2019 Recap: Outside Linebackers

Moving into the second aspect of the Green Bay Packers defense, the defense’s outside linebacker unit is full of playmakers that also have a lot of money coming their way. One of the most productive units on the entire Packers roster, this unit was made a huge priority in free agency last offseason.

Led by the Smith brothers, Preston and Za’Darius, combined with depth piece Kyler Fackrell and 2019 first-round draft piece, the fluidity of this position group is such a key asset for defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, as he tries to rediscover the success that made him such a dominant leader of the defense in years past. While signs were pointing to the team being in the market for a replacement, head coach Matt LaFleur has voiced his confidence in Pettine since the season ended, but he is surely on the hot seat at this point.

Even as solid as this unit was in 2019, the odds of them being able to replicate their success in 2020 mainly hinges on Pettine’s schemes and turning the defense into an unpredictable unit for opposing offenses, something that can immediately flip the game into Green Bay’s favor. Here are a few elements that will be focused on this offseason, going into this upcoming regular season.

Can the Smith Bros repeat their 2019 success in 2020?

Preston and Za’Darius combined for 25.5 sacks in 2019, with Za’Darius leading the way at 13.5. These double-digit sack totals are the exact reason that the Packers were early buyers in last season’s free agency, and both Smiths proved that their investments were well worth the price.

The amount that they spent last offseason has limited their range of spending a bit this offseason, but the fact of the matter remains that their outside linebacking core for the next few seasons is in great hands.

While each player experienced a few bumps and bruises along the way, they were able to remain healthy, which is what helped this defensive unit succeed as much as they did. Even though there have been no signs of regression already in their deals, it is highly likely that achieving the 25.5 sack mark in ‘20 will be a big goal to meet.

The Smiths do not need to be counted on in the same capacity as they were in 2019, simply because their surrounding backups should be able to bring more to the table now, specifically Gary. Offensive lines schemed to shut both Smiths down as the season went on, and even though they continued to find their way to the QB, both Gary and Fackrell will need to produce more to help ease the load.

The pressure will mostly be on Gary this year, as the first-round selection from Michigan has not been able to live up to his high draft status, at least in the stat columns. Being able to show up on tape, making progressions throughout each and every game, and committing to consistently improving are all aspects that can be tied to Gary’s brief NFL career up to this point, so the promise and hard work of being able to develop a third stout OLB is exactly what this team needs to be able to thrive.

Moving Forward

Being able to come to work every day and hone your craft underneath the tutelage of both Preston and Za’Darius Smith is a huge benefit for Gary, and while his numbers in 2019 (13 tackles 2 sacks) was nothing to write home about, the promise surrounding Gary going into his sophomore campaign should warrant enough excitement.

Fackrell’s role as a two-deep pash rusher whose main goal is to provide solid pressure when in the game spelling the two Smiths has been developing at a decent pace so far, and while his four seasons in the league have yielded mixed results, including putting up 10.5 sacks last year but only 16.5 in his entire career, he has been a piece in Pettine’s scheme for a long time and understands his role.

If the team was looking to try and upgrade this unit through the draft, the likes of Isaiah Simmons (CLEM), Kenneth Murray (OU), Patrick Queen (LSU), K’Lavon Chaisson (LSU), and Zack Baun (UW) are all being graded as first-round draft picks, but all but Baun are projected to most likely be gone before GB selects at 30.

Free agency is going to provide some solid depth options, although GB may end up with an embarrassment of riches if they were to add players this route. The likes of Bud Dupree, Dante Fowler Jr., and Shaquil Barrett will set the tone for how much OLBs will be paid this offseason, and none of these three project to be a target for GB due to the fact that they would all need to start, and obviously that just will not happen.

Nigel Bradham, A.J. Klein, and Cassius Marsh could be potential scheme-specific adds for roles for this team in 2020, as each are free agents and each would not command a very expensive contract on the open market. GM Brian Gutekunst will most likely look to address other areas of the roster, but if a solid player is still out there to sign, he has shown in the past that he is willing to make sure all options are seen through.

As one of the strongest groups on the GB roster, the outside linebackers are needing to replicate a very strong 2019 season in 2020, and while that may be a bit difficult due to how high the bar was set, the players on the roster are very well set up to produce at high levels again in 2020.

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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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