A new GM is in the house in Green Bay for the 2018 offseason and he figures to have ample salary cap space and draft picks to work with. In the second part of a two-part sequence, one APC writer turns his attention to the defense and speculates what Brian Gutekunst and company will target by position.
As the Green Bay Packers head into the offseason, they have a new defensive coordinator in Mike Pettine and several new position coaches. While the Packers surely will try to help Pettine build the defensive roster in his image, I do not see the Green Bay draft mantras of versatility and speed changing much from Ted Thompson to Brian Gutekunst. However, under Gutekunst the Packers may open the wallet to fix a need or two with a veteran.
The Packers’ interior defensive line was a true strength in 2017 with Kenny Clark blossoming into a young star and Mike Daniels continuing to play at a Pro Bowl level. Dean Lowry also took a second-year leap as a stronger, more technically sound end to give Green Bay a trio that won a high percentage of one-on-one battles and allowed players like linebacker Blake Martinez to disrupt plays in the backfield. Green Bay received enough depth production from late acquisition Quinton Dial to offset the disappointing, injury-riddled rookie season from Montravius Adams.
This offseason, I wouldn’t forecast any significant moves from a defensive line perspective unless Pettine really shakes up the traditional 3-4 base. Dial figures to be a low-expense option once again and played well enough as a space eater to get a second opportunity in Green Bay. Meanwhile, the Packers will count on Adams to utilize offseason camps to the full extent and come back stronger and healthier in a depth role. The Packers do not have a true end outside of Lowry and could stand to add one via the draft, but I wouldn’t expect one taken until late if at all. Green Bay has taken chances on projects in the seventh round before with the likes of Lawrence Guy and Christian Ringo, and could do so once again.
Prediction: Packers re-sign Quinton Dial to a one or two-year contract; bring in undrafted free agents to compete for backup/practice squad roles.
The aforementioned Martinez led the inside linebacking crew with a breakout second season in which he found himself in the backfield more often and raised his total tackles from 69 in 2016 to 144 in 2017. In a preseason where the “Nitro” package was a hot topic of discussion, Martinez elevated his game in the midst of injuries to Morgan Burnett and struggles from Josh Jones.
Yet, the Packers could add some help inside, as Jake Ryan enters a contract season and Joe Thomas is a restricted free agent this spring. Thomas is athletic and solid in coverage, but Ryan, better in run support, is the opposite. The Packers could stand to add competition for both players with soon-to-expire contracts. A player like Georgia’s Roquan Smith would be an intriguing, unit-changing talent that moves the needle at inside linebacker if available in the first round, but is unlikely at this point in the draft process. Otherwise, a third-day developmental pick in the mold of former draftees Sam Barrington and Nate Palmer is a scenario that could benefit the Packers while they have veteran holdovers in place another season.
Prediction: Packers draft an inside linebacker in the 7th round.
Outside Linebacker/Edge Rusher
A staple of Pettine defenses has been productive pass rushers. In Baltimore, it was Terrell Suggs. In the Big Apple, it was Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas. In Cleveland, it was a career year from Paul Kruger. Pettine is going to have a player in Green Bay, but is he currently on the roster?
If he could stay healthy, Nick Perry could be that one. He is strong with a medley of pass rush moves but always seems to be hampered by injuries. Much like his counterpart, Clay Matthews has been sidelined for a good part of his contract extension. An iconic Super Bowl Packer, Matthews is heading into a contract year and does not figure to be extended. It’s too early to tell the future impact of rookies Vince Biegel and Chris Odom who saw limited action last season, but growth into a dynamic rusher seems unlikely for former third round pick Kyler Fackrell.
Green Bay tried to bridge the gap in its young players’ development with the one-year signing of Ahmad Brooks after training camp, but the move paid few dividends. Now, they must go back to the drawing board. With DeMarcus Lawrence and Ezekiel Ansah expected to get franchise tagged, the edge rushing market immediately crashes. The Packers could still make a move on youthful players like Trent Murphy and Aaron Lynch, who carry as much medical and character baggage as untapped potential.
But Green Bay’s best opportunity to add a talented pass rusher is probably their 14th overall pick. Bradley Chubb of North Carolina State probably will be off the board, but is a definite possibility if he slips. Scouts’ values are all over the board for LSU’s Arden Key and UTSA’s Marcus Davenport, but each hold their own tantalizing athletic traits. Key had a blistering start to his college career as a freshman before tailing off over his last two years in Baton Rouge due to personal and injury issues. Surely, that is a red flag. But Key’s combination of length and speed, fairly reminiscent of Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, is hard to find. Davenport also has an incredible blend of size, length, and speed that was displayed at the Senior Bowl. He needs coaching to develop a broader array of moves, but if he does Davenport could be special.
