The Green Bay Packers have had a very non-Packers like off-season thus far, they were extremely aggressive in free agency and then doubled down in the draft. Their No.1 priority was clearly the defensive side of the ball with eight of their twelve off-season additions coming on defense. This strategy shouldn’t surprise anyone as the Packers have consistently been near the bottom of the league in total defense over the last decade.
A common thread amongst all the defensive additions is versatility. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine wants guys who can line up at multiple positions, giving him the ability to confuse offenses with all sorts of different looks. This is a scheme he used when he was with the Jets and had a ton of success with. Now that he has the right personnel in Green Bay, Pettine should be ready to unleash hell.
Today I want to focus my attention on the front seven and try to figure out the best way to use all this newly brought in talent.
The Packers defensive line may be their strongest position on the entire roster. Both Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels are Pro Bowl caliber players while Dean Lowry and Tyler Lancaster have each proven to be very solid run stuffers. What makes this line so great is its depth, behind all those guys there is still plenty of young talent in Keke, Adams, and Brown.
With this much talent and versatility, Pettine is going to have an endless amount of possible formations and schemes that he can deploy. He can go heavy against the run by putting Clark and Lowry on the ends with big man Tyler Lancaster stuffing up the middle. He can also focus on rushing the passer with a trio of Daniels, Clark, and Keke.
The presumed starters going into 2019 are Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark as it should be, but don’t expect any one player to be getting a huge majority of snaps. When a team has this much depth, they must use it wisely. Implementing a strong rotation of guys is going to be key for the players long term health. No defense will hold up for 16 games if they are playing defensive lineman on 80-90% of snaps. I expect there to be a handful of guys playing meaningful snaps this season which will be a luxury come December. A good rotation will keep everyone fresh and healthy throughout the season while also giving younger guys a chance to develop at a faster rate.
No position on the Packers roster has gone through a bigger change this off-season than the outside linebacker group. We said goodbye to long-time Packers, Clay Matthews and Nick Perry after a pair of disappointing seasons. Going into free agency, the Packers had only Kyler Fackrell and Reggie Gilbert remaining on the active roster. The need for reinforcements was clear.
Packers General Manager Brian Gutekunst wasted little time in acquiring two of the top edge rushers in this year’s free-agent class. On the 2nd day of free agency, most Packers fans woke up to the news of the Za’darius Smith signing and only a couple hours later, Preston Smith signed on as well.
Even after making two huge signings at the position, the Packers knew they didn’t have enough depth to make it through an entire season.
Heading into this year’s draft, most experts had the Packers looking to add to their already strong pass rush or add an offensive weapon for QB Aaron Rodgers. As much fun as it would’ve been to see Rodgers get another playmaker to throw the ball to, I was always pushing for another pass rusher. The Packers did not disappoint me when they drafted former Michigan Linebacker, Rashan Gary.
In a matter of about 6 weeks, the Packers turned their weakest and most depleted position into a position of real strength.
Mike Pettine must be absolutely thrilled to have added all these explosive and once again, versatile players. Both Smith’s and Gary have extensive experience playing on the line and standing up on the edge. This is going to give Pettine ultimate flexibility in terms of where he lines guys up. There have even been talks about bringing back the “NASCAR” package where all four OLB’s would be on the field at once. Just the thought of this should send shivers down offensive coordinators spines.
In their base package, I expect it to be Preston and Za’darius Smith on the ends while Gary and Fackrell make their way into a healthy rotation. Don’t be surprised if you see Za’darius kick inside to allow Gary more snaps on the edge and vice versa. When you have guys who can do it all, there is no reason not to take advantage of that. Offenses will not be able to prepare for you if they are seeing different looks on every other play.
The Inside Linebacker position is probably the Packers weakest spot on the roster. Leading up to the draft, Michigan LB Devin Bush was a popular pick for the Packers but the Steelers made sure that didn’t happen by trading up ahead of the Packers to select him 10th overall. After Bush, there was a big drop-off in talent which is why I wasn’t surprised that they waited until the 7th round to pick former TCU LB, Ty Summers.
It may not look great on paper, but looking at the position as a whole, there are reasons for optimism.
Blake Martinez is entering his 4th season in the NFL and as a former 4th round pick, he’s exceeded all reasonable expectations. In each of the last 2 seasons, Martinez has totaled 144 tackles which was good enough for the league lead back in 2017. Now heading into 2019, reports are that Martinez has lost 3.5% of body fat while still adding 7 pounds, that’s the equivalent of adding 15 pounds of muscle. If he can improve a little more in coverage and in-play recognition, we could be looking at one of the NFL’s top inside linebackers for years to come.
Behind Martinez lies many question marks. There is 2nd-year man, Oren Burks who played on only 11.4% of the defensive snaps last season, rookie Ty Summers and former undrafted LB James Crawford. Not a ton of experience there. One of these guys is going to have to step up in a big way for the Packers if this defense is going to have sustained success.
While I still have high hopes for former 3rd round pick Oren Burks, my money is actually on rookie Ty Summers. He’s still pretty raw and will take some time to develop but when he does, I think he will surprise a lot of people. His film was one of the most fun to watch of any rookie brought in. He plays with a ton of speed (ran a 4.51 40) and has an extremely impressive RAS score (9.71). We may not see a ton of him in the beginning of the season, but if there are still questions at that LB spot in Week 8, watch out for Ty Summers.
As I mentioned earlier and I’m sure you’ve heard many times by now, this defense is versatile. Almost every single player can line up at multiple spots. The advantage of having this kind of versatility can’t be understated.
With that being said, it’s pretty difficult to imagine what the starting 11 will look like come Week 1. But l also don’t think it really matters all that much who is “starting”, there is going to be such a strong rotation throughout each level of this defense that every player is going to see the field.
Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean I’m not going to try, so without further ado, my 2019 Packers starting defense.
Defensive Line- Mike Daniels, Kenny Clark
Outside Linebacker- Zadarius Smith, Preston Smith
Inside Linebacker- Blake Martinez, Oren Burks
Safety- Adrian Amos, Darnell Savage
I showed you mine, now it’s your turn. Please comment on how you think this year’s Packers starting defense will shake out.