Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur wants to be more like the San Francisco 49ers. You really can’t blame the young head coach. The 49ers toppled the Packers twice last season. First in the regular season and then in the NFC Championship game. The shift in making the Packers offense more like the 49ers offense has already started. Brian Gutekunst, the Packers top personnel decision-maker, selected players in this year’s draft that he is hoping will help in the change. But on defense, the Packers have a long way to go if they are going to emulate the 49ers defense. The 49ers had the top defense in the NFL last season. If the Green Bay Packers defense is going to improve, they are going to need major contributions from key young players to do so.
Green Bay Packers Defense in Need of Contributions From Key Young Players This Season
For all of the big free-agent signings made last season, much was expected from the Green Bay Packers defense. But sadly, for all the money spent and first-round picks used, the Packers defense was a major disappointment.
By no means was the Packers defense the worst in the NFL last season. They finished 14th against the pass, 23rd against the run, and 18th in total defense. All rankings that illustrate that the Packers defense was an, at best, average unit last season. Those rankings also don’t match the capital invested by Gutekunst on the Packers defense last 0ff-season.
The performance of the Green Bay Packers defense last season made Mike Pettine’s return as defensive coordinator this season a toss-up. LaFleur did keep him, but it wouldn’t have been surprising if he would have parted ways with him. Pettine gained a lot of power and control when LaFleur got the head coaching job. He was looked at as the head coach of the defense. When the defense failed to live up to expectations, it placed Pettine firmly on the hot seat. His job status will be something to watch this coming season.
Gutekunst didn’t do much this off-season to add to the Packers defense. He did sign Christian Kirksey to a free agent contract and spent three later round picks on defensive players. With how much he invested in the defense last season, it isn’t a surprise he did so little this off-season. For Pettine, he will need to improve the Packers defense with players they already have. If Pettine is going to keep his job, he will need the younger players to step up their game.
Here is a list of key young players that will need to contribute this season. If they don’t, the Packers defense will once again fall short of expectations and most likely cause Pettine to look for another job.
Rashan Gary, Outside Linebacker
In the 2019 draft Gutekunst spent the 12th overall pick on Rashan Gary. Just like with the Jordan Love pick this year, it is another pick that will be linked with Gutekunst’s legacy as the top personnel decision-maker.
A highly talented and gifted athlete, Gary was a massive underachiever at the University of Michigan. His production has never matched the athletic ability he possesses. That is why selecting him when Gutekunst did, had and continues to have many question Gutekunst’s decision.
This season, Gary will get the chance to prove he is worth that high selection. This off-season, Kyler Fackrell, the top reserve to starting outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, departed as a free agent to the New York Giants. With his departure, it propels Gary to the top reserve behind the two Smiths.
Last season, he played sparingly. Instead, he sat behind the Smiths and learned the outside linebacker position. This season, he will be expected to contribute. Pettine should be able to use a player that has Gary’s ability. Not only will Gary be expected to step in when one of the Smiths needs a rest, but also be used in the interior of the defensive line in passing situations. Gary has the size to lineup at defensive tackle. The Packers need a player to play the defensive tackle opposite fellow defensive tackle Dean Lowry and nose tackle Kenny Clark in passing situations.
Behind Gary, there are a lot of questions. So if Gary fails, the Packers outside linebacker rotation will be left in a tough situation.
Kingsley Keke, Defensive Tackle
As stated previously, the Packers defense needs somebody to step up at the defensive tackle position opposite of Lowry and Clark. Lining Gary up inside in passing situations might help. But asking Gary to play inside full time takes away from him backing up the Smiths. Tyler Lancaster played quite a bit at the one defensive tackle position last season. But Lancaster is at best a backup. In truth, if the Packers had more at the position, Lancaster would have a hard time making the roster.
In 2017, the Packers selected Montravius Adams in the third round. Unfortunately for the Packers, he has been a major disappointment. To go along with his disappointing play, Adams ran into some off the field issues recently. With his unremarkable play and now the issues off the field, it would be a surprise if Adams is on the Packers roster when the season starts.
With Lancaster’s lack of ability and Adams disappointing play, it opens a door for Kingsley Keke. Gutekunst spent a fifth-round pick in 2019 on Keke. He played in 14 games last season and made just three solo tackles. But the Packers are high on Keke. He has good length as an inside defensive lineman and should get his chance to win that open defensive tackle position.
If Keke is able to win that position and take care of the running downs, it should give Pettine the opportunity to utilize Gary just in passing situations.
Oren Burks, Inside Linebacker
It wasn’t long ago that many expected big things from inside linebacker Oren Burks. But Burks hasn’t met those expectations.
The Green Bay Packers defense has been missing an athletic inside linebacker who can cover as well as play against the run. Former starting inside linebacker Blake Martinez made a lot of tackles but rarely made big plays. He also struggled mightily in coverage. The coverage part of the defense is where Burks was supposed to help. While at Vanderbilt, he played a hybrid safety/inside linebacker position. He hasn’t shown the ability he did at Vanderbilt with the Packers. He has dealt with injuries, but when he has been healthy, he hasn’t shown much.
The Packers did select inside linebacker Kamal Martin in the fifth round of this year’s draft. But he is very similar to Burks. Athletic and injury-prone. Burks should have a leg up on Martin, with entering his third season with the Packers.
The addition of Kirksey at inside linebacker will help Pettine and the Packers defense. But Kirksey hasn’t played a full regular-season schedule since 2017. In fact, he has only played in just two games the past two seasons. There is a good chance that streak will continue. If that happens, it will be up to Burks to pick up the slack.
Pettine has shown that he doesn’t emphasize the inside linebacker position. That could be why his defenses with the Packers have struggled. One of these inside linebackers will need to step up. For Burks, if it is him, he might be on his last chance as a Packer to prove he is capable of being that player.
Chandon Sullivan and Josh Jackson, Cornerbacks
So far, Gutekunst hasn’t re-signed veteran cornerback Tramon Williams. Williams served as the Packers do-everything defensive back. He lined as the third cornerback, safety, and punt returner in the past couple of seasons. But being 37 years old, it seems that Gutekunst and the Packers are moving in another direction.
Without Williams, the third cornerback position is up for grabs. Gutekunst could surprise everyone and sign a free agent to fill that position. But that seems to be doubtful with how Gutekunst has gone about his business this off-season.
That leaves what the Packers have on their roster. The third cornerback is a very important position in Pettine’s defense. So relying on somebody currently on the Packers roster is a dangerous bet.
There are two players that will be vying for the position. Chandon Sullivan seems to be the leading candidate. He had a strong season in 2019. He played in all 16 games, registering 30 combined tackles and intercepting one ball. His coverage skills are strong and he has good size, 5’11”. If they don’t bring in outside help, it is a strong chance that Sullivan will be the Packers third cornerback.
In the 2018 NFL draft, Gutekunst spent a second-round pick on Josh Jackson. Most considered getting Jackson in the second as a steal. He was coming off a junior season at the University of Iowa where he picked off eight balls and ran two of them back for touchdowns. Along with his ability to make plays, he has great size for the cornerback position, being 6’1″.
However, Jackson’s ability that he showed in his final season at Iowa hasn’t shown up while with the Packers. He started 10 games in his rookie season, but he struggled. He had a hard time adapting to Pettine’s preferred press coverage. Then last season, most of his playing time came on special teams.
This will be a make or break season for Jackson. The third cornerback is up for grabs and Jackson will be given, most likely because of his draft status, every opportunity to win the position. If he doesn’t, this will be another blemish on an already questionable draft record of Gutekunst.
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