Ranking Current Position Groups on Defense

Earlier this week, I looked at the existing position groups on offense and ranked them based on which units seem the most solidified versus which units need the most work heading into free agency and the draft. This one was a little bit trickier than the offense given the lack of depth at almost every position. It's going to be fun to see what a new defensive coordinator does with these players. You can check out the rankings for offense here, but now let’s get to the defense:

1. Safeties 

Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage are one of the best safety tandems in the NFL. Pro Football Focus rated them the second and 16th respectively out of 93 eligible safeties. In his second year, Savage led the team with four interceptions. Amos had two picks in the regular season and added another in the playoffs. Interestingly, in Amos’ four years with Chicago, he had three picks. Now in his two years with the Packers, he’s already up to four interceptions. 

Behind the starting duo, the Packers drafted Vernon Scott in the seventh round and he impressed in his limited opportunities, finishing the year with one sack and 13 tackles on defense but playing 43% of special teams snaps. Innis Gaines and Henry Black round out the current roster depth. 

Both Will Redmond and Raven Greene are restricted free agents going into 2021, so it’s hard to tell if either or both players will be back in Green Bay. While Greene ended the season on injured reserve, he did play the coveted hybrid linebacker/safety role in (former) defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s defense. Redmond played in 13 games for the Packers, playing 33% of defensive snaps and 55% of special teams snaps. I’d expect the Packers to add a safety on day three of the draft, but if Redmond or Greene come back (or both), the depth is pretty solid behind the starters. 

2. Edge Rushers

I toyed with putting edge rushers at number one, but I think looking solely at the starters, there wasn’t a better unit in 2020 than the safeties, although the depth might be better at edge. The position group is led by Za’Darius Smith who finished the season with double-digit sacks for the second consecutive year, earning him second-team All-Pro and his second Pro Bowl appearance. He ended 2020 with 12.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, and 39 pressures, playing 84% of defensive snaps. 

Preston Smith had a less impactful second year with the team, finishing the year with four sacks after posting 12 in 2019. He had 16 pressures and recovered one fumble for a touchdown, playing 79% of defensive snaps. Second-year edge rusher Rashan Gary emerged late in the season and in the playoffs, finishing the regular season second on the team in sacks (five) with 11 pressures, playing 44% of defensive snaps. Perhaps most impressively, Gary had a missed tackle percentage of only 2.8%. He also added 1.5 sacks and three quarterback hits in the playoffs. 

The Packers carried five outside linebackers for a good chunk of the season, rounding out the group with seventh-round draft pick Jonathan Garvin and Randy Ramsey. Garvin was a healthy scratch for much of the season and Ramsey played primarily on special teams (48% of snaps). There’s good depth at the position though, even with Ramsey’s status as an exclusive restricted free agent. The roster also includes Tipa Galeai who was elevated for game day a few times this season.

The trio of Garvin, Ramsey, and Galeai give the Packers options behind its starters. All three had impressive camps and will have plenty to build off going into another offseason with the team. 

3. Inside Linebackers 

It’s weird that inside linebacker isn’t last on the list. It’s kind of refreshing, right? That’s largely in part due to the promise that undrafted rookie Krys Barnes and fifth-round pick Kamal Martin showed in their first seasons. If veteran Christian Kirksey is back for a second season in Green Bay, that makes the unit even more well-rounded. 

One of the best moves the Packers made defensively this season was making Barnes the Mike linebacker and moving Kirksey to Will. That allowed Kirksey to play to his strengths without needing to be the every-down backer in the middle of the defense. Kirksey finished the season playing in 11 games with two sacks, four passes defensed, two interceptions, and 77 total tackles, playing 53% of defensive snaps. 

Barnes had a strong rookie year and shocked many when he opened the season in Minneapolis opposite Kirksey in the base defense. He ended the year playing in 13 games for the Packers with one sack, one forced fumble, and 80 total tackles. Martin showed a lot of promise in training camp and was looking like he could end up as a starter before he missed the beginning of the season with an injury. He finished the year recording one sack and 24 total tackles with three tackles for loss. His speed was noticeable in the middle of the defense and the way he closed on the ball carrier in the backfield. 

Behind the trio of Kirksey, Barnes, and Martin there are former third-round pick Oren Burks and former seventh-round pick Ty Summers. At this point, it’s difficult to see either sticking with the team beyond potentially serving a role on special teams. Finally, the unit is rounded out by De’Jon Harris and Ray Wilborn, with James Burgess a free agent. 

Whether or not Kirksey is back in 2021, the middle of the defense looks to be ascending in the hands of Barnes and Martin. Summers and Burks could both be rotational defenders with larger roles on special teams, but that might be their ceiling in Green Bay. 

4. Defensive Line

The defensive line needs a lot of help going into next season, but as of right now there are at least more starters on the roster than there are at cornerback, which bumps the d-line to the fourth spot. 

Kenny Clark of course is the premier name at the position, signing a massive contract extension just before the 2020 season began. He battled through an injury early in the season that caused him to miss three games, but he finished the year with two sacks, six quarterback hits, and 12 pressures. He really emerged in the playoffs, though, adding another 2.5 sacks to his total and three quarterback hits. 

