Packers Defense Counting on Young Veterans?

The 2016 edition of the Green Bay Packers defense is not one that will be etched into the minds of the public for years to come, except, possibly, for how awful they looked at times. You can point to injuries or argue that the run defense really wasn’t all that bad, but the fact remains the defensive unit as a whole was not near a caliber requisite of a Super Bowl champion.

As such, much of the focus so far this offseason has been on how Green Bay can and/or will improve on the defensive side of the ball. To this point, the Packers have made exactly one “new” addition to their defense: cornerback Davon House, who spent the first four years of his career in Green Bay before getting paid, and eventually benched, in Jacksonville. The Packers have made three other defensive moves in free agency, all re-signings: Nick Perry, Jayrone Elliott and Jordan Tripp. While there certainly is still time and opportunity to strike new deals along the way, the moves that have been made would suggest the Packers want to fix their defensive problems with their own guys.

How does a defensive unit that was torn to shreds both by injury and by opposing offenses last season improve without bringing in players from the outside? Drafting well is one answer, and the Packers no doubt will make defense a priority when it comes time to make their selections. But, assuming you don’t find two or three rookies whose impact is not only meaningful but also immediate, you’re counting on the players you already know to simply get better.

Obviously, the basic tenet of a draft and develop philosophy is the belief that the players you bring into your program will steadily improve within the parameters of whatever scheme or system you employ. In that sense, it’s not exactly groundbreaking to hope your homegrown guys will take a positive step each season; in fact, it’s an expectation.

In the Packers’ case, that expectation needs to become reality in 2017, and the onus is on the team’s young veterans to close the gap between what the defense was last season and what it wants to be.

Of the 28 defensive players currently under contract with the team, 22 are age 26 or younger. Youth is coveted in today’s NFL, and the Packers certainly have it. What it also gives them is a lot of room for improvement.

On the defensive line, 21-year old Kenny Clark will undoubtedly face the most pressure to improve on an impressive rookie season. Fellow 2016 draftee Dean Lowry showed promise at times but has a long way to go to prove he’s more than a depth guy.

In the linebacking corps, Green Bay will lean on Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez, who are entering their third and second years, respectively. Like Clark, these two will likely be counted on not just to take a step, but to make significant contributions to the defense. Meanwhile, players like Tripp, Joe Thomas, Kyler Fackrell will be asked to do more as well, not to mention dark horse candidate Reggie Gilbert.

The defensive backfield offers an interesting combination of stability and chaos. Green Bay’s starting safeties are all but set in stone, but guys like Kentrell Brice and Marwin Evans will need to be more dependable when called upon in sub packages or due to injury. The addition of the 27-year old House to the cornerback group adds experience, but the Packers’ young corners seemingly nowhere to go but up. Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins and LaDarius Gunter will all be looking to bounce back from sophomore slumps. Josh Hawkins, Makinton Dorleant and Herb Waters will all likely see more time on special teams than defense, but they’d all do well to take advantage of those opportunities.

Obviously, the roster is nowhere near set in stone, and we’ll have to wait until after the draft to make better predictions on how things will shake out. Even so, the Packers will be counting on a lot of familiar faces to put better reps on tape next year. If their young players can’t improve within the system, the results might not be much better than they were in 2016.

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Comments (38)

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Colin_C's picture

March 22, 2017 at 01:07 pm

Call it optimisim, or foolishness, but I think our defense will be markedly improved. I think House will be far better than expected, Randall will bounce back, and the new LB coach from Illinois will get much more production from that group. Not to mention multiple draft picks, of which at least 2 can hopefully be starters. I very well could be wrong, but I'm not condemning this D before they even set foot on the field.

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Ryan Graham's picture

March 22, 2017 at 02:45 pm

I'm with you Colin. The 2nd now 3rd year corners got some serious on the job training last year. House is no team savior, but to bring that man coverage presence back on this team and to relieve those young guys of all the pressure they were forced last year, and ideally they will be more healthy...they will greatly improve this year I believe.

I hope you're right about that new Illinois coach, I haven't seen intensity in any linebackers consistently since Kevin Greene retired. That said I do like the immediate production I've seen as first and 2nd year guys from Ryan and Martinez.

