Five Packers Who Could Take a Step Up in 2021

Packers GM Brian Gutekunst has done everything he can to bring back as many players as possible from last year’s 13-3-0 team. Green Bay has re-signed players like Aaron Jones, Kevin King, Marcedes Lewis and Will Redmond since the start of the new league year while the only player signed who was not on the team last season was a long snapper.

That means that there are two primary ways the Packers will get better in 2021: 1) the draft and 2) improvement by younger players already on their roster.

Here is a look at five Packers players who could take a step forward in 2021 and help this team improve. 

5. CB Ka’dar Hollman

This season will be a crossroads for the third-year man out of Toledo. The former sixth-round pick played in 14 games for the Packers in 2020 but saw most of his action on special teams.

He only played 108 snaps on defense all season but his numbers were impressive albeit in a limited sample size. Opposing quarterbacks completed just 41.2 percent of their passes when throwing to receivers covered by Hollman according to pro-football-reference.com. Opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of just 51.8.

Hollman is a physical, bump and run style corner and he may not be the best fit in Joe Barry’s defense which emphasizes zone coverages. We shall see if Hollman makes a third-year jump and steps into a larger role on the defense in his third season in the league.

4. TE Jace Sternberger

The Packers had high expectations for Sternberger when they drafted him in the third round in 2019, but the former Texas A&M star has been derailed by injuries and Covid-19 and has yet to realize his potential.

In 2020, Sternberger played in 12 games and caught 12 passes for 114 yards and a touchdown. By the end of the season, he saw his role reduced and he was inactive for the final four games of the regular season and both Packers playoff games.

Sternberger needs to stay healthy and show that he was not a one-year wonder in college. The tight end position is crowded and Sternberger will compete with Robert Tonyan, Marcedes Lewis and Josiah Deguara for playing time.

3. TE Josiah Deguara

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur was enthusiastic about Deguara when the Packers drafted him in the third round last season but he played in only two games before an injury ended his rookie season.

He caught one pass for 12 yards in the season opener against Minnesota while playing 31 snaps on offense in two early season games.

Deguara is expected to play some tight end, some H-back and some fullback for the Packers next season. Assuming he’s healthy, Deguara should see a lot more playing time in 2021 and has a chance to become a big part of the Green Bay offense.

2. G Jon Runyan Jr.

Runyan was pressed into action during his rookie season when in-game injuries struck the offensive line on several occasions. Each time he played, Runyan did a solid job when blocking for both the run and in pass protection.

Runyan played tackle at Michigan but made the transition to guard in Green Bay. His father had a long NFL career so Runyan has long known what it takes to succeed in this league.

With Corey Linsley now playing for the Chargers, the Packers may have an opening at guard if Lucas Patrick or Elgton Jenkins take over as the team’s new center.

If Runyan continues to develop, he could become a starter in his second NFL season.

1. DL Kingsley Keke

In two seasons with the Packers, Keke has shown flashes of pass rush ability but he has yet to prove he can consistently play at a high level.

The former Texas A&M star had four sacks last season but they came in just two games. Keke has the speed and strength to pressure the passer but he needs to improve his technique which would make him more consistent.

The Packers have a big need on the defensive line and Keke is the top candidate presently on the roster to help this struggling unit to improve. If Keke can raise his level of play and team with Kenny Clark, the Packers defense could take a large step forward in 2021.

You can follow Gil Martin on Twitter @GilPackers

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7 points

Comments (45)

Fan-Friendly This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.
Lare's picture

April 10, 2021 at 12:31 pm

Agree on the rest, but unfortunately I think Sternberger is a bust.

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jhtobias's picture

April 10, 2021 at 12:48 pm

Would not call Jace a bust just to many concussions and injuries so is life in the nfl just happens..

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Coldworld's picture

April 11, 2021 at 08:26 am

He’s had some rough luck no doubt. This year he has to stay healthy and show something I think, starting in camp. Hopefully, by being protective at the end of last year, the team has helped him set up for that.

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mrtundra's picture

April 11, 2021 at 07:49 am

Jace was about the only Packer who could catch the ball, in the NFCCG. He needs to be on the field more.

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Coldworld's picture

April 11, 2021 at 08:31 am

Sternberger didn’t play this year . He had 2 receptions for 13 yards the year before. I’m not sure that makes much of a case for anything.

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Leatherhead's picture

April 11, 2021 at 10:07 am

Other than MVS, who caught all four targets for over 100 yards, of course.

