The Green Bay Packers are now more than a week removed from a 44-21 loss at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons, a defeat that ended the 2016 season the same way each of the previous five years finished: in disappointment.
If 2016 showed anything, it’s that the team cannot rely solely on its MVP quarterback. Even with Aaron Rodgers playing some of the best football of his career on the back end of the season—and almost single handedly carrying the Packers to the NFC Championship game—he simply could not overcome an undermanned, underwhelming defense.
And now, rightfully so, there is a greater sense of urgency in Titletown. Rodgers remains one of the greatest quarterback talents to ever play in the NFL, but there’s no telling when his production may start to take a dip. The offense, excepting the time period of November 2015-November 2016, has been one of the best in football during Rodgers’ tenure, but the defense has repeatedly restricted the team’s success.
Before the 2017 season begins, it is essential that the Packers display a commitment to retooling the defensive side of the ball. While Dom Capers’ schemes have been questionable at times (and criticism of him and of his unit’s performance is more than deserved), Mike McCarthy’s season-ending press conference seemed to indicate that there will not be a change at defensive coordinator.
That means the fate of the Packers’ defense, and, as recent history suggests, Green Bay’s entire season, rests on two things: Capers’ ability to more effectively utilize his personnel and, more importantly, Ted Thompson’s willingness to revamp that side of the ball through the draft and free agency.
The biggest concern remains the cornerback position. The Packers were largely unable to overcome the loss of Sam Shields this season, especially as first and second round picks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins each regressed in their sophomore seasons. While they should both bounce back in some capacity in 2017, Green Bay would be foolish to rely solely on Randall, Rollins, and LaDarius Gunter. The Packers will almost certainly spend at least one draft pick on a corner, but with Shields’ future up in the air due to his concussion history, it becomes essential to add a veteran player in free agency.
A.J Bouye would be a pipe dream, break-the-bank signing after posting a stellar year for the Texans, but more affordable, Thompson-esque signings are available. Stephon Gilmore, Dre Kirkpatrick, and a number of other options would be cheaper, and while they may not be considered elite, they would instantly become the top cornerback on Green Bay’s roster. The Packers are notoriously cheap in free agency, but signing an instant-impact cornerback would at least show that the team is committed to not wasting more of the Rodgers Era with a unit that cannot defend against the pass in a pass-happy league.
The Packers will be looking to revamp their edge rushers as well. Nick Perry and Julius Peppers, the team’s sack leader and runner up, respectively, are both free agents, as is Datone Jones. Peppers’ age and Perry’s health present question marks regarding whether they could duplicate their 2016 production, but keeping Perry will likely be a priority and re-signing Peppers at a cheap rate remains a possibility.
Clay Matthews, nagged by injuries once again, could be a dark horse candidate to be released, traded, or restructured, as he continues to play beneath his current salary. Mike Daniels proved he is the best player on the defense, Letroy Guion is effective though not spectacular, and Kenny Clark improved drastically as the year went on. Those three players anchor what should be a solid interior line and continue to contribute to the league’s eighth-ranked rush defense. Rookies Kyler Fackrell and Dean Lowry could see more playing time in their second year, though their inexperience means the Packers may look to add more depth at the position.
The inside linebacker spot is not the best aspect of Green Bay’s defense, but it is certainly looking better than it did when the season began. Jake Ryan made some major strides in his second year, while Blake Martinez looks like he could be a solid contributor moving forward. Joe Thomas was often a liability, and he could very well be shown the door in the offseason. If Fackrell and/or Lowry show promise on the edge, moving Matthews back to ILB, where he succeeded in 2015, could be an option.
Barring injury, the one position that looks solidified heading into next season is safety. Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix comprise one of the best safety duos in the league. Burnett had an exceptional year, while Clinton-Dix was named second team All-Pro, made his first Pro Bowl, and played every single defensive snap for the Packers. Micah Hyde remains a versatile asset in the secondary, and the Packers will be looking to ensure he is on the team next year. Kentrell Brice needs polishing but could give some depth to the group.
All in all, the Packers do have some well-established talent on their defense. A large part of the blame resides with Capers and Thompson for not being able to field a solid unit that boasted six former first round picks—Peppers, Matthews, Perry, Clinton-Dix, Randall, and Clark—in 2016. Another first rounder could very well add his name to the mix after this year’s draft.
The offense still needs a few tweaks, like depth at running back and possibly on the offensive line, but Thompson, McCarthy, and Capers need to prioritize fixing the defense before next season starts. As they always do, the front office will attempt to patch those issues through the draft, but they would be wise to explore free agency to add some veteran presence—especially at cornerback. A lot of questions remain for the Green Bay defense, but retooling that side of the ball would put the Packers in a great position to return to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2010.——————
Sean Blashe is a Packers fan who grew up in Bears territory and is currently a journalism and history major at Marquette University. Sean is a writer with PackersTalk.com and you can follow him on twitter at @SeanBlashe .