I very much believe in Clark and Lowry to jump, and even Fackrell to improve after having a full offseason to get some girth to him. Don't sleep on Reggie Gilbert to be a nice role player either at that elephant position...not that the defense has been all that impressive yet since the turn of the century even, this could be one of the better ones yet if health is on our side for once.

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canadapacker's picture

March 23, 2017 at 09:59 pm

I also think that if the Linebackers can get to the point where they can get to the other teams QB a lot more regularly, the DBacks will have a bigger chance to get more picks. They played due to injury in too many deep off coverages leaving the middle wide open and that was due to the lack of pressure and not bringing enough pressure. Some due to Matthews injury/off year and Peppers slowing down. If Clark and Lowry and now Francois and company can start to dominate the line along with big Mike D, the backfield can start to play the way they did in the game against Seattle and the Giants. Especially if the Offense eats up the clock like they did the last part of the year

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Packer_Pete's picture

March 22, 2017 at 03:55 pm

Love your optimism. which I had it. but I am not condemning this D yet either. A lot can happen in the draft and/or free agency still. I do hope you are right, but if I had to take a guess, I think Rollins will do better than Randall. not sold on Randall at all. But we all shall see.

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PackEyedOptimist's picture

March 22, 2017 at 04:22 pm

I agree, Colin. As a fan, it's impossible to know what the coaches have seen during practices. We fans know that Jayrone is an incredible athlete who has made some splash plays, but he hasn't had a lot of defensive snaps. Maybe the coaches saw great improvement from him in practices last year, but with Peppers and Jones in front of him, they chose to not give him reps. Maybe this year we get to see something we weren't ABLE to see last year, because we don't get to see the practices. This is true for all of those second-string and practice squad players. We barely get to see the young guys during the pre-season, and many of them develop by leaps and bounds over their first three years. Additionally, several of the young players merely needed more strength/weight to become much more effective players. Maybe Fackrell, Lowry, etc. made that jump during this off season, and the coaches have seen it in the weight room, but again WE FANS don't get to see the increases being made in the training rooms. Finally, the Packers have several young guys who are fairly new to their positions; it takes a couple of years to really get in the groove in any profession (or hobby, for that matter). Maybe the muscle memory and mental aspects are just getting there for Rollins, and even Randall, who still looked like he was playing safety instead of CB last year. Maybe the coaches have seen evidence of that growth.

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

March 23, 2017 at 01:46 am

"the new LB coach from Illinois will get much more production from that group."

What does Winston Moss do?

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Tarynfor12's picture

March 22, 2017 at 01:12 pm

Draft and Develop success, imo, is based on the team being able to resign at least 3 players in each draft of the 7 and more at times to second contracts via true growth and on field play...not because you don't have a choice...which has been the downside of the Packers program via the failure of too many selections these last few years.
This team has a few that may begin a turning around of this fiasco of late, but these must have significant increase in earned snaps...Clark, Lowery, Randall, Rollins and Fackrell. Putting this thought on second/third year guys comes not from a belief that they're all previously expected to, but rather because they are the last of who can allow boast of a rejuvenation of a Draft and Develop Program instead of an extinction of one much previously heralded.
A collapse of these players to any real concern just may put a nail in any SB hopes for a number of years we may not be able to afford, regardless of having Rodgers, as has been the case for 6 years and counting.

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Razer's picture

March 22, 2017 at 01:27 pm

...Draft and Develop success, imo, is based on the team being able to resign at least 3 players in each draft of the 7 and more at times to second contracts... the downside of the Packers program via the failure of too many selections these last few years...

Very true. The Packers have missed or miscast too many picks these last years. While I am not going to cry about some of the departures from this defense, I am not overjoyed with the ready-to-go-talent that remains. We are going to need two play-ready studs from this year's draft to get better than the average defenses of recent times. Tall order for a team picking at the bottom and one extra 5th round pick.

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Matt Gonzales's picture

March 22, 2017 at 03:38 pm

Continuity is great, but if the players play themselves out of a second contract (role players who sign to be elsewhere otherwise) that is a success, not a failure. It means we should have enough confidence in the next round of young guys to step up and we will get more young guys via comp picks to restock the shelves.

You can't lump players that outplay their role and guys that don't live up to their draft billing together.

