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Brian Gutekunst can study the Jaguars in retooling the Packers’ defense

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Green Bay’s new general manager can examine an open case study of risk and reward in Jacksonville to prioritize a diverse defensive rebuild.

Jacksonville Jaguars v Cleveland Browns

If his opening press conference is any indication, new Packers General Manager Brian Gutekunst is going to be much more active in offseason acquisition than his predecessor Ted Thompson:

“I’ll lead in my own personality, probably a little bit more aggressive in certain areas. We’re not going to leave any stone unturned in every avenue of player acquisition.”

Those “areas” could refer to several positions of need on the current Packers squad. Undoubtedly, a high percentage of them are located on the defensive side of the ball.

The Packers’ defense hasn’t finished in the top 10 of the NFL in total defense since Green Bay brought the Lombardi Trophy home in 2010, and it is not currently built to support the team in that quest despite the offense boasting a future Hall of Fame quarterback.

Around the league this season, especially in Minnesota and the AFC, playoff teams have proven they can contend without “franchise quarterback” play as a direct result of stalwart defense. The Jacksonville Jaguars, specifically, have been a team predicated on defensive prowess in 2017 and Gutekunst could take a cautious look at the Jaguars for how to turn around a unit through multiple avenues.

David Caldwell took reigns of the Jacksonville GM position in January 2013. In his first season, he watched his defense finish tied for 27th in the NFL in yards allowed and 28th in points given up despite posting a +10 turnover differential. Caldwell inherited linebacker Paul Posluszny, who went on to have a Pro Bowl season that year, but the unit was in need of repair.

During the 2014 offseason, Caldwell turned his attention to the defensive line, signing Chris Clemons, Ziggy Hood, and Red Bryant to improve a pass rush that had generated the lowest sack total in the league the year before. While none of these moves paid major dividends outside of Clemons tallying eight sacks his first season, it was a clear attempt through free agency to clean up the defense in the midst of drafting a hopeful quarterback of the future in Blake Bortles.

Once again in 2015, Caldwell made splash signings on defense, gambling on up-and-coming defensive lineman Jared Odrick and Packers cornerback Davon House. In many ways, these moves didn’t work out as anticipated, with both players leaving Jacksonville just two years into their contracts. The highlight from the offseason was the drafting of pass rusher Dante Fowler with the third overall pick, but even then, Fowler tore his ACL on the first day of minicamp. It was another lost season for a team that invested big money on defense and another lesson for NFL teams that free agency is a gamble.

While most NFL executives would consider abandoning the free agent model after such struggles, Caldwell didn’t. In fact, he insisted on becoming even more aggressive.

“We’re going to be aggressive in trying to get this right and succeeding in getting this right. It’s important we raise the level of expectations going into this offseason ... We feel like it’s easier in this league to fix a defense than it is an offense. It’s not like we don’t have any pieces on defense. We do have good players. We have a mountain of cap space and eight draft picks.”

Over the past two seasons, the Jaguars have flourished as a result.

Jacksonville finished this past regular season ranked second in both passing and total defense en route to what will be at least a divisional round playoff run. Accumulated through trades, signings, and draft picks, Caldwell’s haul of eight defensive starters over the past two offseasons has been extraordinary.

Jaguars 2016-2017 Defensive Acquisitions

Player How Acquired Notable 2017 Stats Honors
Player How Acquired Notable 2017 Stats Honors
Jalen Ramsey 1st Rd, 2016 4 INTs, 63 tackles, 18 PBUs (9th) Pro Bowl 2017, 2017 All-Pro 1st Team
Myles Jack 2nd Rd, 2016 90 tackles (2nd team), 2 sacks
Yannick Ngakoue 3rd Rd, 2016 12 sacks, 6 forced fumbles
Tashaun Gipson FA, 2016 4 INTs, 64 tackles
Malik Jackson FA, 2016 8 sacks, 4 forced fumbles Pro Bowl 2017
Barry Church FA, 2017 4 INTs, 74 tackles, 8 PBUs
A.J. Bouye FA, 2017 6 INTs, 56 tackles, 18 PBUs (6th) Pro Bowl 2017, 2017 All-Pro 2nd Team
Calais Campbell FA, 2017 14.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles Pro Bowl 2017, 2017 All-Pro 1st Team
Marcell Dareus Traded 6th Rd Pick to Bills, 2017 20 tackles as third DT

Through 2017, Posluszny had been the Jaguars’ only Pro Bowl defensive player dating back to 2007. Rashean Mathis’ All-Pro recognition in 2006 was the last time Jacksonville had a defensive player on the list. It’s been a 180-degree spin for Jacksonville’s defense in 2017, which not only placed several defenders in the NFL award book, but almost became the first team since the AFL-NFL merger to finish the season ranked first in sacks, takeaways, and points allowed.

Spending money in free agency is a risky proposition, especially with the money commanded by players such as Campbell and Bouye. Teams like the Jaguars with a quarterback on their first contract like Bortles are afforded more flexibility with contracts than a team like Green Bay which will be paying Aaron Rodgers a healthy annual contract for the foreseeable future.

But give Caldwell and the Jaguars credit for their persistence in refusing to settle for subpar defense and recognizing when to cut ties (i.e. Odrick). They did all this while continuing to gather assets in the draft and trade market. For all the hype the New Orleans Saints have received for their top three draft picks this season, the Jaguars cashed in just as much with their first three picks in 2016.

If Green Bay is to truly turn around a defense that was among the league’s worst in important categories last season, Gutekunst will need to explore free agency and be in the hunt as he alluded to in his press conference. As history has shown, Gutekunst doesn’t need to spend like the Jaguars have done most offseasons. But he should certainly reassemble a playoff-caliber defense with veteran acquisitions while remaining open to midseason trades with the cap space he does have. The draft-and-develop system should remain a viable way of attaining talent in Green Bay, but a healthy balance of alternative methods could give the Packers the edge they need to truly contend again.

In other words, leave no stone unturned.