Defensive Shortcomings Should Shape Packer’s Offseason

26th in total points allowed. 22nd in total yards allowed. 23rd in passing yards allowed. 17th in rushing yards allowed. Ladies and gentlemen, your 2017 Green Bay Packers defense.

Hopes were decently high coming into the 2017 season for Green Bay’s defense, as the front office focused its first four picks on that side of the ball. Kevin King and Josh Jones both had big impacts on the defense in their first seasons, but Montravius Adams and Vince Biegel were both hampered by injuries and did not have the type of impact many had hoped for.

Other key cogs in the Packer system, like Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, had to fight through a slew of injuries and inconsistent play throughout this past year. Coupled with Aaron Rodgers going down with his collarbone injury, and this unit was looked to carry more of the burden for the team but did not follow through.

Team outlook

The team has eight free agents, four on each side of the ball. Defensively, Morgan Burnett, Ahmad Brooks, Davon House and Quinton Dial are all out on the market.

Burnett has been in Green Bay ever since he was drafted 71st overall by the Packers in 2010. He has called this team home for eight years, and his play has justified keeping him here for longer.

Of all the free agents the Packers have, Burnett should be the top priority. His defensive leadership coupled with veteran know-how and positional flexibility would make a good transition into new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s system.

Pettine, who in his past positions has resorted to different single safety high formations with the other safety playing in the box, can look to use both Burnett and Jones in the box-safety role, as both played it in some capacity this past season. Clinton-Dix is more of a traditional safety, normally the last line of defense in a scheme by being the captain of the defensive backfield, and Burnett’s style contrasts with Clinton-Dix in a fitting way.
Offseason outcome for Burnett: Re-sign for four years, $40 million

Outside of Burnett needing to return, House and Brooks are the second-tier players that Green Bay will look into bringing back. House, who recorded 44 tackles, one sack and one interception last year, returned to the system that he was drafted into in 2011. After getting cut by Jacksonville only halfway into his contract, he returned to Green Bay on a one year, $1.5 million contract that escalated to $2.8 million based on performance bonuses.

House played through a myriad of injuries this past season, showing his true grit and how much he wanted to be out on the field. While House’s performance was solid, his injury history from this past year coupled with his stats not jumping out at anyone should make his new contract reasonable, and something the Packers should try and accomplish.
Offseason outcome for House: Re-sign for three years, $18 million

For Brooks, his one year, $3.5 million contract was not justified by his play. He was on the field for less than 33 percent of GB’s defensive snaps this season, and that combined with only playing in 12 games and starting five due to injury added up to his lowest playing and statistical totals in his career.

In the past for Pettine’s defenses, he has needed somewhat mobile linebackers to either rush the passer or become coverage specialists. Brooks is more known as a ‘backer who guards the box well and protects against the run, and he has lost a step this past year. Unless Green Bay gets desperate and does not address this position, do not expect to see Brooks back in green and gold.
Offseason outcome for Brooks: does not return

Dial really did not see a lot of playing time this year, due to the emergence of Kenny Clark and Dean Lowery and the steady play of pro bowler Mike Daniels. If Adams is unable to return to the form the team drafted him for last year, Dial may return as insurance. More likely than not, Dial will move on and Green Bay will not have invested in him a lot.
Offseason outcome for Dial: does not return

Free agency and draft

Cornerback is the hot button topic that most people believe the team needs to address. In the upcoming draft, players like Minkah Fitzpatrick from Alabama and Derwin James of Florida State are listed as safeties but could become the box safety prototype that Pettine likes to employ.

If the team is looking for standard corners, Josh Jackson from Iowa and Denzel Ward from Ohio State are two of the highest-rated corners in the draft. Both Big Ten products, Jackson had the (unfortunate but memorable) two-interceptions-returned-for-touchdowns game in Madison last year for the Hawkeyes, while Ward put together another solid season for a Buckeye DB.

Both of these corners are rated as the top ones in this year’s class, so if Green Bay wants to use a top selection for the second year in a row on one of these two corners, the team will need to probably need to use its first-round selection on that position.

This draft, while not all that eye-catching for corners, has some hidden prospects as well. A triple helping of sleepers, headlined by Mike Hughes from UCF, caught my eye and could be mid-round steals for the Packers.

Hughes, a junior for the Golden Knights, recorded four interceptions, 11 passes defended and 49 total tackles. He is rated at a third-round grade but could sneak into the latter half of the second.

Nick Nelson, a junior from Wisconsin, put together a strong season after transferring to the Badgers from Hawaii. In his lone season for Bucky, he led the nation in pass breakups with 21, even though he did not record an interception. He also returned punts for the Badgers, another area Green Bay could look to use Nelson in.

From Florida State, Tarvarus McFadden is another player giving up his final year of eligibility for the draft. In 2017 he recorded 30 tackles and 10 pass breakups and similar to Nelson also earned some punt return opportunities for the Seminoles.

All three prospects are projected to be selected around the third round, so the Packers could take them at any point when the draft rolls around.

In free agency, the likes of Malcolm Butler, Trumaine Johnson, Prince Amukamara and Justin Bethel are all available. All will likely command decent payouts, especially with how well corners did in last year’s free agency.

Butler will most likely command the biggest contract, as Spotrac has his market value at $65 million over five years. Obviously, the Packers have the financial aspect to offer this type of contract, but it remains to see if new General Manager Brian Gutekunst will break the ways fans have been forced to deal with and actually go out and be active in free agency.

An under-the-radar name that Packer fans will remember is Tramon Williams, who played under Bruce Arians in Arizona this past season. In 13 games, Williams recorded 41 tackles and two interceptions, which is not bad for an age-34 corner.

Williams has experience under Pettine, as he was in Cleveland for the 2015 and 2016 seasons, the final two for Pettine as head coach. Williams would bring with him a sense of familiarity for the system back to Green Bay, and even though he is no spring chicken, Williams would be a nice addition to help shore up the depth at cornerback.

Regardless of which was the Packers decide to go to address their defensive backfield, there are many options out there that can be delved into. If they were to re-sign Burnett and House, add through the draft and/or even sign someone as a free agent, the improvements on defense would be a good first step into returning this team to what it knows so well: the playoffs and beyond.

Let me know what you think is the best way for Green Bay to tackle its defensive backfield needs in the offseason.

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Mike Johrendt has been an avid fan of the Packers ever since he can remember. He is now a writer at PackersTalk and you can follow him on Twitter at @MJohrendt23

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