The Green Bay Packers will rely on a lot of young talent on defense this year. They’ll be looking to improve upon their 2012 performance where they finished 11th in the league in both total yards allowed and points per game. They also finished 4th in the league in sacks with 47, despite only getting consistent production from Clay Matthews, who had 13.
Unfortunately, most people don’t remember these improvements on defense last year. The Packers defensive collapse in the divisional round of the playoffs against the 49ers last year has tarnished any accomplishments the defense achieved in the team’s statistical category.
To help push the Packers defense to the next level and avoid another playoff collapse, the team has brought in some new blood via the draft and undrafted free agency. The Packers enter the 2013 season with seven defensive rookies on their roster, two of which could play major roles on the field this season.
The young players will be tested, as will the rest of our defense. The Packers face the 1st-ranked (WAS), 2nd-ranked (MIN), and 4th-ranked (SF) rushing teams from 2012, and will face off against some of the top quarterbacks in the league according to last season’s passer rating: Robert Griffith III (102.4), Matt Ryan (99.1), Colin Kaepernick (98.3), Ben Roethlisberger (97), and Tony Romo (90.5).
So what can we expect from the rookies on defense this season?
Despite the Packers facing some of the top quarterbacks in the league this year, they will also be facing some the worst pass protecting offensive lines, which is good news for first-round pick Datone Jones. In week three, the Packers face the Cincinnati Bengals who gave up 46 sacks last season. Both the Bears and Cowboys gave up 36, and the Ravens gave up 35. Even the highly-regarded 49ers offensive line gave up 40 sacks last season. So what does this all mean in regards to Jones?
The Packers drafted the athletic defensive lineman out of UCLA for his strength at the point of attack and his ability to rush the passer. As a senior, Jones record 6.5 sacks as a 3-4 end, and at the start of Packers camp, Jones demonstrated a quickness at the line and an ability to get by offensive linemen. Unfortunately, Jones’ momentum in camp slowed down a bit when he suffered an ankle sprain on his first play in the preseason opener.
Jones didn’t get a lot of good looks in the preseason and seemed inhibited by the ankle injury. The Packers still really don’t know what they have in the athletic 3-4 defensive end. I expect a slow start from the first-round pick this season. It looks like the Packers will rotate him in their nickel sub packages as a down lineman and use him in specific passing situations.
Jones could be effective as a pass rushing lineman, particularly against the subpar offensive lines the Packers will face this season. But Jones will have to show he can hold up better against the run and not be moved by bigger NFL linemen to see more playing time and unseat C.J. Wilson in the base defense.
Jones may come along slowly, but I expect he’ll hit a point this season where things click and his ability as a pass rusher will get him on the field.
Hyde has been the pleasant surprise out of this year’s draft class. The rookie cornerback made play after play during the preseason, and despite the Packers’ depth at defensive back, Hyde has carved out a role for himself on the team. With the recent news that Casey Hayward will sit out Sunday’s game against San Francisco, Hyde should get the start as the nickel corner.
Hyde played well in the preseason out of the slot. He lacks the top-end speed to be effective on the outside, but as the slot corner, he use his strength and quick feet to stick with receivers crossing over the middle of the field. Hyde was also effective blitzing from the slot. He recorded two sacks in the preseason and played well against the run. He led the team in tackles in August with 17, and on multiple occasions he burst past the line and tackled the back for no gain.
There is a lot to like about Hyde’s game, but how will he factor in the Packers’ secondary this season with so much depth at cornerback?
That’s the question that only the regular season can answer. For now, Hyde will replace Hayward, but I’m not sure how much playing time the fifth-round pick will get once Hayward returns. Hyde might have to make his presence felt on special teams as a gunner, reserve punt returner, and on kickoff coverage.
At least the Packers know they have a quality young player if the cornerback position is stricken with injuries this season.
The remaining five rookies on defense will play largely reserve roles this season. Some of them may even find it difficult to consistently make the Packers’ 46-man game day roster.
Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer both beat out second-year favorite Dezman Moses for a roster spot. They both offer some young depth at outside linebacker and could come on the field as additional pass rushers in certain defensive packages. Palmer tied for the team lead with two sacks in the preseason and Mulumba also showed some pass rush ability before missing time with an injury. However, both players are still raw at this point as they make the transition from college defensive end to NFL linebacker.
If either Matthews or Nick Perry miss time this season because of an injury, then Mulumba and Palmer may have a rough time being every-down linebackers where they’ll be asked to hold up against the run and drop back in coverage.
On defense, the Packers also have fifth-round pick Josh Boyd and seventh-round pick Sam Barrington. Both players flashed some potential during the preseason. Barrington made more of an impression with his play on the field and could factor in this season on special teams.
Boyd will most likely be inactive for a majority of the games this season. He seems to be the team’s seventh or eighth defensive lineman on the depth chart, and the Packers will probably activate Johnny Jolly over Boyd on game day. Boyd made the 53-man roster more for his potential down the road than what he could contribute this season.
Finally, the last defensive rookie to discuss is surprise preseason standout, Chris Banjo. The undrafted safety really made a splash on defense this preseason.He finished second on the team in tackles with 13 and will provide some depth at safety this season. Like Barrington, Banjo is the last line of defense at his position, so he probably won’t see the field unless there is a significant amount of injuries or if he becomes a key special teams contributor.
Yesterday, we discussed the Packers offensive rookies, and now we went over the defensive rookies. So what do you think Packers Nation? What should we expect from the rookies this season?