Behind Clark, Dean Lowry and Kingsley Keke are the only starters left on the roster. Lowry finished the season with three sacks, four quarterback hits, and 10 pressures, playing 59% of defensive snaps. Keke added four sacks in the regular season (the most by a defensive lineman), with eight quarterback hits and 12 pressures. He played 40% of defensive snaps. 

While Clark, Lowry, and Keke can all get after the quarterback, the defensive line room is lacking run stuffers. Damon “Snacks” Harrison and Billy Winn are both free agents, and Tyler Lancaster is a restricted free agent. Former third-round pick Montravius Adams also enters free agency this offseason. 

That leaves only Willington Previlon, Anthony Rush, and Delontae Scott as depth in the defensive line room. I’d absolutely expect the Packers to bring in some talent through the draft, and potentially sign a cheap run-stuffer in free agency to round out the unit and allow Clark to play less nose tackle. 

5. Cornerbacks

Honestly, I was tempted to put corners at number one solely because of Jaire Alexander, who was named second-team All-Pro this season, made his first Pro Bowl, and was listed as PFF’s top-graded corner in 2020. But when you look at the depth behind Alexander...it’s a big issue. Likely the biggest issue on the team. While Alexander can lock down half the field, the other half is very much up in the air. 

Kevin King is a free agent this year, and it’s hard to see him returning to Green Bay given the poor cap situation the Packers are currently in. Behind King, Chandon Sullivan and Parry Nickerson are restricted free agents with Kabion Ento an exclusive restricted free agent. 

Outside of Josh Jackson and Ka’dar Hollman who both saw limited playing time in 2020, only Stanford Samuels and KeiVarae Russell remain on the roster. I would expect cornerback to be one of the first selections in the draft, either on night one or night two. With Jackson a healthy scratch for part of the season, corner is a significant need opposite Alexander.

 

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Maggie Loney is a writer for Cheesehead TV and podcaster for the Pack-A-Day Podcast and Pack's What She Said. Find her on Twitter at @MaggieJLoney.

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Comments (29)

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ScottW's picture

February 05, 2021 at 06:25 am

Looking for some depth and a starter for sure at CB and DL. Good summary Maggie.

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Bearmeat's picture

February 05, 2021 at 07:23 am

This sounds about right. It'd be interesting to see someone rank the entire team positionally. I'd suspect we'd see offensive top heavy value. Again.

Not looking forward to having to retool the CB room. Again. It is refreshing to see the ILB have promise going forward for the first time in 10 years.

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Big_Mel_75's picture

February 05, 2021 at 08:19 am

Promise is all the ILB spot ever is and will be when you fill it with 4rd or later players... Great defenses have a stud ILB taken in the top part of the draft...

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PackEyedOptimist's picture

February 05, 2021 at 07:34 am

Accurate run-down Maggie. I agree the Packers' greatest need is a CB 2, but also a CB3/NB. Chandon Sullivan had a disappointing year 2; I saw a lot of Micah Hyde in him 2 years ago, so maybe he gets it back in 2021. DL is a real issue; they will need to get lucky to find a difference-maker picking at the end of rounds.
It's not as bad as last year, when I felt ANY position was a reasonable position to draft, but I'm still a strong proponent of drafting the Best Player Available. Who is lost in Free Agency is going to have a big effect this year, but if a non-need is clearly the BPA, take him. I like the idea of a more aggressive defense, but that means drafting great cover DBs and hair-on-fire LBs and DL. That's why I'd love Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Notre Dame, but despite some predictions of him lasting to the Packer's pick, I see him going in the teens.

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

February 05, 2021 at 11:49 am

My issue is how hypocritical am I going to be in this response?

GB has to acquire a starting cornerback, albeit a #2. Has to, has to, has to. Whomever they acquire, he has to, has to, start in 2021. I like Hollman and I really like Samuels, but not as the day one starter. Looking at the 2020 draft:

AJ Terrell was okay (taken 21st). Gladney (31st) was bad. Jaylon Johnson (50th) was similar to King, i.e. not good. Trevon Diggs (51st) was actually fairly decent. Ojemudia (77th) stunk up the joint. Cameron Dantzler (89th) was actually pretty good and was the only CB mentioned that was noticeably better than Sullivan. Lots of round two CB prospects I'm told.

I wonder what the new DC will run? Owusu can play the Raven Greene role.

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Leatherhead's picture

February 05, 2021 at 12:19 pm

Not only does he have to start, he has to stay healthy and he has to play well. Whoever is opposite Alexander is going to get worked on. Plenty.

I'd like it if Gutekunst would move around in the draft a little to get us some extra Day Two picks, because I really think we should take two DBs in the top 95. You can never have too many of these guys. If you're playing 5 and 6 DBs that's half your defense and they're involved in most of the big plays so you'd better have a roster full of guys who can cover and tackle.

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dobber's picture

February 05, 2021 at 02:03 pm

"I wonder what the new DC will run? "

I wonder what the personnel skill sets in 2021 will allow a DC to run...

