The Green Bay Packers’ offense looks like it should be just fine again in 2021. The group led the NFL in points scored and offensive DVOA last season, and for the most part the unit has remained intact.
Much the same can be said for the Packers’ defense, but that unit had its share of issues last season. Despite a 9th-place ranking in yards allowed, the defense finished 17th in DVOA, and there are reasons to find concern at just about every level.
This week in our writers’ roundtable, we asked APC’s contributors to name the position group on the team that concerns them the most. Four writers responded and we have four different groups named, for very different reasons. Still, all four looked to the defense as depth, youth, and regression are among the major concerns at different spots across the unit.
Paul Noonan: Edge Rusher
I don’t mind substandard inside linebackers, and as long as Kenny Clark is on the defensive line, there is only so bad it can be. The place to worry about this team is the pass rush, where Za’Darius Smith saw his pressure numbers drop from 66 hurries in 2019, to 30 in 2020, and Preston Smith saw his drop from 35 hurries in 2019 to 11 in 2020. Both enter their age 29 seasons, and while I would expect some reversion to the mean, there is no guarantee that either attains those lofty 2019 numbers again.
Maybe Rashan Gary makes the leap this season, which would go a long way towards solving this issue, but he’s not exactly a sure thing. We’re all optimistic about Gary, and he made some nice improvements in 2020, but having a new coordinator and a new system can sometimes hinder development. In an ideal world, Za’Darius and Gary team up to form an outstanding duo of pass rushers, while Preston contributes as a rotational player, but in football, the ideal world almost never happens. There’s not a lot behind the trio, I’m not high on Preston, and one injury to a starter will quickly expose the lack of depth here.
The secondary is, in the grand scheme of things, more important than the Edge, however if a team cannot create some kind of reasonable pass rush, no secondary on earth is good enough. This team now has a very good secondary. It would be a shame if the pass rush undid all of that good work.
Jaire Alexander is obviously a monster. He might be the best corner in the league this year. The problem is everyone around him. A competent CB2 last year and the Packers are probably Super Bowl champions, but instead they got Kevin King, who was an abject disaster most of the time he was on the field. Instead of replacing King with one of a myriad of available veteran corner options, they, for some god forsaken reason, brought him back. If he remains the starting corner opposite Alexander all season, something went horribly wrong.
The thing that may go horribly wrong is Eric Stokes. He’s a rookie corner and that is a tough life to live, aside from the very nice paychecks the NFL provides. Stokes has been thrown into the fire in camp so far, frequently being matched up with Davante Adams, and has been torched accordingly. The fact that Green Bay has thrown him in the fire suggests they have plans to use him this year in a real role. Green Bay needs at least competent play there, and hopefully the rookie can be ahead of schedule and provide it.
Tex: Defensive Line
Nowhere on the Packers’ roster is depth more of a concern than on the defensive line. Paul asked “how bad can it be” as long as Kenny Clark is around, but that underscores my biggest concern: depth. At least the edge group has two solid players and a third who has shown great production in the past; on the line, it’s Clark and a bunch of question marks.
Sure, we hope that Kingsley Keke takes a step in year three, but hope isn’t a solution. Dean Lowry and Tyler Lancaster are what they are: one guy with just a hint of pass-rush ability and another whose only viable skill involves maintaining the point of attack without ever collapsing the pocket. Maybe T.J. Slaton can become something, but for now he’s just a great athletic specimen who hasn’t played an NFL down and needs to learn technique.
Slaton or Keke had better become something, because since Mike Daniels’ departure, the Packers have not found a consistent player to pair up with Clark. And should Clark be limited or miss time due to injury at any point in 2021, this group is going to be the defense’s weak link.
Kris Burke: Inside Linebacker
2021 may finally be the year the Packers pay for eternally neglecting the inside linebacker position.
Green Bay hasn’t made any real effort in adding talent to the position since drafting A.J. Hawk in the first round of the 2006 draft. Blake Martinez was a fourth round pick in 2016 but left the team a year ago in free agency. They signed Christian Kirksey last year but he was released in February.
Kamal Martin, a 2020 fifth round draft pick, tore his meniscus before the season started and was on injured reserve until the Packers activated him in October. He did record his first sack against the Bears in November, but otherwise contributed little. Now the Packers want to move him between inside and outside linebacker but LaFleur went on record just today saying Martin needed to earn his way onto the field and that’s why he’s been practicing with second and third teams.
That leaves the Packers with Krys Barnes, De’Vondre Campbell, and Ty Summers at the position. Not exactly optimal.
It’s clear the Packers don’t value the position as much as other teams and they’ve been able to get by due to a solid pash rush. However as Paul noted, the weakness inside will be much more exposed if the pass rush isn’t effective. Maybe it all works out in the end and a Gary breakout season takes the edge position to new heights but until we see that, the Packers continue to play with fire at inside linebacker.