Brian Gutekunst has only been the general manager in Green Bay for a little more than a year and a half. In that time, he’s just about completely remade the Packers’ roster, making noteworthy additions at just about every position. Certainly there have been some misses (Jimmy Graham, Muhammad Wilkerson), but by and large, Gutekunst has found success just about everywhere he’s turned.
Here are our favorite new faces in Green Bay over the past two offseasons. Who’s your top pick?
Paul Noonan - Jaire Alexander
All of the evidence we have about Mike Pettine defenses suggests that, even above “dominant pass rusher,” he needs one lockdown corner. The Packers got theirs in the first round of the 2018 draft just after the highly coveted Derwin James went to the Chargers. Alexander flashed a ton of promise as a rookie, and he’s delivered on that promise in his second season, sticking to opposing receivers like maple syrup to my five-year-old. He should have several interceptions already, and he’s just taken the ball away from a receiver, showing unusual strength and tenacity. The Smith Brothers will likely be a popular answer, and with good reason, but Alexander’s ability to lock down a receiver is what will make this defense go.
Evan “Tex” Western - Za’Darius Smith
Za’Darius Smith may or may not become the biggest star on this defense — Jaire Alexander certainly is laying a strong claim to that status for now — but he is very quickly becoming my favorite player and personality on that side of the football. The fact that he was named a captain immediately for his first season with the Packers speaks volumes about the kind of person he is in the locker room, and his joint press conferences with Preston Smith are quickly becoming must-see viewing.
On the field, Smith is a perfect fit for Mike Pettine’s defense: a versatile member of the defensive front who is equally adept at stopping the run on the edge or rushing the quarterback from an interior position. He is becoming a perfect chess piece for Pettine and his ability to drop down on the line also allows the team to work Rashan Gary onto the field more and more in his rookie year.
It just seems that Smith has brought the juice and energy that has been lacking on this team for years, back to the days when Charles Woodson roamed the field. This team is having fun again and they seem to love playing with one another, and Smith’s infectious personality is a big reason why.
Jon Meerdink - Jaire Alexander
I love Alexander for reasons both Paul and Tex outlined above. First, Alexander is easily the best corner the Packers have had since Charles Woodson. Good players are always fun to watch, and Alexander has certainly been good, even great.
But I also love Alexander’s energy, which is complementary to the leadership presented by both the Smiths. Alexander is the sort of player who is great to have on the team you root for but a pain to have playing against you. His Jack Russell terrier energy and dogged pursuit of the football is clearly a consistent irritant for opposing receivers (‘sup Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs?) and it’s enjoyable to have a little bit of that edge in the Packers defense for once.
Mike Vieth - Darnell Savage
This was a tough decision. I really like so many of the additions on defense, especially in the secondary, over the Gutekunst era, but I’m going to go with Darnell Savage. He gives the Packers a playmaker at the safety position, something they really haven’t had since early in Morgan Burnett’s career or even Nick Collins. Pairing him up with Adrian Amos makes the situation even better. A major liability over the past several seasons has now become a strength. Savage has been exciting to watch as he is always around the ball and not afraid to jump into the fray and make a tackle. We are going to witness something special with Savage and the rest of the Packers defense over the next several years.
Jonathan Barnett - Danny Vitale
Yes, I am being just a little contrarian. Still, Vitale is a very athletic player with size and he blocks. The pure Fullback is going away in pro football, but Vitale fits the H Back mold that teams are maintaining. Other teams have given up on pure Fullbacks and used Tight Ends in the backfield or at a wing position to allow for motion blocks or pulls across the formation. Vitale gives the Packers a short-yardage weapon, a blocker, and a pass catcher. As the Packers continue to live with a disinterested Jimmy Graham and a Wide Receiver corps that is still coming into their stride, Vitale gives the Packers a very tangible weapon. The defense has gained a great deal of depth in this offseason, but the offensive versatility that Vitale has provided is great (and should be used far more).
Shawn Wagner - Za’Darius Smith
As Tex mentioned, the captain status in his first season says a lot about Smith’s presence in the locker room and his tenacity on the field reflects a passion for the game like a young Clay Matthews. From Pro Football Reference, Smith has already been credited for three sacks and seven quarterback hits through three games. Even when he is not making the splash plays himself, his versatility and football IQ is helping the guys around him. The Packers have long struggled in close games to shut down the opposing offense on the final drive of the game. With the help of both Smiths on the roster, Green Bay has closed strong with generating pass rush and sacks. Za’Darius has been critical to that success.