your short list. And of course, let's talk about his quads.

New face to know: DeAndre Hopkins, wide receiver! Sorry, sorry, sorry. The Packers have acquired DeAndre Thompkins, a former Penn State receiver who went undrafted back in 2019. That makes much more sense. I mean, I could understand Packers fans wanting to go all in on Julio Jones for instance. Which would have made a lot of sense. Especially if the price was just a second-round pick and change. I understand these kinds of moves can be salary cap killers in the future. But wouldn't you have traded one season of salary cap hell for a chance to have Davante Adams and Julio on the same team? Especially since Adams can become a free agent next year. You also have to think of how exciting it would have been for Adams. I mean, just look at A.J. Brown's reaction to the news. But that's more of the way fans think -- maybe why we don't run front offices. But damn, that could have been a scary combo.

You should also know: Blake Bortles, quarterback. He's obviously a camp body and not intended to play at all for the Packers. So stop trying to sell this in a, "Hey, he played great with Nathaniel Hackett in Jacksonville." Because that's dumb. That's like when I took my kids to the local Family Fun Center and tried to tell them it was Disneyland. Nobody was buying it.

The 2021 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: LOWER THAN IT SHOULD BE. Look, I would like to say there is a high level of urgency for the Packers. But I don't see it. When you compare the Packers to a team like the Bucs, who are doing whatever they can to surround Tom Brady with talent, it's very illuminating. Even the Giants were looking out for Daniel Jones by drafting a receiver in the first round. But the Packers are a team that likes to hit 3 wood off the tee, keep it on the fairway and go about it that way. Which is fine. You'll get a lot of top-five finishes that way. But sometimes you need to go for it. And the Packers haven't shown they are willing to do that.

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 at Saints. I mean, what was once Aaron Rodgers vs. Drew Brees could end up being Jordan Love vs. Jameis Winston. I don't know. But it's going to be interesting to see who is the starting quarterback for the Packers in Week 1. (Hint: It's going to be Rodgers.)
  • Week 3 at 49ers. Let's not ignore what the 49ers did to the Packers two years ago. San Francisco embarrassed Green Bay both in the regular season and NFC Championship Game. Now the 49ers are back at full strength and ready to go.
  • Week 6 at Bears. The Bears fans have been chirping a lot. I should know. But going into Soldier Field and handing it to Chicago (and possibly first-round pick Justin Fields) would be appropriate. And somewhat expected.

Will the Packers be able to …

Get some clarity to the Rodgers situation before training camp? I still believe Rodgers ends up as the starting quarterback. But I can understand the frustration from the fans -- and maybe even the players, too. It's like a bickering couple at a brunch that is kind of ruining it for the whole group. Well, not me. I'm sipping champagne and enjoying the show. Maybe the rest of the group is, too, because we want Rodgers to leave the NFC North. But a team coming off back-to-back Championship Sunday appearances needs to figure this out, one way or the other. If Rodgers is staying? Great, stop going on SportsCenter and being passive aggressive. And if not? Move on and start the Love era. (Hey, that actually has a nice ring to it -- the Love era!)

Get another great season from Robert Tonyan? Tonyan signed his one-year RFA tender, adding some ghost years to give Green Bay more cap room. In 2020, he became the tight end that has alluded Rodgers during his tenure with the Packers. Tonyan caught 52 passes (on 59 targets!) for 586 yards and 11 touchdowns. Now, touchdown regression feels inevitable. But Packers fans don't care about us fantasy dorks -- they just want a guy who can help move the chains (and score some touchdowns). Now it's time for him to prove he's the real deal and earn that huge contract next offseason.

Field an elite secondary? Jaire Alexander is one of the best in the game. And Darnell Savage was one of my breakout picks for the Packers last season and he didn't disappoint. (Though I could do without him taunting the Bears fans on Twitter. Don't make us post Darnell Mooney highlights on you.) Green Bay has the pieces to make a great secondary. The biggest key might be first-round pick Eric Stokes. I loved this pick. He has elite-level speed, having run a 4.29 40-yard dash at Georgia's pro day. The Georgia coaches recruited him from the track. He plays really well, won't let guys get passed him and could help push the Packers' defensive backfield into that elite level. I'm not sure he's going to beat out Kevin King in training camp. Although the Packers fans who watched Tom Brady go to work on King in the NFC Championship Game might be begging for it. But at the very least, Stokes should pay immediate dividends in the slot.

One storyline …

… people are overlooking: Amari Rodgers was actually a nice little pick. I'm a huge fan of Rodgers, actually. He's an ace returner and also could end up contributing in the slot. He feels like a better version of Christian Kirk , and I could see him being a factor for Green Bay this season. I know we ding the Packers for never going with a receiver in the first round, but I feel like they really got a gem here.

… people are also overlooking: How great the draft was for their offensive line depth. Josh Myers was really a solid pick for the Packers in the second round and could end up being their center of the future. Royce Newman was another nice selection and projects as the right tackle of the future. Again, I hate to give the Packers credit, but they did a really nice job in this draft. Some might see Stokes as a reach. But picking near the end of the first round affords you the freedom to take a risk.

… people are overthinking: Let's say the Packers receivers are pretty lit. I mean, Davante Adams is a top-five receiver. No question. And Aaron Rodgers won an MVP award with this current group of receivers. I understand the optics of never drafting a receiver high. Or cutting a guy like Jake Kumerow, whom Rodgers loved. Or failing to trade for Julio. I agree. But in fairness, we do have to recognize the guys on the roster currently are pretty good.

… people are also overlooking: Adams wasn't shy about his intentions if Rodgers is not back.

Adams is in the final year of his contract. I mean, it might be a moot point because he could receive the franchise tag next offseason. But this could become another superstar situation to monitor. Of course, if Rodgers signs, there is a good chance Adams returns and we all go home happy. Well, you do, Packers fans. It would be rough for the rest of us.

For 2021 to be a success, the Packers MUST:

  • Win the NFC North. And that's pretty much it. Kidding. You've got to ...
  • Win the Super Bowl. Winning Super Bowls are hard. And I know Brady has kind of put a warped sense on what it's like to be a dynasty, but the Packers can't keep letting these opportunities pass them by. Last year seemed like the best chance (especially with the 49ers beset by injuries). But the window is still open as long as Rodgers is the quarterback.

In closing

I feel like I keep writing the same story every year. The Packers have a nice roster. There is some drama regarding your quarterback. But I'm pretty confident Rodgers is going to return to the team and he's going to play very well. The Packers will make it to the playoffs. And after that, who knows. But we'll probably do the Groundhog Day routine again next season.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter.

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