Defensive Players on the Rise in 2017

Analyzing which defensive players are going to up their game in 2017. 

Welcome to part two of “On The Rise” in which I project players to make a big jump in their production on the field from 2016 to 2017. The offense was posted on Sunday. Today, I present to you the defense. No surprise here, but the list is longer. Wishful thinking on my part?

The Packers’ defense finished the 2016 season ranked 22nd overall in terms of yards, 21st in scoring, 31st against the pass and 8th against the run.

We know how the season came to an end. And we not only celebrated Rodgers’ fourth quarter heroics against the Cowboys in the divisional round of the playoffs, but breathed a sigh of relief the defense did not have to go back out on the field.

There were positives at times, but overall the defense has been about as reliable as a county government’s promise that road construction delays will be over in a week.

Hopefully, improved performance from the following defensive players will revitalize the Packers' defense in 2017

Let’s start with a linebacker that I believe in, Blake Martinez. Blake Martinez’s knee injury really cut into his playing time the second half of the season, but the first half revealed his potential.

Impressively, Blake Martinez, even as a rookie, was chosen to wear the helmet headset for the defense to get the play calls from coordinator Dom Capers. This demonstrates maturity and a grasp of the defense.

Before the injury, Blake Martinez was a three-down player. He fared better against the run than the pass. Overall, his Pro Football Focus score was a subpar 50. I double-checked to make sure I wasn’t looking at his jersey number. I think comparisons are important, as I did with Geronimo Allison. Paul Posluszny of the Jacksonville Jaguars finished the 2016 season fourth in the PFF inside linebacker rankings with a score of 88, whereas he received a 53 his rookie season. Nigel Bradham of the Philadelphia Eagles ranked among the top 10 inside linebackers this season and received a PFF score of 55 as a rookie.

However, many of today’s best inside linebackers made immediate impacts their rookie season. The question for Martinez will be if his intellect can allow him to play faster and not get beat as often in the passing game this upcoming season.  

I think Martinez can consistently be the tough, beloved and bloody-nosed inside linebacker in 2017 that we saw spurts of in 2016.

Let’s turn our attention now to the defensive line. I chose Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry as two guys I think are on the rise.

Kenny Clark came on especially strong later in the year and overall showed the ability to take on double-teams against the run and also to generate interior pass rush at times. In particular, some of the plays he made in the playoffs against the vaunted Cowboys offensive line showed his true promise.

Clark finished as PFF’s 36th ranked interior defender. Not too bad for a rookie with relatively limited opportunities playing in a scheme that frequently uses just two defensive linemen.

Incredibly, Clark was just 20 years old when the Packers drafted him. He turns 22 this year in October. He has the time to grow, and the Packers have the patience, though I don’t think they’ll have to be too patient to get a return on this first round investment.

One of my personal favorites from the 2016 draft class is Dean Lowry. Lowry is a fourth round pick who essentially matched Kenny Clark in terms of his PFF rating, though not quite in the production. Lowry got significantly more playing time beginning in Week 13 and I believe this correlated to his increasing knowledge of the defense.

Lowry showed the propensity for high-motor hustle. He had a sack each against the Seattle Seahawks and Houston Texans in back to back weeks. He performed about equally against the run as he did in pass rush situations. He has a big body frame and big potential. Look for the defensive line as a whole to be a strength next season.  

Before I even mention the secondary, I want to say I know this is a hot button area that personally I’d rather avoid in the interest of helping all the great people in the comments section get along. I don’t want it to turn into an awkward Thanksgiving dinner argument between the idealistic college freshman visiting home and their conservative uncle.

That being said, let’s rip this band aid off and turn our attention to Damarious Randall, Ladarius Gunter and Quentin Rollins. That’s right, all of them. I will do my best to project who has the brightest 2017 season ahead of them.

I cannot bring myself, as hopeful as I am, to say all three of these guys will make a big jump next year, if at all. I think based on the law of averages, at least one has a bright future in front them, and hopefully two (Though this group reminded us all a lot more of Murphy’s Law in 2016). Knowing that I may get ripped on for taking a stand on a touchy subject, I present to you the art of riding the fence (Kidding. I have opinions).

I still like Damarious Randall’s chances of becoming a really good player. I say this banking on the fact that if he can avoid injury, he has displayed some really incredible play-making ability his first two seasons. Look at his interception and return against the Raiders in Week 15 of his rookie year. The interception of Russell Wilson in Week 14 this past season is a good example too.

On the other hand, he displayed what looked like a complete lack of desire at times this year to stick his nose in there and make a hit or a tackle.

He seemed to be free-lancing at times. Comedy clubs are a much better place to watch improv. I prefer not to see it in the Packers’ secondary.

I know it will sting, so reader discretion is advised for the following line.

We also remember Randall’s blown coverage in overtime against the Cardinals in the 2015 playoffs that allowed the huge play to Larry Fitzgerald and set up the season-ending touchdown.

