The Packers defense has done nothing but improve since Matt LaFleur was hired in 2019. Coming off of back-to-back years where the defense finished 26th and 22nd in the league, the front office fired longtime Super Bowl winning defensive coordinator Dom Capers and hired Mike Pettine to captain the defense. In his two years with the Packers from 2019-2020, Pettine coached the defense to an 18th and 9th overall ranking. Pettine was then fired and replaced with Joe Barry, who repeated the defenses’ 9 overall ranking, but did so without All-Pro cornerback Jaire Alexander and star pass rusher Za’Darius Smith for most of the year. The Packers elected to use their two first round picks in this years’ draft on two defensive players, but were those good picks? Will the defense maintain its top-10 status and be able to carry an offense that could struggle to find its identity? Today we will look at the position groups on the defensive side of the ball and assign a grade.
The Packers defensive line is anchored by perpetually underrated, two-time pro-bowl defensive tackle Kenny Clark. The 2016 first round draft pick set a career high in pressures with 67 and had 43.5 QB hurries last year (sixth among DTs), and is a top-10, borderline top-5 interior defensive lineman in the NFL. Even more impressive is Clark is entering his 6th NFL season and is only 26 years old, three years younger than the DT the Packers recently signed to rush alongside him: Jarran Reed. Reed is a solid pickup for the Packers, posting similar stats to Clark, just without being double teamed as much. Reed also signed a cap-friendly contract, with his one-year, $1.035 million meaning the Packers get a solid number two for almost nothing. Should Reed not perform as desired, the Packers also drafted Devonte Wyatt in the first round of this year’s draft. Wyatt was a dominant interior pass rusher with Georgia, and was an important part of the best defense in college football last year. Wyatt’s elite speed for his size and strength will make for an excellent addition to the Packers defensive line, and learning behind one of the best in the league in Clark will help.The final starter on the Packers defensive line is defensive end Dean Lowry. The 2016 fourth round pick is a far cry from one of the best defensive ends in the league; however his 73.9 pass rush grade is 20 among defensive linemen according to PFF. While Lowry is a solid pass rusher, posting six sacks in 2021, his run defense leaves a lot to be desired, with a 54.3 grade (69 among defensive linemen). Lowry has performed well enough in his career to warrant a second contract with the Packers, and is primed to have another good year, especially with Clark and the edge rushers taking a lot of the pressure off of him.
Linebackers/Edge Rushers: A-
The Packers lost edge rusher Za’Darius Smith in the off-season. A solid pass-rusher for the Packers, Smith posted 26 sacks in two full years with the Packers. Last year he was injured the whole year but returned for the Packers lone playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers, where he posted a single sack. His loss might not hurt as much however, as his injury last year allowed 2019 1st round draft pick Rashan Gary to have a breakout season. Gary posted 9.5 sacks last year and had a whopping 90.1 pass rush grade according to PFF (89.8 overall, both fifth among edge rushers). The former Michigan Wolverine posted a 21.8% best pass-rush win rate, third to only Myles Garrett and DPOY TJ Watt. Gary will continue his dominance next year alongside Preston Smith. P. Smith was almost as dominant on the other side of the field, posting almost identical stats to Gary, P. Smith posted a 12th best 81.5 PFF grade last season, and was better than Gary in stopping the run with a 74.6 grade (14 among edge rushers). P. Smith improved heavily last year after a down year in 2020 and will continue to perform well alongside Gary to give the Packers a top-10 pass-rushing duo next season.A couple yards back, the Packers had one of the best off-ball linebackers in the NFL last season in De’Vondre Campbell. Campbell signed with the Packers in the 2021 offseason and was one of the best off-season signings the Packers have had in a while. Campbell posted a fifth best 102 tackles in 2021 and his 85 overall grade, second only to Micah Parsons according to PFF, earned him an All-Pro nod. After Campbell though, there are some question marks. While Krys Barnes has been an adequate No. two since he signed with the Packers after going undrafted in 2020, the Packers drafted Quay Walker with their first pick in the 2022 draft with hopes of replacing Barnes. Walker was another part of that vaunted Georgia defense last year and is excellent at attacking the line of scrimmage and making the tackle in run situations. In coverage, Walker is an excellent zone coverage linebacker and, paired with Campbell, could give the Packers one of the best linebacking groups in the league. However right now we haven’t seen him play a single down yet so there is no way to tell how good he is just yet.
Defensive Backs: A-
We all know Jaire Alexander is a top-two corner in the NFL, earning All-Rookie team honors in 2018, and Second Team All-Pro and Pro-bowl nods in 2020. One would assume his injury early in the 2021 season would’ve derailed the team’s defensive performance right? Well if it weren’t for the signing of Rasul Douglas in October that may have been the case. Similar to how Campbell is one of the best offseason additions the Packers have had, Douglas is one of the best mid-season acquisitions the Packers have had. Making a name for himself following the Packers week eight win over his former team in the Arizona Cardinals, in which Douglas made the game-winning interception, Douglas would take the role as CB1 and not look back. Douglas would finish the year with 13 pass break-ups and five interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns, giving him a 16th best grade of 74.5 according to PFF. Behind Douglas was rookie speedster corner Eric Stokes who had a solid rookie season with an 11th best 14 PBUs. With Jaire returning to his role as CB1, the Packers have arguably the best trio of cornerbacks in the NFL no matter what role you put any given player in. The depth outside of them is concerning however, with the remaining players being full of unproven guys.Over the top the Packers secondary remains strong, with Strong Safety Adrian Amos and Free Safety Darnell Savage. Signing with the Packers in the 2019 offseason, Amos has been one of the best parts of the secondary behind Alexander. Entering 2022, Adrian Amos is ranked as the 40 best player in the NFL according to PFF, with an average grade of 82.7 over the last five years, giving him an argument for one of the best safeties in the league. Amos will continue to perform at a high level going into the 2022 season. Savage had the worst year of his short career last season and was arguably the weakest part of the Packers secondary in 2021, posting a 57.3 overall grade (72 out of 92). There is reason to believe that this poor season was a fluke, however should he not return to his normal self, the Free Safety position is really weak, with the backup being Colts 2021 5th round draft pick Shawn Davis, who signed with the packers in september of last year.If they can stay healthy and play at their best, the Packers secondary will be one of the best in the league in the 2022 season and it will be tough for any quarterback to throw on them. They matchup well against most of the receiving groups in the NFL and will help the Packers have a top-10 defense next year.