Considering we had 348 yards in the air, somebody must have caught something.

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Dzehren's picture

April 10, 2021 at 01:34 pm

I’ve take of Deguara and Sternberger. Add in Dillon & Krys Barnes

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Tedlyflyfisher's picture

April 10, 2021 at 01:38 pm

I think Deguara is a slam dunk if he can stay healthy. Very exciting kid.

As for Keke, I’m beginning to think we’ve seen his ceiling. I hope I’m wrong.

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Coldworld's picture

April 10, 2021 at 03:37 pm

If Keke has got stronger in his lower body, he could be a different beast. Won’t know till we see him in camp.

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dobber's picture

April 10, 2021 at 03:45 pm

I agree. I think he's getting better. I don't think he'll be a star, but I think he can be a solid starter.

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jannes bjornson's picture

April 10, 2021 at 05:48 pm

He only seemed to make plays when he was on the field. Barry should see his skills and translate them to his play sets.

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CheesyTex's picture

April 10, 2021 at 01:49 pm

Too bad Yosh Nijman did not make your list -- it would help so much if he stepped up this year.

But it appears he's just wishful thinking at this point -- if you are healthy and still cannot get on the field for a few meaningful snaps, well...

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Coldworld's picture

April 10, 2021 at 03:26 pm

Do you know his story? How did a truly elite physical specimen become a UDFA, and why that could explain the extended development time and investment?

Might be worth investigating before prognosticating.

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BAMABADGER's picture

April 10, 2021 at 08:32 pm

Easy answer..... Because he is no good.

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Coldworld's picture

April 11, 2021 at 09:52 am

But since none of us know, an unhelpful one.

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jannes bjornson's picture

April 10, 2021 at 05:05 pm

Not a lot of knee flex, a waist bender. He would have to display faster footwork to position and leverage low-driving Edge guys and use his arm length. He will be lucky to make the squad.

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Coldworld's picture

April 10, 2021 at 06:02 pm

Zero technique ...

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PeteK's picture

April 10, 2021 at 02:58 pm

I think/hope Martin will improve as was shown with more playing time at the end of the season. Also, Runyon at RT and Stepaniak at G could be a possibility.

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Coldworld's picture

April 10, 2021 at 03:35 pm

I liked Hollman coming in to last year. Then he got a few snaps on D as well as ST, then disappeared from both and the active list in the second half of the season, despite King being hobbled and Hollman healthy. Don’t think he’s one the team is relying on if he couldn’t help out late last season.

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jannes bjornson's picture

April 10, 2021 at 05:06 pm

Let him play press/man and do his thing. Redmond essentially took his snaps.

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Coldworld's picture

April 10, 2021 at 06:04 pm

Redmond didn’t play outside, where Hollman was earlier.

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arthurl's picture

April 10, 2021 at 04:45 pm

Of the guys mentioned here, i really like Runyan and see him as a potential starter as early as this season. Deguara showed potential, but we will have to see if he can stay healthy. I hope I’m wrong, but the other players don’t offer much.

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jannes bjornson's picture

April 10, 2021 at 05:07 pm

Ask Bhaktiari if he can stay healthy. The same injury.

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SpikeHyzer's picture

April 10, 2021 at 05:37 pm

It would be great if all continued to develop and start to produce more next year (as well as most of the guys mentioned by members of the site).
It would certainly change draft strategy, and I'm excited to see what that strategy is.

I've got it DL, CB, OL, ILB and then who knows.

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Stroh's picture

April 10, 2021 at 10:07 pm

DL, OT and CB are the biggest needs. This D generally only plays one ILB and I expect Barnes and Martin to compete for that job.

What the Packers need is for Gary and Savage to become All Pro type players. Savage might be headed to the Star CB position . He has CB athleticism and showed in college he can play slot. Might be better than any slot CB in this draft and more physical as well.

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Coldworld's picture

April 11, 2021 at 08:33 am

The thing is, I think he has just started coming into his own where he played last year. Not sure I want to see them move him.

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Stroh's picture

April 11, 2021 at 11:52 pm

He came into his own last year, when they started moving him closer to the LOS and lessened his deep responsibility. That's when he got his INTs. When he was closer to the action, not in deep coverage.

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LambeauPlain's picture

April 11, 2021 at 09:22 am

Pettine played alot of one ILB because he stubbornly played Dime as his base so much, even when they were getting ground pounded and a S in the box just isn't a run stopper all game.

