The NFL playoffs are officially under way. As the league’s best fight for a Super Bowl Championship, the Green Bay Packers are heading in the opposite direction. The team only had a few positive notes from 2018. After moving on from longtime defensive coordinator, Dom Capers, the Packers looked rejuvenated under the tutelage of Mike Pettine. The organization has realized that the Packers defense has been lackluster since their Super Bowl run in 2010.
Second-year general manager Brian Gutekunst spent his first three picks of the 2018 NFL Draft on the defensive side of the ball. He also brought in Muhammad Wilkerson on a one-year deal to fortify an already impressive defensive line. Wilkerson got injured, only first rounder Jaire Alexander made a strong impact in year one, and Pettine might be at risk of losing his own job to a new head coach. As they enter the off-season, the Packers defense has several holes to fill if they hope to improve upon last year’s rankings.
Holes to Fill on the Green Bay Packers Defense
Pieces to Build Around
The Packers are without many stars on the defensive side of the ball. Daniels has been the team’s vocal leader over the past five years, but he has had some issues with injuries and consistency lately. He should look to rebound next year. Clark has officially emerged as the best player on this defense. He has improved every year and is the biggest playmaker against both the run and pass. He should seek a lucrative extension from the team in the near future.
Alexander is already a stud in this league. The 14th overall pick in last year’s draft quickly emerged as a presence in this young secondary. His play against the Los Angeles Rams in week eight was one of the most dominating performances by any defensive back all year. He plays much bigger than his size and is a sure tackler in addition to showing promise as a lockdown corner. The Packers should be very excited to watch his development in year two.
Martinez isn’t a very flashy player but has been a stable presence in the middle since being drafted in 2016. He is easily the team’s best tackler and leads the league in total tackles over the past two years. He also showed some prowess as a pass rusher under Pettine, collecting five sacks this season. That was good for third on the team. He’s entering the final year of his rookie deal. Gutekunst should make an extension for Martinez one of his priorities this off-season.
These two are tough to gauge. King looks like a difference maker that boosts the entire defense when he is on the field. That’s the issue, though. He can’t stay healthy and has ended each of his first two years on injured reserve. If both King and Alexander can stay on the field next season, the Packers will have one of the best young cornerback duos in the league.
Fackrell is an even bigger question mark. He is also entering the final year of his rookie deal but will also turn 28 next year. After appearing to be another one of Ted Thompson’s mid-round busts, Fackrell morphed into a serious playmaker with Pettine calling the defense. What appeared to be a fluke three-sack game against the Buffalo Bills in Week Four, Fackrell went on to have an impressive second half of the year. He led the team with 10.5 quarterback takedowns. He should be required to put together another promising year before becoming a candidate for a second contract.
Pending Free Agents to Consider Bringing Back
Each of the players listed above should be offered cheap contracts before free agency. Matthews is not the player he once was but he could still provide a spark in a situational role. Plus it’s frankly more fun when he’s out there, assuming he will return for a fraction of the cost. If Breeland is re-signed, he could find himself playing a serious role on this squad in 2019. There seems to be mutual interest between the two sides and he could form an exciting trio with King and Alexander.
The rest of these players should be brought back for depth and roster competition. Gilbert has shown flashes but disappointed when forced into a larger role this year. Ryan tore his ACL in the pre-season so he may be a long shot to return, but he could return for the veteran minimum. Campbell and Pleasant were added to the active roster due to injuries and incompetence at the safety position. Each made a handful of splash plays that warrant an initial camp invite, but the Packers could also find younger options at the position.
Time to Move on
Brice is a restricted free agent who does not deserve a spot on this team in 2019. After showing promise in limited action early on, he sorely disappointed this year after taking over for the departed Morgan Burnett. Fans and analysts alike clamored for second-year pro Josh Jones the entire year. For some reason the Packers were fine with watching Brice get burned for 40 yard scores week in and week out.
Wilkerson and House were brought in/back to provide veteran presences to their position groups. They each hit injured reserve before the midway point of the season and hadn’t provided much impact before then. If Gutekunst really wants to see what Wilkerson has left, he could re-sign him to another short contract for less than the five million he offered last year. House’s time in Green Bay is long overdue.
Just when Perry finally appeared to be hitting his stride, he took a huge step back this year. He has only accumulated 8.5 sacks in two years since signing a five-year, $59 million extension in 2017. He has yet to play a full 16-game season and will have a cap hit of $14.7 million in 2019. That money could go towards fortifying other areas of the defense or bringing in a superstar on either side of the ball.
What Do the Packers Need?
Pettine’s group finished tied for eighth in the league with 44 sacks, but most of that was due to pressure from the interior and coupled with Fackrell’s fluke breakout. Fackrell still shouldn’t be counted on as an every down player due to his deficiencies in the run game. The Packers have two first round picks in a draft chock full of interior and exterior rushers.
Many think the Packers will target an outside linebacker with the 12th pick and an offensive weapon with their pick acquired from the New Orleans Saints. Gutekunst could quickly turn an area of need into one of promise with two first round pass rushers to rotate in with Fackrell, Matthews, and Gilbert. They still have a high pick in the second and seven more picks after that to bolster other areas of weakness.
Both safety positions are in flux for Green Bay after trading Ha Ha Clinton-Dix midseason and the lack of development from Brice and Jones. Veteran cornerback Tramon Williams took over for Clinton-Dix last season. He played well given his physical limitations at this stage of his career but the Packers need to add competition at both spots.
If the Packers don’t grab an edge defender with the 12th pick, one player to keep an eye on is Alabama defensive back Deionte Thompson. Thompson is regarded as the best safety in this class, even after his rough outing in the National Championship game. There could also be several big name free agents hitting the open market. Earl Thomas is a lock to leave Seattle. Younger options such as Tyrann Mathieu, Adrian Amos, or Landon Collins could also be top options.
Depth is Most Important
The Packers should just hope to avoid another season like 2018 where most of their defensive starters ended up on IR. Gutekunst did a good job of finding plug-and-play street free agents, but he needs to add young players at all levels. There is some talent on this team but it is very top heavy. If any of Clark, Daniels, Martinez, or Alexander misses extended time, this defense could be in serious trouble.
After major improvements against the pass, the Packers struggled to defend the run in 2018. The team needs more size on the line and more athleticism on the back end. There are pieces in place, though. Just a few impact players brought in through free agency or the draft could turn this defense into a top ten unit once again. There are still some holes on the Packer defense, but it appears there are much fewer than in year’s past.
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