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Tarynfor12's picture

March 22, 2017 at 04:18 pm

Who has outplayed their role and went elsewhere in FA and proved they were better than when in GB?
Who, other than Nelson, Rodgers, Daniels, Lang, Sitton, Matthews that signed 2nd deals/extention of rookie contract and lived up to them over the last 6 seasons?
Please leave Perry out as he hasn't proven himself completely by any means and he falls into the have no choice category at this time.

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Matt Gonzales's picture

March 22, 2017 at 09:31 pm

Think you missed the point. If we have a role players that signs to a "starter" contract elsewhere, who cares HOW they play? We get the comp picks.

Your second contract benchmark is your arbitrary mark, though I'd be curious to know how how that rate (1-2 per year) compare to the rest of the leave.

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

March 23, 2017 at 02:47 am

2/1 2005: AR, Collins (Propinga got signed away).
3/2 2006: Hawk, Jennings, Jolly (Colledge, Spitz - Blackmon, Moll)
3/2 2007: JJones, Bishop, Crosby (Barbre - Clark Harris LS)
3/2 2008: Nelson, Sitton, Finley (Flynn -Giacomini)
4/2 2009: Raji, CM3, Lang, B Jones (Meredith, Wynn)
4/2 2010: Bulaga, Burnett, Starks, Quarless (Wilson, Newhouse)
1/2 2011: Cobb (House, Lawrence Guy)
2/1 2012: Perry, Daniels (Hayward)
1/4 2013: Bakh (Lacy, Jones, Tretter, Hyde - Palmer, Johnson Barrington)

Comp picks: 13 (1.44/yr) 2005 to 2014
Comp picks; 18 (1.50/yr) 2005 to 2017

#of players GB re-signed;
# of players who got signed for decent $ - still played

Ave. # 2.55/yr players got a 2nd contract from GB.
1.625/yr players whose 2nd contracts yielded a comp pick.

I start with the 2009 draft year on comp picks because TT had drafts in 2005, 06, 07 and 08. In 2009, he is re-signing or letting guys walk that he drafted. Someone should check my memory on this since I'm not sure about whether say Wynn's initial contract after leaving GB was big enough to yield a comp pick, for example. Just guessing going on memory.

*Clark Harris in 2008 was a LS. We released him, and he has played 16 games every year in the NFL - a nice 10 year career as a LS and still going.

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worztik's picture

March 22, 2017 at 04:08 pm

IMO, draft & develop only works when a player meets his drafted "potential"! I have been unimpressed with too many of TT's 1st round picks going back to Hawk, Sherrod and Harrell! In these cases we've either overpaid in the second contract or kept players, like Carl Bradford, too long. If they can't play, suck it up and move on; there are many 3rd string and practice squad players there for the signing! We sign too many players to be special teams players exclusively, IMO, where we should be signing position players that can play special teams!!!

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worztik's picture

March 22, 2017 at 04:08 pm

IMO, draft & develop only works when a player meets his drafted "potential"! I have been unimpressed with too many of TT's 1st round picks going back to Hawk, Sherrod and Harrell! In these cases we've either overpaid in the second contract or kept players, like Carl Bradford, too long. If they can't play, suck it up and move on; there are many 3rd string and practice squad players there for the signing! We sign too many players to be special teams players exclusively, IMO, where we should be signing position players that can play special teams!!!

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Ferrari Driver's picture

March 22, 2017 at 04:10 pm

Draft and develop is a good philosophy and the Packers have done a remarkable job over the years.

Especially considering they draft in the bottom 1/4 of the league year after year and get to see the projected superstars like JJ Watt, E. Elliott, and others get plucked off before their eyes.

Thompson having both the good fortune and the wherewithal to grab Aaron Rodgers in 2005 was a God Send and helped to keep this team near the top for well over two decades.

I too am a glass half full kind of a guy and both hope and expect the Packers to be competing in the playoffs again this year for a spot in the Super Bowl.

All of us have been spoiled over the years; but it's good to be spoiled.

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Matt Gonzales's picture

March 22, 2017 at 09:01 pm

This can't be overlooked. Every other NFC Superbowl team had some SERIOUS down years and spent several years at the top of the draft. For the league as a whole the Packers, Steelers, Seahawks, and Patriots are the only teams who have been consistently picking at the bottom of the draft and who are consistently considered Superbowl favorites. Not terrible company.