Barry coached linebackers for most of his career and I believe the ILB position may finally get some love.

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PatrickGB's picture

April 11, 2021 at 11:26 am

Almost all teams forgoe the base package nowaday except for an obvious run defense. The exceptions are when they have LB’s that can play like DB’s.

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LambeauPlain's picture

April 11, 2021 at 12:12 pm

Except Pettine used dime as base even for obvious run situations. Nickel as base is better than pass D Dime almost all the time.

Pettine's philosophy to defend the pass at all costs worked...his importance of run D was incredibly subordinate to pass D. It is likely one of the reasons he was let go.

Meanwhile Tampa is SB Champs....not due to Brady IMO, who is a great game manager....but to the Tampa D, especially their sublime front 7 that checked the Packer O line in the run game and were quite good when the Packers tried to pass for points.

A great defense is essential for a SB.

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Stroh's picture

April 11, 2021 at 11:54 pm

The D the Rams used almost never had 2 ILB on the field. Barry is going to run the Rams D. LaFleur wouldn't have hired him otherwise!

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Packer_Fan's picture

April 10, 2021 at 07:42 pm

Good article. You are speculating on what may happen with players that could make the next step. Not the same as some of the other articles lately.

I think that you may have missed MVS. I believe he could take a huge step.

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dblbogey's picture

April 10, 2021 at 08:17 pm

I like Runyan a lot, and have hopes for DeGuara. Josh Jackson was a good zone CB at Iowa, maybe his game would fit in to the new defense. Just wishful thinking.

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Stroh's picture

April 10, 2021 at 10:55 pm

I agree wishful thinking. This training camp and preseason is his last chance. Wish I could be optimistic.

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Swisch's picture

April 10, 2021 at 09:15 pm

Championships are not only about who you get, but who you keep.
As told in John Eisenberg's book, "That First Season," Vince Lombardi was able to give new life to Paul Hornung as an NFL player just by watching the film.
Before Lombardi, Hornung seemed a man without a position and without much motivation. He seemed too slow for halfback, too light for fullback, and not good enough of a passer for quarterback. It also seemed he was distracted by the night life to the detriment of his day job. In Los Angeles against the Rams, he posed with a pretty woman on the sidelines for a photo during the game.
After his first two seasons, the former Heisman Trophy winner seemed a washout -- with fans rallying against him as a big target of huge disappointment. Hornung was wondering about leaving the game, perhaps for Hollywood as an actor, or back home to Louisville to sell real estate.
Right after he was hired as head coach of the Packers in the offseason of 1959, Lombardi watched all the film of all the games from the previous season. He had thought himself at least somewhat prepared for the challenge of taking over a team that had gone 1-10-1, but his review had him utterly shaken with discouragement in finding the players even worse than expected.
Then again, there were glimmers of hope in all the dark hours sitting with the projector.
"Running an end sweep, Hornung ran parallel to the line, made a sharp cut behind a blocker, and darted through the line for an eight-yard gain. Lombardi bolted upright. . . ," writes Eisenberger.
"Paying close attention as he watched the rest of the season on film, Lombardi noticed Hornung's soft hands, lower-body strength (for blocking), and knack for cutting. Hornung wasn't unlike the versatile [Frank] Gifford, whom Lombardi had turned into a star."
Lombardi made an encouraging phone call to Hornung, who hung up rejuvenated for another shot at football.
Paul Hornung became like a son to Lombardi. He is in the Hall of Fame. With his recent death, I pray he crosses the goal line one last time to enter into heaven. (Him and my late father were born in the same month of the same year -- December of 1935 -- and I dearly hope to see both of them one day.)
On this Sunday of Divine Mercy, we can take heart in realizing that God is always working to give us another opportunity in life, and to bring out the best in us. He never stops loving us like children.

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Stroh's picture

April 10, 2021 at 10:23 pm

The best move Lombardi made he was forced to make out of desperation. Herb Adderley was a RB and part time CB in college, Lombardi had him at RBand was trying to make a WR out of him. When injuries hit at CB, he was forced to put him at CB to get thru a game or 2. Except Adderley proved so good, so fast, he never came off the field for the next decade as a CB.