There is also potential for the Packers to find an edge rusher in the second round. Much like Key and Davenport, grades vary on prospects like Harold Landry, Dorance Armstrong, and Sam Hubbard who all have a chance to be available through pick 45. Landry has a lot of speed off the edge and can bend with the best, but will take some lumps in run support that could scare teams off. For Green Bay, any of these players represents an opportunity to add a proven, electric edge rusher. It’s possible Green Bay could draft a second player later in the weekend to increase its chances of finding a gem. A late-round prospect that has the size, burst, and experience as a stand-up rusher of South Florida’s Mike Love could be a fit.
Prediction: Packers draft rushers in the 1st and 5th rounds.
Since 2012, Green Bay has taken four corners in the top two rounds of the draft. Still, finding an elite starter has eluded the Packers. While coverage schemes were overly complex in Dom Capers’s system at times, there were too many blown coverages from personnel. Help is desperately needed to shore up a unit that hasn’t been the same since it lost Sam Shields.
Damarious Randall had a better second half of the season which he can hopefully build upon, while rookie Kevin King showed promise before being shut down with injury late in the season. King’s length, speed, and athleticism should give him a great shot at holding an outside corner role in the future. Undrafted Lenzy Pipkins also showed that he was worth a second look this offseason in the absence of King.
But outside of those three players, the position needs to build up its arsenal. Time is ticking down for Quinten Rollins. Injuries and inconsistencies have been issues for the former second rounder who has worn a target on his back in the slot and struggled on the boundary. Second-year pro Josh Hawkins also struggled mightily when called upon, while Herb Waters and Demetri Goodson barely saw the field with injuries. Davon House was solid when healthy on his one-year deal, but is not in the upper tier of corners in the league and may not be back.
The Packers have often looked to the draft to fill needs at this position and, with the market value of solid veteran cornerbacks, it’s easy to see why. But if I am Joe Whitt, Jr., I’m having a hard time trying to teach rookies, especially undrafted ones, to become starters and significant role players every season. That’s why I believe the Packers use some of the cap money they have this offseason to invest in a veteran that they can plug and play.
Malcolm Butler is the popular name tied to the Packers and it certainly could happen as Butler is a Pro Bowl-caliber corner at age 28. However, the money required to sign Butler, even with his Super Bowl benching, may prevent the Packers from entering the bidding war. Assuming Kyle Fuller returns to Chicago, a name to keep an eye on is Trumaine Johnson. The former Ram is also 28 and doesn’t carry elite measurables, but he has been an upper-echelon corner and franchise tag recipient a couple of times. Set to hit free agency this season, Johnson should come a little bit cheaper than Butler and is more than capable of following the opponent’s top receiver for the next few years.
Yes, with the 14th overall pick, Green Bay could target a cornerback such as Minkah Fitzpatrick or Denzel Ward, the teammate of rookie phenom Marshon Lattimore. But this year, I sense the Packers go a different route.
Prediction: Packers sign a veteran cornerback (Trumaine Johnson); draft corners in the 4th and 6th rounds.
Considered to be a strong point just last offseason, the safety position is perplexing for Green Bay heading into 2018. Regardless of whose fault it was in the Packers’ secondary for blown assignments last season, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was hesitant and looked like a shadow of his Pro Bowl form from the previous season. A free agent in 2019, the Packers suddenly have a difficult decision to make on Clinton-Dix’s future that’s compounded by Morgan Burnett’s almost-certain departure.
Losing Burnett and his versatility will be difficult for the Packers to replace, but I believe Green Bay has been grooming Kentrell Brice for this moment. Although Brice missed the bulk of last season with injury, he and Burnett share similar characteristics with Brice touting more speed and physicality. With another offseason to hone his technique and understanding of the defense, he could make a run for a starting job. Between Brice and rookie Josh Jones, the Packers have some internal options to replace Burnett though Jones may be best suited for a role closer to the line of scrimmage.
With Jones continuing to see time in the Nitro package, the Packers could stand to add depth at safety regardless of their decision on Brice. Jermaine Whitehead was not effective enough as a fill-in, while Marwin Evans lost favor with the coaching staff in his second season. Could the Packers make a short-term move for a durable veteran like 34-year old Reggie Nelson that helps stabilize the unit during a transition? Could they pay a younger player like Eric Reid significantly more money to give the Packers a little extra boost in coverage than Jones? Though the move didn’t pan out as expected, the Packers made a similar move when they signed Marquand Manuel under the Ted Thompson regime. Yet, a stop-gap would be more likely for the Packers if they do in fact sign a marquee cornerback.
The draft holds potential as well, with difference makers Derwin James and possibly Fitzpatrick, depending on his positional fit, potentially available to the Packers in the first round. For me, I still like the Packers to move forward with Brice and Jones while drafting a safety on the third day that can be developed. Jeremy Reaves of South Alabama is a player I recently heard buzz about and offers the positional versatility in the secondary that the Packers covet. As an under-the-radar prospect that’s played at cornerback, rover, and both typical safety positions in college, Reaves can come up and hit you in the box or roam in coverage.
Prediction: Packers draft a safety in the 5th round; inquire into a reasonably-priced veteran like Nelson.