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UmpireMark's picture

March 22, 2017 at 04:43 pm

There is the option to trade up from the bottom 1/4 of the draft and take a needed impact player.

That rule does exist in the NFL.

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Matt Gonzales's picture

March 22, 2017 at 05:45 pm

Wait, the Packers have NEVER traded up?

Mortgaging current or future or future draft classes is not sustainable as a regular practice.

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UmpireMark's picture

March 22, 2017 at 09:56 pm

No, I'm not saying that WE need to trade up in any draft, merely responding to someone who stated we're stuck in the bottom quarter of the draft, because of our winning records. No one is "stuck" in their draft position.

Like flyers in FA or signing your own FA's, there are options to the lot you're dealt.

At what cost? That's the risk...

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croatpackfan's picture

March 23, 2017 at 03:49 am

So if you are GM of team that have pick up to first 10, what would you ask for that pick? I read somewhere (sorry, can't remember where) that to go from bottom up to 10th draft pick would cost you 1st, 2nd and 3rd draft pick of the draft. Or 1st & 3rd pick of this year draft plus 1st pick of next year draft.
You think that is good? You actually gert one top talent player and you are on the board for the, lets say 120th talented player from the draft.
Or, you may have troubled year and find yourself next draft as top 10 team, but you already sold 1st pick for this year...
Very, very expensive!

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fthisJack's picture

March 23, 2017 at 08:36 am

noo...when your picking in the 20"s you are pretty much stuck there unless you want to throw away the rest of your draft picks to get in the top 10. that is a losing strategy IMO.

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fthisJack's picture

March 23, 2017 at 08:37 am

you're

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Tarynfor12's picture

March 22, 2017 at 04:47 pm

Let's remember that odds of picking in the last 6 spots of the draft for each of these teams to a larger extent is the near guaranteed 5 division wins each have been near automatic to be given.

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Matt Gonzales's picture

March 22, 2017 at 06:01 pm

Wait, so by your reasoning picking on the bottom of the order guarantees wins. How did that work for the 2016 Cardinals and Panthers? 2011 falcons? The Browns... Ever???

You cannot correlate draft order to division wins - they are what a 7th grade science class would call uncontrolled variables. It was sunny and warm before my last tornado - does that mean one causes the other?

The CBA, draft, and FA are built to prevent the run of success the Packers and NE have had. Sorry we haven't had more SB appearances but our conference has more parity and more rounded divisions than NE.

Every year the Packers make the playoffs they are beating longer and longer odds, as inverse draft was made to discourage the kind of run we've had.

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Tarynfor12's picture

March 22, 2017 at 06:49 pm

Uncontrolled variables. ....
Exactly, Thank God the Bears Vikings and Lions can control their variables and we extract the benefit of bad draft spots because of it.

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Matt Gonzales's picture

March 22, 2017 at 08:38 pm

Each team in the division has been to the playoffs at least once since our SB run. We always have a dumpster fire but the NFC North is not a cakewalk. It has produced 2 playoff teams every year save 1 since 2010.

This is what I mean by parity in the NFC. Look at the NFC West. Yes, SF is a joke now but they recently had a strong multi-year run, along with the Seahawks and the briefer run of the Cardinals. East has NYG, who is great at both absorbing insults and clutch SB wins (and was recently used as an example of "success in free agency" on this forum), along with an ascending Dallas and a PHI team that is maybe a year or two away from being legitimately relevant. South has the last two NFL MVPs, as well as Tampa Bay, who could be the next NFC breakout team.

There is truly NO other team in our conference that has had sustained success (other than maybe SEA, but they're starting to fall off hard). Hate all you want but nobody here would truly be satisfied with the route every other NFC team has taken to the Superbowl recently (2-3 terrible years followed by brief success, and then a sharp decline).

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

March 23, 2017 at 03:11 am

"The CBA, draft, and FA are built to prevent the run of success the Packers and NE have had." That is excellent, correct and concise.

"Sorry we haven't had more SB appearances but our conference has more parity and more rounded divisions than NE." I don't agree that this is the reason for our lack of SB appearances, but it is a big factor for what TT and MM are touted the most: winning the division and playoff appearances. The 2nd biggest factor is snagging the best player at the most important position and keeping that player. That is what NE and GB have in common. The third biggest factor, and something else we share with NE, is reasonably better drafting than average given the disadvantage of drafting later in each round.

