Six Packers Who Took the Biggest Step Forward Last Season

The Packers ended the 2021 season on a disappointing note, losing a home playoff game to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Divisional Playoffs. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t positive developments for the team in 2021.

Here is a look at six Packers players who took a big step forward in their development in 2021. Rookies are not eligible for this list as they are just starting their NFL careers. This article examines players who improved significantly from their earlier NFL performances.

6. OT Yosh Nijman

Nijman had played only 14 snaps on offense prior to the start of this season. He began the year as the third left tackle on the depth chart but was pressed into service when both David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins were unavailable due to injuries.

The former Virginia Tech star started eight games at left tackle for the Packers and did a solid job of protecting Aaron Rodgers’ blind side. At first, Nijman got help from tight ends and running backs in pass protection but as the season progressed, the team grew more confident in Nijman’s ability to hold down the left tackle position.

Nijman probably won’t be a starter in 2022, but the team knows he’s a quality NFL tackle if they need to call on him again next season.

5. G Jon Runyan Jr.

Runyan took a big step forward in his second NFL season. The former Michigan star played in parts of three games as a rookie when players were injured but did not start. In 2021, he started 16 of the team’s 17 games and proved himself to be a solid starter at left guard.

Runyan graded out as a better pass protector than run blocker, but he’s tough, smart and has a good work ethic to continue his improvement in year three.

4. RB A.J. Dillon

Dillon made an impression as a rookie in 2020 but saw only limited action because of Covid and being third on the depth chart behind Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams. He gained 242 yards on 46 carries with most of those coming in the one game he was the feature back against Tennessee in December.

In 2021, Dillon led the team in rushing with 803 yards on 187 carries. He also proved himself a quality receiver by catching 34 passes on 37 targets for 313 yards while splitting time with Jones.

Dillon is a strong, between the tackles runner who is tough to bring down one-on-one. He made a big leap forward in his sophomore season and showed he is more than capable of being a lead back in the NFL.

3. OLB Rashan Gary

Gary took a big leap forward in his third season with a career-high 9.5 sacks and 47 tackles. The Michigan alum got consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks and was able to affect opposing quarterbacks even when he didn’t tackle them with the football.

Gary had 28 quarterback hits, eight tackles for loss and 20 hurries this season. He deserved serious Pro Bowl consideration for his performance this year and capped it off by adding two more sacks in the playoff loss to the 49ers.

Because of his work ethic, natural athletic ability and his football intelligence, Gary can get even better in 2022.

2. CB Rasul Douglas

In less than one season, Douglas went from practice squad player to playing at a Pro Bowl level for the Packers.

Green Bay signed the former West Virginia star off the Cardinals practice squad in early October when injuries hit the secondary. In 12 games with the Packers, he intercepted five passes and returned two of those picks for touchdowns. He also made a dramatic, last minute interception in the end zone to save the Packers 24-21 win over the previously unbeaten Cardinals in Arizona.

Douglas studies game film extensively and puts himself in the right place to make plays as a result. According to Pro-football-reference.com, opposing quarterbacks completed just 50 percent of their passes when throwing to receivers covered by Douglas and their quarterback rating was a meager 44.5.

Douglas is a free agent this offseason but the Packers would love to bring him back in 2022 to give them three outstanding players at cornerback.

1. ILB De’Vondre Campbell

The Packers have not had a standout player at ILB in more than a decade but in 2021, De’Vondre Campbell gave them an All Pro at the position for the first time since Ray Nitschke in 1966.

Campbell had been a steady starter in each of his first five NFL seasons, but he took his game to a new level in 2021. He led the team with a career-high 146 tackles while recording two sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.

Campbell has the ability to cover the middle of the field and reacts well to running plays in front of him. He also did well in pass coverage and rarely allowed receivers to gain yardage after the catch.

The former University of Minnesota star also called defensive signals for the Packers and provided leadership for the defensive unit.

