The defense...did we have one in years past? This side of the ball needs MAJOR attention. First, they do not have proven starting caliber players at cornerback and lack a substantial pass rush to put fear in opposing offenses. That is a recipe for disaster with todays pass happy game transformation. They are sorely lacking difference makers at linebacker. A new coaching staff lead by new Defensive Coordinator Mike Pettine will be put to task with developing a good defense quickly. Their ability to get off the field on third down was ridiculous in 2017 (43% of the time offenses converted). To give perspective, Minnesota was #1 in the league at 28%. Twenty-one teams were ranked below 40%. While the Packers have invested many high draft picks on this side of the ball those picks have not panned out - thanks Ted don’t let the door hit you on the way out! They attacked free agency under Gutekunst’s first year of leadership and attempted to plug gaping wounds. Let’s start at position of strength - defensive line.
Defensive Line: Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark are playing at a Pro Bowl level. Daniels takes on too many double teams yet is highly productive (5 sacks in 2017) because he has a nonstop motor. He is the “ass kicker” this team needs. Clark is a beast who transformed into a bonafide terror to block. He had 55 tackles and 4.5 sacks (all coming in the last 5 games) with 2 forced fumbles last year. The big free agent signing - Muhammad Wilkerson - was a tremendous pickup and a high reward low risk addition. He has tremendous quickness off the ball and can disrupt ball carriers by shooting gaps with ease. He can be a disruptive force that can dictate games. While he had a couple pedestrian years in New York before his eventual release, he signed in GB for a one year contract and should be hungry for another contract like his last ($86 million over 5 years). Dean Lowry is a good rotational lineman. Montravious Adams has potential but how many times have we heard the word “potential” with draft picks under Ted Thompson? Behind the starters of Daniels, Clark and Wilkerson, depth is a huge concern. Packers need a couple more players to feel comfortable here. They would also benefit from more girth up front to hold up against physical teams. The defense line gets mauled in short yardage situations and is a crucial aspect of the game that gets overlooked.
Linebacker: This is a position with much upside but not a ton of production or health, outside of Martinez. Clay Matthews is a premiere OLB who has not been able to duplicate early career success and is injured more than desired. Personally, he has not been as productive because the coaching staff have relied on him like the team relies on Aaron Rodgers. It has led offenses to easily scheme against him and his aggressiveness. Nick Perry is a bull at the other OLB position and is stout against the run. He holds his block well and forces running backs outside but we have not had linebackers to take advantage of forcing plays outside the “hash.” His issue has been staying healthy as well. When healthy Matthews and Perry form a pretty good pash rush duo. Expecting them to play 80% of available snaps is unrealistic and why they need to upgrade their backups. Kyler Fackrell was drafted too high and expecting more from him seems to be un plausible. Vince Biegel will have a full offseason to get ready but he was never a pass rush specialist at Wisconsin. Reggie Gilbert has shown promise but only in the preseason. The Packers need upgrades at OLB if they expect to apply consistent pressure. Moving on to middle linebacker, Blake Martinez is a tackling machine at who reads and diagnoses plays well. He would benefit from a defensive line who would keep blockers from getting to the second level. Jake Ryan is a backup who has started out of necessity and is a liability covering RB’s and TE’s. After them, there is no one else so this is a position that needs significant attention.
Cornerback: The secondary lacks difference makers. They will miss Damarious Randall in that realm, but he should not have been drafted with a first round pick if they had no intention to play him at his natural position - safety. Ted Thompson drafted a ton of players over the years with very little success, while the ones he let go via free agency (Casey Hayward, Micah Hyde) have flourished playing to their strengths with San Diego and Buffalo, respectively. Kevin King is being counted on to be the #1 CB and showed potential to be the shut down corner if he can strengthen a weak shoulder that ended his 2017 season. Josh Hawkins is a fringe player. Lenzy Pipkins shows promise but is extremely raw. Quinton Rollins is coming back from Achilles surgery and has not transformed into a good CB after his promising rookie season (2nd round draft pick in 2015). Demetri Goodson is a special teams player. Tramon Williams is back to provide solid veteran leadership. He has not slowed down and has shown he has something left in the tank at 35 years old. Davon House has the skills to be a good press man corner. After going through the available players at corner, who has proven they are starting caliber? The Packers need to prioritize this position. They tried in free agency until the money was ridiculous. There were no CB’s worth $15 million/year and the team was wise to pass on this years top free agents. But that has left them perilously thin and in need of starting caliber talent.
Safeties: This position is solid with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and write in candidate to replace departed Morgan Burnett - Josh Jones. Clinton-Dix is in a contract year and should be hungry for a new contract. Jones was thrown to the wolves and failed in 2017. He has the raw skills to be a very good strong safety or free safety. Now that he can concentrate on one position he should improve and be an upgrade over the departed Burnett, who was responsible for giving up five of the nine TD’s that safeties gave up last year. If he cannot Kentrell Brice is underrated and will make a strong push. He is a heavy hitter and can cover the field with good speed. Marwin Evans offers good value with his special teams contributions and solid play at safety. Jermaine Whitehead is a roster filler. While this is not a position of need, don’t be surprised if the Packers draft a development player.
In closing, there are many improvements required on the defensive side. They desperately need to improve their pass rush and a talent infusion at corner. The positive moves were demoting Thompson and firing Capers. It will be interesting how Gutekunst drafts and Pettine maximizes the talent provided. We can rest easy knowing he will put players in the best position to succeed, and we need this transformation. This was not going be a top 10 defense without change and without a top 10 defense, this team will find it difficult navigating through a strong NFC to the Super Bowl.
Specialists: Mason Crosby is one of the leagues best kickers. He has a strong leg and has made 80% of his field goals in his eleven year career. Last year he had some issues with a new long snapper but hit his stride when they brought back Brett Goode. As long as he has a long snapper in the mold of Brett Goode (current free agent) he will be all right. Punter Justin Vogel showed much promise, displayed a strong leg with above average directional placement and looks to have secured a positional weakness. Long snapper currently has no player who has snapped in an NFL game. That will need to be addressed if they expect Crosby to continue his reliable ways.
Punt returner is manned by Trevor Davis but his questionable decision making is problem-some. While he does offer home run ability, he has a penchant for untimely fumbles. The Packers want improvement here and would hate having to use Randall Cobb considering he is their #2 WR. Currently they do not have an incumbent kick returner and would benefit from drafting WR who could return kicks.
The loss of Jeff Janis will be felt on special teams and was a huge contributor to punter Justin Vogel setting a team record for net yards in 2017. It is assumed they won’t be as stingy without Janis.