I am hoping, and I believe it is possible, Randall wakes up mentally and heals up physically. I think he will be tougher when he’s healthier. I cannot call Damarious Randall a first round bust – not yet, at least. In fact, I think he will be on the rise in 2017.

I do not think we will see a huge jump out of Ladarius Gunter, but I think he can be a nice role player. He was dealt an unfair hand this season having to play one-on-one with the league’s top receivers. I think if he can play against teams’ second and third receivers, it will feel like a jump in his performance.

I think Gunter is ultimately limited in terms of his physical talents, particularly his lack of speed. However, his length and physicality make him an asset in the secondary moving forward.

I personally have the most doubts about Quentin Rollins. Don’t get me wrong, I am very hopeful. I think the main point in his favor is he was primarily a basketball player in college. His lack of years in the game of football suggest he could have a lot of room for improvement still.

However, Rollins has spent most of his time going against teams’ second, third and even fourth receivers and has still looked pretty bad a lot of the time. At least Gunter was getting abused by top-tier talent (Not that it makes it easier to watch). Again, I am hopeful for Rollins, but right now it’s hard for me to see a big jump in 2017 from him.

Finally, let’s look at one more player that I really enjoy watching and believe can make a big jump next season, Kentrell Brice. Brice is intriguing for the obvious reason that the guy lays down some jarring hits. I want a guy like that at every level of the Packers defense. He might mess up an assignment, but at least there’s a good chance someone with the other jersey on is getting their clock cleaned in the process.

Despite his penchant for delivering a big hit, according to PFF Brice was actually better in coverage than in run defense. He also played more than three times as many coverage snaps than run snaps, coming in on the dime unit.

As Morgan Burnett plays close to the line of scrimmage more often, including at linebacker, Brice can potentially develop into his replacement in the back end. I think Brice has the right attitude, and can combine a full offseason in Capers’ defense with his punishing style to become an asset for the Packers.

So, what about you? Who on the defense do you see making a big jump for the Packers in 2017? 

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Comments (7)

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packerbackerjim's picture

February 21, 2017 at 06:56 pm

A very good article, Kevin. I especially liked your take on Brice, though I am concerned about his long term durability. Poor angles, oversized cushions, and poor tackling left me quite disappointed in the Other CBs. I am unconvinced they will make the leap, and hope the plan is something different than hope.

Martinez has the Stanford Smarts and I hope his physical abilities will allow him to excel.Likewise I think Lowry also
Shows great potential. I hope the coaching staff will help him realize it.

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Oppy's picture

February 21, 2017 at 11:49 pm

Brian Price makes the 53. He's a handful. Keep an eye out.

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Razer's picture

February 22, 2017 at 11:04 am

I hope that you are right, we need another disruptive big body. I can't say, that when I looked at his college stats, I got very excited. What makes you high on this guy?

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Oppy's picture

February 25, 2017 at 08:35 pm

I don't know if you'll ever see this, sorry for such a long response time.

What makes me high on Price is simple. Watching him compete on the field.

My first day at training camp last season he caught my eye immediately. I had no idea who he was. He completely blew up his blocker in full line drill.

I kept watching. Throughout the day, he kept making plays. He was nearly unblockable at times.

I kept an eye out for him during preseason games. He'd take his lumps, sure. But at times, just an absolute beast.

Physically explosive and hard to contain, also seems to play through the whistle.

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croatpackfan's picture

February 22, 2017 at 03:45 am

As I complimented your previous article, I also bow to this...
I agree with you regarding secondary. I think lot of people here will be surprised. Why? Because, the most important physical ability for the CB is how he use his hips. And, when you injure that part of the body, you have to gave lot of space to WR to be able to cover him. Because you are not able to change direction successfully. That is why we saw Randall playing far away from opponent WR. But, he was must to play. They did not have anybody alse...
All other expectation are what most of us expect...

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Turophile's picture

February 22, 2017 at 01:48 pm

I will be very interested to see how Kyler Fackrell does next year. I think the Packers will need help at OLB and a fast 6'5" guy (with 33" arms), has tools that can help. Interestingly (given the probably incorrect rumour of Packer interest in the vet) he was compared in to......Connor Barwin.

Players this tall and this athletic are rare. I think with more playing time he can be disruptive. He has had his year in the system, to get more comfortable with the playbook and build more lower body strength. He has the tools to shine, and his potential upside might make him the biggest improver on the D, in 2017.

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Razer's picture

February 22, 2017 at 10:46 am

I am optimistic about our D-line trench guys. We need one more monster in the rotation and our line will stack-up to anyone.

I am cautiously optimistic about our linebackers. Martinez, Ryan and Joe Thomas may be able to do the job. Add Frackell to the mix and we have potential for improvement.

I'm going to have to take your word on the secondary because I am worried. Unless we get great pass rush, our secondary will need to play MUCH, MUCH better and I don't see that from this group. If one of these guys was a stud that could cut the field in half and take on the best WR, we would be in better shape. With this group, I think we are lucky to get 2 out of 3 that could be average corners.

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