You probably know me as one of the more optimistic folks on this site. There's not a contract I think impossible to negotiate, a trade that can't be made, a game that can't be reasonably won. I've spent a good bit (some might say an inordinate amount) of time at Windy City Gridiron, Daily Norseman and Pride of Detroit this offseason, and the conversation often ends up focusing on our defense. I've heard just about everything about our prospects on that side of the ball for 2014, so as we get into the meat of training camp, I thought I'd share both ends of the spectrum with you.
Here are collections of reasons for pessimism and for optimism for the Packers' defense in 2014.
Why the Defense Won't Improve
You know how to make sure your first-round pick won't help turn around our defense? Put him on the bench. Heck, we're putting a fifth-round pick from last season who hasn't recorded a single interception in the starting lineup. And the dude's playing safety at the pro level for the first time this season. And next to him, we have one of the worst safeties in the league from last season. Morgan Burnett wasn't just below average last year - he was drastically overpaid as well. Expecting him to magically turn it around is ludicrous.
Our cornerbacks are okay. Tramon Williams is clearly overpaid, and now, so is Sam Shields. Casey Hayward had a good rookie season, but good luck shaking the hamstring bug. And behind him, you've got, what, Davon House? Demetri Goodson? Nothing special there.
The linebacking corps is unproven. Well, they're proven in that they're consistently mediocre. Sure, Clay Matthews is good when healthy, but we know by now that he'll never put a full year together. We've got a bust in Nick Perry and two unspectacular middle linebackers, since A.J. Hawk is too slow and Brad Jones doesn't provide a physical presence. Worst of all, we haven't made a real upgrade here, since Julius Peppers is old and worn out - unless of course you count adding Carl Bradford to play a few downs here and there. Athletic tight ends will continue to slice up the inside of our D.
Up front, we have B.J. Raji, who was awful in a contract year, Datone Jones, who did pretty much nothing in his rookie season, and then Mike Daniels, whose talk is clearly far larger than his walk. He's gonna have to have an All-Pro season at the rate he's yapping. Is it possible for him to back up his words with a Pro Bowl season? Sure. But it's unlikely.
Why the Defense Will Improve
Morgan Burnett played out of position last year - and that was when he was healthy. Moving him back to strong safety and getting him a competent running mate will help. Speaking of which, Micah Hyde and Clinton-Dix are just beginning their battle. We've got the rest of training camp and the preseason left. Even if Hyde wins, it'll be because he was the better player. And the loser will still see a ton of snaps with the way Capers runs things. This is a good problem to have.
Sam Shields is overpaid based on his past performance, sure. A contract a lot of folks point to when evidencing this is Tim Jennings'. There are two differences between Shields and Jennings, though: Shields is significantly younger and he is newer to the position. The Packers are paying him under the assumption that he'll continue to develop as he has over his first four years. That's not unreasonable. By the standards that folks judge Shields' contract, the Peppers deal shouldn't raise any eyebrows. Hayward has looked great in training camp, which should inspire some confidence. Williams was great down the stretch last year, nearly replicating his 2010 form. His salary is steep, but it's the last year of his contract. Hayward clearly has a grasp on the mental game; if he's physically healed, that means great things. As for other cornerbacks, Davon House has received a great deal of praise from Mike McCarthy; he's having his best offseason yet. Most teams would trade away their cornerback groups for ours.
Clay Matthews probably won't play all 16 games, but 12 or 13 healthy ones isn't out of the question. Perry has been an effective complement to CMIII when healthy, and he's finally recovered from surgery and finished rehabilitation. Julius Peppers could see a revival as a situational rusher, as well. Folks forget that Brad Jones was one of the top inside linebackers in the league in 2012 based on Pro Football Focus' metrics. He struggled with injuries last year. If he's healthy, he could be an effective piece. Perhaps it's a position that will be addressed down the line, but for now, the team should be fine.
On the defensive line, it's easy to imagine a breakout season from Daniels. He can learn from Peppers (who previously operated in a 4-3, but nonetheless knows a thing or two about playing with a hand in the dirt) and he seems to have matured into a leader. Datone Jones should get better in his second year, and Raji is back at the nose. Then there's plenty of young depth behind them to keep each player fresh.
This defense has the potential to be the team's Achilles' heel, sure, but it also has the potential to become a quietly excellent unit.
Where do you fall on this spectrum? Sound off in the comments section below.