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Packers’ decision at defensive coordinator casts shadow over offseason decisions

Moving on from Mike Pettine means taking his philosophy and tendencies with him, including how he wants to build a defense. Matt LaFleur’s DC pick reset the team’s personnel priorities.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys
Kris Richard rose to prominence as a member of the staff during Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” defense.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

After deciding to move on from defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur emphasized the need for new leadership. In his season-ending press conference on Monday, LaFleur said that he and the team have a clear picture of what they wanted out of a new coach but he wouldn’t “give answers to the test” on the specifics. Those details materially impact how Brian Gutekunst and Green Bay puts together an offseason plan. Not every play fits every scheme, and some coaches prioritize positions more than others. Until they decide, their future remains clouded.

Gutekunst, for his part, downplayed the importance of scheme on personnel decisions because of the roster the Packers currently boast.

“I do like to think the players we currently have on our defense are very versatile, flexible players that can play in most systems,” the Packers GM said Monday shortly after LaFleur spoke.

Most of that versatility starts on the back end, where Darnell Savage, Adrian Amos, and Jaire Alexander form one of the best defensive back trios in the NFL. Whether it’s Cover-3, Cover-4, or primary man coverage philosophy, those guys can do just about anything. The same is true of this front with Rashan Gary, Za’Darius Smith and Kenny Clark. For now, we’ll include Preston Smith, though given his cap number, including him in the core with any level of certainty would be foolish.

Clark can play any interior spot, Gary played with his hand down in college, and Z can do just about anything. Even though the “the difference between the 4-3 and 3-4 is overrated” conversation has, itself, become overrated, it’s the case this group could slot in just about anywhere.

But there will be key differences in approach from Pettine to other possible candidates, especially in how they value the linebacker position. Would Joe Barry want to play that 4-3 under front and Tampa-2 from his days at DC in Detroit under Rod Marinelli? Because that would require much more responsibility from the linebackers to drop and play in coverage than the Packers have generally asked of players at that position.

If Chris Harris or Kris Richard want to play single-high from a Cover-3 look, does that improve the chances for Josh Jackson’s success if Green Bay moves on from Kevin King? This too raises questions about the linebacker position, as the teams who play this defense most effectively boast off-ball ‘backers who can run for days.

And what if Ejiro Evero wants to bring Vic Fangio’s coverage-disguising 2-man principles and play a bunch of sub-package Cover-4 and Cover-3 like the Rams did last season? Does safety suddenly become a priority position because it’s a de facto linebacker?

What’s more, if the one internal candidate LaFleur mentioned Tuesday is someone like Jerry Gray, does that mean a more Mike Zimmer-esque defense with more man coverage and double A-gap blitz looks? That, for example, could spell the end of the Jackson experiment in Green Bay.

These are questions we can’t answer until the coaching vacancy is filled. That’s a bigger problem for the media than the team because, internally, LaFleur says he knows what direction they want to go. Until we do, setting priorities for the Packers offseason will be difficult from the outside looking in.