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Since '61's picture

March 22, 2017 at 07:55 pm

Thorough planning requires that you plan for the worst case scenario. At this point in the off-season the Packers have yet to do so for their 2017 defense. Once again it appears that we will over rely on young players to make their respective leaps. The problem with this approach is that only some or none of the players will make their leaps. What if Randall, Rollins, Ryan and Martinez do not improve? What if Perry returns to his injured, inconsistent self now that he's been paid? Where are the experienced players and defensive leaders to pick up the younger players? Who will step in if we endure yet another injury plague? Our 8 draft picks? We don't even know if they will all make the team. More UDFAs? Once again, as of today, our plan for the defense looks like hope for our young players to make their leaps. Hope is not a plan. By September we'll know if we have more than hope as a plan for the defense. Thanks, Since '61

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Matt Gonzales's picture

March 22, 2017 at 08:49 pm

The worst case scenario is our franchise QB goes down. Where is our backup franchise QB? How could we be so short sighted?

This logic makes no sense - players can't develop unless they're starting as practice and TC restrictions don't leave you much time after your first team gets their reps. Also, older players get hurt too (it actually happens more often as players' bodies break down).

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

March 23, 2017 at 03:56 am

I'm not against reductio ad absurdam arguments, but I think in this case it fails. You took the one position that most would agree requires your starter to play in order to win games and used that example. Sorry, by and large, if one's starting QB goes down, the team is done. The only time the team isn't done is if it doesn't rely on its offense and instead has a dominant defense. In a cap world where even 3rd tier QBs earn $15M per year, it is not possible to have a capable veteran backing up the starting QB. The only way is to have a QB on a rookie contract (the starter can be the rookie or vice versa - see Prescott/Romo for an example) - even then no team with a good veteran starter is going to invest a high pick on that rookie, so pretty much the rookie will be unproven.

But a team can have utility players who don't cripple the offense or defense if the starter goes down. DBs like Hyde, or a utility OL who plays multiple positions, a veteran OLB like Datone or Peppers. You might have noticed that with regard to the defense, in some areas we are talking about finding mediocre starters, not just capable back-ups. Instead of grappling with Since '61's argument, you took the cheap shot. Not impressive.

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LAS VEGAS-TOM's picture

March 22, 2017 at 09:50 pm

Since 61, I agree with you 100%. You didn't go far enough. GB hasn't done so in the last 5 years, much less 2017. If we could have got just 1 Playmaker each of the last 4 or 5 yr's, what a difference that would have made. My memory isn't the Greatest, but I don't think we got any. As far as Trading up goes, there are some here who think that would destroy the whole draft. What's the difference between #30 & # 100. If I were AR, the next time he get's a chance, I'd Break The Bank. At some point fairly soon, the guy in charge at GB should realize something isn't working. I know, as I've been told, he already knows that. That brings me back to your post. Once again GB will rely on an All-Star QB to carry the load, & hope that much of our Defense will play better than they are capable of playing. Not sure my agreeing with you will do you any good, but what you've said is absolutely correct.
LVT

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LAS VEGAS-TOM's picture

March 22, 2017 at 09:51 pm

Since 61, I agree with you 100%. You didn't go far enough. GB hasn't done so in the last 5 years, much less 2017. If we could have got just 1 Playmaker each of the last 4 or 5 yr's, what a difference that would have made. My memory isn't the Greatest, but I don't think we got any. As far as Trading up goes, there are some here who think that would destroy the whole draft. What's the difference between #30 & # 100. If I were AR, the next time he get's a chance, I'd Break The Bank. At some point fairly soon, the guy in charge at GB should realize something isn't working. I know, as I've been told, he already knows that. That brings me back to your post. Once again GB will rely on an All-Star QB to carry the load, & hope that much of our Defense will play better than they are capable of playing. Not sure my agreeing with you will do you any good, but what you've said is absolutely correct.
LVT

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

March 23, 2017 at 05:08 am

I agree with your point, with the provisos that the worst of worst case scenarios can't be adequately planned for, and not all of your worst case scenarios can have a decent back up plan. As to the defense (starters need/followed by # of leaps necessary to be a NFL average to good group in parenthesis):

ILB: (0/1) Not too bad. 3 sort of decent starters, plus CM3 available. Could use a leap from at least one of them, or health. Can get by with this group.