Campbell is an unrestricted free agent this offseason and it will cost the Packers a lot more than the $2.5 million deal that he played for in 2021 ($2 million in salary and $500,000 in incentive bonuses). Still, the Packers would be wise to try to keep Campbell in the fold if he can have another productive season like this one.

You can follow Gil Martin on Twitter @GilPackers

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Comments (11)

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Rebecca's picture

February 05, 2022 at 12:30 pm

It would have been nice to see J.Love on your list, but although he made a step forward and started one game, he didn’t have any opportunities in his rookie 2020 season. Gary really stands out because of his growing dynamic presence in the opposition’s backfield!

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croatpackfan's picture

February 05, 2022 at 12:44 pm

Now Mr. Martin, would be nice to see who regressed the most. It will be nice to compare this data, too.

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

February 06, 2022 at 02:26 am

On offense, Tonyan is a definite. Patrick but he moved to center, so not apples to apples. Still, he lost his RG job to Newman. MVS but that was as much health because his per game stats are fine. Lazard regressed a little because he gross stats didn't change too much even though he played 246 snaps more. Lazard still blocks.

On defense, Savage is a definite. Henry Black simply played more and was really bad. Otherwise, nothing too noticeable. Lancaster slipped a little, and Sullivan continued his slide from his first year.

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croatpackfan's picture

February 06, 2022 at 03:43 am

Thanks TGR. We have similar view, when we talk about players who played more or less all season.

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PhantomII's picture

February 05, 2022 at 12:59 pm

I would add another decade at ILB as I cannot remember one who has Int's, very quick and covers well and meets the offense in the backfield as well. Too bad he's a little older but I would think 3yr / 2 guaranteed. He really makes the Defense come together. Campbell and Douglas are quite the pick up. Gute found some quality there. They played as good as one could hope. Happy with all the others who stepped up also. Too bad we're in Cap Hell. Some tough decisions need to be made, but I hope we continue to make the Defense the strength in signing Vets and use the draft mostly for the Offense except we need more DL Starters.

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gkarl's picture

February 05, 2022 at 02:07 pm

Gil, good list. They all outperformed most everyone's expectations of their play this past year. Unfortunate that half the list are FA, GBP will be lucky to retain one of the three next year.

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cheesehead1's picture

February 05, 2022 at 03:47 pm

Our D stepped up against SF and I hope somehow we can continue this trend. IMO defense still wins, but I sure hope Gute cuts ties with King, he’s had his run. Such a wasted performance thanks to our ST. I’m not very confident yet as to whether J Love is the heir apparent. Sure hope he is but his small sample size was not very encouraging. If Aaron is traded then load up the draft picks and field a top 5 D. GPG.

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stockholder's picture

February 06, 2022 at 07:58 am

Douglass and Campbell played great. Doubt we sign either.

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dobber's picture

February 06, 2022 at 05:10 pm

I think Nijman--who couldn't find his way into the lineup in 2020 when needed--should be the runaway #1 on this list. He showed he's a starting caliber NFL LT this season, and is on a trajectory to make himself a lot of money.

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

February 07, 2022 at 02:34 am

Yup.

GB could probably get a 3rd round pick for Nijman - heck, probably a 2nd given that he is an ERFA in 2022 and a RFA in 2023.

I suspect GB will keep him, of course, either as the starting RT or the swing tackle and Bakh's possible replacement.

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GPG1985's picture

February 07, 2022 at 07:54 pm

Hopefully Campbell and Douglas take into consideration that they have been on other teams and it hasn’t gone as well.

For most middle of the pack players to emerge it’s all about opportunity and being in the right system, so maybe they give the Pack a minor home town discount.

With Douglas it’s a little harder since he never really played with Stokes and Alexander.

I understand there aren’t too many times you come off a career season as a free agent..you gotta do what’s best for your family. Wish all these guys the best and we will see what happens. GPG

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