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Swisch's picture

April 11, 2021 at 10:00 am

So sad to say, Adderley also left us recently.
By the time I was old enough to follow football in the early 1970s, Adderley was with the Cowboys, and won a Super Bowl with them. I may still have a football card of him from those days. I was surprised when I learned he had been a great Packer.
After his retirement, Adderley endeared himself to Packers fans by saying he was in his heart always a Packer. He was devoted to Vince Lombardi for the care he took for his players as persons. When the coach found Adderley and Elijah Pitts and Willie Davis living in a cramped apartment on the edge of town due to racial discrimination, he used his prestige to find them better place to live.
"I love my father, but I don't think of my father every day," said Adderley. "I think about Coach Lombardi every day."

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Stroh's picture

April 10, 2021 at 10:32 pm

Runyan will become a really good OG, starting in'21. Deguara will have a much bigger role on offense. Those 2 I'm very certain of.

But what the Packers need is more field tilting players. The 2 likely candidates are Gary and Savage. Those are the players that the Packers need to take not just a step to become good players but players who change games.

The article mentions role players, but what's needed are differences makers, not just role players!

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HawkPacker's picture

April 11, 2021 at 06:47 am

There is a third way for the team to get better. Better coaching!

They got rid of two coaches who did not do a very good job in my opinion and hopefully these two new guys will get the job done.

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Coldworld's picture

April 11, 2021 at 08:46 am

“ There is a third way for the team to get better. Better coaching!”

Yes! We lost the Tampa rematch in the coaching room. The 49ers and Tampa outcoached us on all facets before and during both championship games, and had both already done so earlier in the respective years, only for us to walk in to many of the same traps.

Since then, we’ve replaced Pettine with a surprising choice and on ST, a CB man who could have taken the reins in season. Barry and Drayton may be great, but we at least have significant questions brewing about LaFleur’s personnel choices as coaches, his pre game preparation (he also been out coached after byes) and in game adjustments when his scheme is, for once, being countered.

We spend so long talking about players and Gute. LaFleur seems to be treated with kid gloves. For me, perhaps the biggest question Is can LaFleur build a coaching team that out coaches in January? Yes, the roster matters, but last years roster was good enough to beat Tampa with better coaching.

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Johnblood27's picture

April 11, 2021 at 11:07 am

MJF was saddled with Pettine, not his call.

MLF wanted Rizzo and got bitch-slapped by Ball for $$$.

Lets see what guys he actually chooses and wants contribute to his overall scheme before placing him on the hot seat.

MLF did get schooled in 2 NFCCG. He is a young coach and hopefully still growing and learning. He has used his passes very early on, I hope he learned from his mistakes.

He should have given his tackles some help.
He should have run the ball with Dillon more.

A Jones very very uncharacteristically poor game - 2 fumbles - did not help matters.

K Kings very poor game did not help matters, injury or not.

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blacke00's picture

April 11, 2021 at 07:48 am

We're not going to see as much improvement in these players (and others) if the NFLPA has it's way which is to maintain a "virtual" off season. Which in my opinion is bordering on stupidity. There is no reason for it.
The players are in a very low risk group for Covid and don't need these unnecessary protections. In Wisconsin, for example, they ALL can be vaccinated well before the unset of preseason.
Get these players on the field so we know what we have in them!

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nostradanus's picture

April 11, 2021 at 08:10 am

Dominique Dafney is my dark horse. Dude has the tools and seems to just be a football player. My favorite sequence of plays by him last year was in the Bears game where he scored a TD and on the kickoff he absolutely destroyed the kick returner. The coaching staff gushes about him.

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NoNonsense's picture

April 11, 2021 at 05:35 pm

Dafney was quite a revelation considering he was a street FA midseason pickup. He came in and far outplayed Lovett or whatever his name was. Seeing that guy unsure of even where to line up most plays, was hard to watch, he didnt do any better once the ball was snapped either.

Dafney on the other hand played pretty dang well, as Nostra noted. Always seemed to know his assignments and executed them well. Could be a very nice pickup off the scrap heap.

Gute signed another TE prospect late in the year that I'm looking forward to seeing come TC. Bronson Kafusi, a DE turned TE will be learning on the job but looks like he has the build, 6'6" 280 and athleticism 82% SPARQ score to be a guy worth trying to develop. I wonder if they keep him at TE or maybe play him at 5 tech on the DL. I thinks hes already 26 or 27 though so maybe wishful thinking he will turn into anything special. Who knows.

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Stroh's picture

April 12, 2021 at 12:04 am

Dabney is the backup to Deguara as the Hback/FB. Neither is an actual TE!

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