DL: (0/1) Not too bad. Daniels, Clark, sort of Guion, Lowry. Guion seems a little iffy, but should be available for the playoffs if he doesn't screw up again. Lowry flashed, and most DL need a year. Daniels needed 2 years. Jean-Francois played 442 snaps last season: he might do. Answer is mid-tier FA, draft, or a leap from Lowry. Need 4 of these guys.

OLB: (1/2) Not good. Perry and CM3. Both injury prone, with some question as to whether CM3 is declining. Fackrell and Elliott. Fackrell did some good things, but needs to add 15 pounds - which we knew. Elliott does not play his assignments, guessing too much, and isn't good against the run. Need a leap and high draft pick, probably 2.

DB: (3/4) Looking at snap counts, I see that 5 and usually 6 DBs earn 650 snaps or more. To me, that means 6 are integral parts of the D, if not technically starters. I, rightly or wrongly, am comfortable with House as a competent #2 CB. Need leaps from at least 2 of Randall, Rollins, Gunter, Hawkins, Dorleant (if he can play in 2017), or a draft pick. Safety could use a back-up safety, so a leap there, too, from Brice or Evans.

That's 5 starters needed and 8 leaps. That's a lot of leaping, and that is to get to a middling defense. For comparison, on O totals 1/4.

The OL needs 1/2: starter at RG and a back up for OC/OG, and OT. 2 leaps or 3 if the back-up OC can't play guard as well. At WR and TE, 0/1. A leap from a boundary receiver as a back-up would be nice. QB is 0/0. FB is 0/0 as Rip and Kerridge look ok. RB is 0/1 as we need back up at least.

We still have the draft. It wouldn't surprise me if TT signed a DL as a depth or rotational guy, or a back-up center, neither of which would break the bank and probably wouldn't affect our comp picks. If TT is waiting out Zach Brown for his price to come down, that at least would be interesting, if a little surprising.

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Since '61's picture

March 23, 2017 at 07:08 am

Reynoldo - very good analysis. We agree that our defense, as it currently stands, will be depending on a significant amount of leaping in 2017. The issue is do we have players who are capable of leaping or have they already leaped as high as they can go?
DL - Clark can leap, not sure about Lowry
OLB - I think Fackrell has some leaping in him, not sure about Elliott
ILB - Maybe Martinez, Ryan is questionable. Remember you can't teach speed
DB- Maybe Rollins, less likely for Randall. Gunther I doubt it. Hawkins, Dorleant, Brice and Evans may not even make the team. Does Banjo return?
We'll see what the draft, UDFAs and additional FA signings bring but as of now we need some help on defense. Thanks, Since '61

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fthisJack's picture

March 23, 2017 at 08:47 am

TT is waiting until after the draft when teams start cutting their high priced/no longer needed players to scoop up a bargain and not have to give up a comp pick.

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

March 23, 2017 at 12:48 pm

FTjack: you could be right. Or he is just looking at street FAs. Either is fine with me.

Since '61: You're a little harsher in your assessments of the youngsters than I am. I like Lowry a lot (been wrong about guys I liked a lot sometimes, though). I think Randall would be okay if moved to the slot, but I haven't given up on him as boundary guy either.

I am figuring that TT comes out of Rds 1-3 with at least 1 CB and 1 OLB, maybe even double dips at one those positions. 2 OLBs would be a good idea, and 2 CBs would not be a bad idea. He needs to find 1 RB. It would be a shame to not come away with a TE in this deep class, but we are set for 2 years at TE. I still think finding a boundary WR (so we can move Nelson to slot) or a slot WR to directly replace Cobb makes a lot of sense in terms of the salary cap. Could use 1 starting OG (of our 4th rounders, Sitton sat 1 year and Lang for 2 - Colledge and Spitz, as the #47 and #75 picks, respectively, started right away), a back-up OC, maybe add talent at ILB.

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LAS VEGAS-TOM's picture

March 22, 2017 at 09:53 pm

No idea why the double post, but I Apologize for it.
LVT

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Savage57's picture

March 23, 2017 at 06:21 am

Packers Defense Counting on Young Veterans?

They better be.

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