Year 1 of the Smith Bros. proved to be worth the money spent. Can the pair elevate the Packers defense into the top 10 hemisphere in Year 2?
On the first day of 2019 free agency, the Green Bay Packers changed the outlook of their pedestrian defense. Within hours of free agency opening, the Packers signed Za’Darius Smith, Adrian Amos and then Preston Smith to lucrative deals.
GM Brian Gutekunst didn’t stop there. Armed with two first-round picks, Gutekunst drafted an edge rusher, Rashan Gary, with raw talent but in need of some time to develop, and a safety, Darnell Savage, with the skill set the Packers haven’t seen since the retirement of Nick Collins.
In one offseason, Gutekunst turned a consistently underperforming unit into the strength of the team. And they needed to be. The Packers’ early-season struggles were expected with a new head coach bringing in a new offense.
The influx of new free agents combined with key players already on the roster — Kenny Clark, Jaire Alexander, Kevin King, Dean Lowry and Tramon Williams — gave the Packers the most talent they had on the defensive end in some time.
The pass rush was fierce and the Packers were the only team to have two players with double-digit sacks.
The defense was the deciding factor in the early season as the offense struggled to keep any momentum. Preston and Za’Darius Smith produced timely sacks and helped the team close out a number of close games.
Things weren’t all sunshine and rainbows though as the defense really struggled against the run. Even in wins, the Packers were still giving up well over 100 yards on the ground. As long as the team kept winning, it didn’t matter.
Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine didn’t seem to mind and even said pass rush would be the defense’s calling card. That philosophy came to a bitter end as the San Francisco 49ers rolled over the Packers not once, but twice with the second coming in the NFC Championship game.
The defense gave up nearly 400 yards rushing in those two games alone.
There weren’t many excuses as the team stood up said they knew where they made mistakes, owned up to their faults, and have vowed to be better.
I for one believe them and have a lot of confidence in that unit for the 2020 season. I also feel they can become a top-10 defense.
For starters, this will be year two in Mike Pettine’s system for a majority of the defense, and year three for some others. The unit will only have two new starters. And one of the new additions, Christian Kirksey, has previous experience in Pettine’s system.
The way this year has turned out, continuity will be huge for every team.
The good news for the Packers is the two holes that are open are probably the most devalued on the defense, inside linebacker. The NFL has turned into a passing league and the days of big-tackling middle linebackers is gone.
If Kirksey can stay healthy, he should be an upgrade from Blake Martinez. Kirksey has better speed and coverage ability to give the Packers something Martinez never could.
Also, coming on strong is the Packers’ fifth-round pick Kamal Martin. Martin is only one of six players in the Big Ten since 2000 to register three interceptions, three forced fumbles, and three sacks.
Think about some of the linebacker talent that has come from the Big Ten during that time. Chris Borland, Devin Bush, and James Laurinaitis to name a few. That is big-time production in a big-time conference.
If Martin can compete as well as the aforementioned players, the Packers will have found a diamond in the late rounds.
The defense also has an abundance of talent in two key areas, edge rusher and the secondary.
The team still has its two key free agents from last year on the edge in Za’Darius and Preston Smith. The pass rush will also get a boost from its first-round pick from a year ago, Rashan Gary, set to play a larger role.
The Packers also hope Montravius Adams or Kingsley Keke can give a boost alongside Kenny Clark, and Dean Lowry to collapse the pocket and into the arms of the payers on the edge. Either way, the team will be able to send at least two Pro Bowlers and one first-round pick after the quarterback.
In the secondary, the team has two first-round picks, a high-priced free agent, and two second-round picks to cover receivers.
Jaire Alexander is ready to become a star. I feel the Packers have the next great cornerback in Alexander and we will see that come to fruition this season. Pairing him a healthy Kevin King gives the Packers their best cornerback combo since 2010 with Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson.
At safety, the team has a first-round pick with blazing speed and great instincts, Darnell Savage, alongside a steady veteran, Adrian Amos. Both players are capable of making big plays as well as being difference-makers.
The team also has a plethora of talented undrafted free agents and late-round picks chomping at the bit for their chance to shine. Chandon Sullivan looks like he’s ready and willing to fill the void left by Tramon Williams, while Packers seventh-round pick Vernon Scott is making a push for playing time. Raven Greene is also ready to regain the role on defense he had before an injury sent him to IR last season.
As you can see, the Packers have the talent in place necessary to make the jump. Putting it all together will be the key for Mike Pettine and head coach Matt LaFleur.
It’s conceivable the offense could struggle again. With a tougher schedule, the team may need the defense to come through in bigger ways than in the past.
Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Deshaun Watson, Matthew Stafford, Kirk Cousins, Matt Ryan, and Philip Rivers are all on the schedule. So this defense will get tested early and often.
If the defense can rise up and reach its potential, it will go along way for this Packers team to repeat the success they had in 2019.
If they can reach top-10 status with those opponents on the field, this could very well be a Super Bowl team.