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Packers can still find an impact defender to fit thrifty free agent approach

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Brian Gutekunt found excellent value with two depressed assets in Ricky Wagner and Christian Kirksey. There are still some excellent options to fit that philosophy who can provide key aid in 2020.

Detroit Lions v Philadelphia Eagles
Damon Harrison next to Kenny Clark fits perfectly for the small lineups Mike Pettine wants to play.
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst found stop-gap answers for his two outgoing starters in free agency, but has yet to make a move to bolster his roster beyond what it was last season. Forget for a second whether or not Rick Wagner and Christian Kirksey will be better than Bryan Bulaga or Blake Martinez in 2020. Let’s assume the drop-off isn’t significant. The Packers still want to add a pass catcher and some defensive line help this offseason, moves that will help the team get better rather than maintain the status quo. While receiver prices burgeon out of control in free agency, options along the defensive front look promising.

Green Bay can even do it while maintaining their cost-conscious approach to roster building, with 2021 compensatory picks set to come in for the Bulaga, Martinez, and Kyler Fackrell deals. Quality interior defenders like Damon “Snacks” Harrison and Linval Joseph boast the resume and the price tag to provide early-down run support at a low cost, while also not hurting the comp pick formulation. They won’t offer as much pass rush as a rookie defensive lineman might, but given the way the Packers want to play under Mike Pettine, that doesn’t knock the shine off their value.

Danny Shelton signed a 2-year, $8 million deal with the Lions on Wednesday, a good indicator of where these run-stopping space eaters come in on the market. Green Bay could afford this type of deal even with limited cap space, and it would help boost a sagging run defense.

Though the Packers finished 23rd against the run by DVOA, they came in last in run defense success rate and 31st on early downs. The logical conclusion is the defense allowed too many 3rd-and-shorts and made it too easy. That’s not actually what happened, with the Packers finishing in the top-10 in success rate on 3rd-and-short defense against the pass and the run.

It was worse than this.

Green Bay’s run defense was so poor on early downs, teams weren’t even making it to third down, turning first and second downs into new first downs. With the passing defense finding its footing (12th in success rate and 10th in DVOA), shoring up the run defense early will make this pass rush even more ferocious and buoy the passing defense overall as offenses face longer down and distances.

And though we can call the Packers defense a 3-4 scheme, it’s not. In fact, nearly 63% of snaps last season came with two or fewer defensive lineman. The personnel grouping the Packers played the most last season was a 2-3-6, with a 1-4-6 was just behind. They want to play small. That 2-3-6 look is their “base” in big nickel, with two defensive lineman, their inside linebacker and two edge players. This often came with someone like Adrian Amos, Raven Greene or Ibraheim Campbell in the box.

As a passing defense, this works, as it did last year. As a run defense, it’s workable with the right personnel. A slow, hesitant linebacker who struggles to get off blocks coupled with inconsistent defensive line play outside of Kenny Clark creates what we saw in 2019: a major problem. Dean Lowry provides solid pass rush as a 3-4 defensive end, but the Packers don’t really need one of those, not on any kind of consistent basis. They need two interior run-stuffers and someone who can rush the passer on third down. We know Kenny Clark is the latter player and half of the duo. Green Bay doesn’t really have a running mate inside for him at this point.

Aside from Joseph or Harrison, there are also cheap free agent options, players like Andrew Billings and Michael Pierce, who won’t break the bank but could come in and give them the kind of early-down, run-stuffing the Packers need. They use these small lineups so often in pass rush situations that a defensive lineman’s ability to provide pressure comes in further down the totem pole of requirements.

Signing a defensive linemen to bolster the Packers front will also allow Kenny Clark to play fewer snaps and give guys like Kinglsey Keke more time to grow and learn rather than be thrust into prominent roles in this defense. The Packers found a way to tread water with two important starters heading out the door. Now, it’s time to get better, with plenty of value options on the market.