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NickPerry's picture

February 05, 2021 at 07:37 am

Clearly the Packers need to address D-Line and CB in the draft IMO by the end of day two during the first 3 rounds. Obviously exactly who will depend on the DC they hire, but those two positions are needed no matter who the DC is.

Question... IF a DC who favors more zone coverage perhaps LIKE Josh Jackson? According to PFF he actually graded out higher than King overall. Now both pretty much stunk overall, with Jackson he didn't even have enough snaps to qualify, BUT could the light come on under a different DC? Could the light come on playing Safety instead? I'll be curious what he looks like in camp because it will be his last shot...Period. Oh, and BTW... For those that put SO MUCH into the players 40 time at the combine in SPANDEX...Jackson ran a faster 40 than Tramon Williams. Personally I think Williams was okay (sarcasm).

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stockholder's picture

February 05, 2021 at 07:35 am

I'm just not looking at depth. But the failure of this team. With a new DC. 1. Safeties - Redmond goes. #2. Edge Rushers. I like the versatility here. IMO they could even play De in a 4-3-4. #3 ILB- This has always been a weakness. But Martin and Barnes show promise. #4.DL Sorry, but after Clark this unit is a failure. So go big or go HOME! Draft Barimore! DT Alabama. A #1 and #3 gets him. And if it takes more. Do it! #5 I doubt we sign King too. If Gute stands behind his drafts. Jackson and Hollman should be the starters. No drafted CB will give you immediate results. Conclusion: WIN NOW! This draft fits the packers. Comp picks coming. They can let players go and still fill their needs. The senior bowl displayed several CBs/RBs; that would be a better value ( "late").

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NickPerry's picture

February 05, 2021 at 07:45 am

"The senior bowl displayed several CBs/RBs; that would be a better value ( "late")"

Demetric Felton, a RB from UCLA who is listed as a WR in some draft circles would really be a nice fit in MLF offense and a excellent compliment to Dillon. He runs in the 4.4's, has GREAT hands, and could be lined up anywhere in this offense. Best yet you could probably get him in the 4th round.

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stockholder's picture

February 05, 2021 at 07:52 am

Excellent pick. Another choice late is Pooka Williams Rb.

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PackEyedOptimist's picture

February 05, 2021 at 08:25 am

I'm a big fan of Felton for the Packers, Kenny Gainwell even moreso, but I think both will go before the Packers would choose to select them.

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Coldworld's picture

February 05, 2021 at 09:05 am

Rush has upside, but the key question is who is DC and If he will use big men. Pettine really tried not to. Lancaster was actually decent in the stretch. He could be back as good cheap depth. The team seems to like Adams. He could also be brought into camp. I’m hoping we draft here too though and go heavier.

CB is without doubt the biggest need, after that comes DL in my view. I also expect an OLB if P Smith leaves. The trio of prospects are all prospects needing physical development plus Ramsey, who doesn’t seem a threat. Need to add a better backup candidate not just rely on Tipa and Garvin coming through.

The first pick priority on offense could be OL, particularly if Wagner is lost. The second might well be RB if Williams isn’t back. It could be that WR/TE doesn’t get addressed till the third day. I would like to see competition for Ervin as a slot/option type. That said, can’t really convince myself that receivers are really an early priority unless a premium player plummets on round one. A true blue chip dropping that far seems unlikely, but this may be an odd draft after the cap constriction.

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stockholder's picture

February 05, 2021 at 10:52 am

At # 28. What Cb? The DL isn't going to blow you away at #28 - 50. A Rt is your best bet. ( If Love is the plan . You have to get one this draft. And Dump Wagner.) If Gute uses his #28 and a third to get his DL. It plugs the question marks. Everyone thinks CB. But - CB returns him to his first draft. Which only gave us Alexander, (so far). Is there a Alexander.- NO

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hellonwood40's picture

February 05, 2021 at 08:06 am

Not looking forward to having to retool the CB room. Again. It is refreshing to see the ILB have promise going forward for the first time in 10 years.

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BAMABADGER's picture

February 05, 2021 at 08:16 am

DL, ILB, CB should be tied for last. Pitiful all the draft stock GB has put into the CB position in the AR Era and we have just Alexander to show for it.

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PackEyedOptimist's picture

February 05, 2021 at 08:26 am

Agreed on the wasted draft capital; it's been pretty unbelievable how poorly it has returned value. That makes me nervous for any DB choices in the first 2 rounds, despite the great success with Alexander.

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MarkinMadison's picture

February 05, 2021 at 08:19 am

OT, DL, CB. These are the needs. And you probably can't fill these needs in FA this year.

Maybe you can get a cheap DL in FA. Maybe. Somehow the Packers failed to do that in 2020 until is was too late to really matter.

Maybe you can roll the dice with Wagner and Turner at OT, but I think their limitations have been exposed and expecting Wagner to stay healthy while playing 16 games is a stretch. Maybe you get Bakh back in September. Maybe. Maybe Nijman is ready to play. Maybe.

At CB you've got not much depth and a staff that probably trusts Jackson as much as they trust Nijman. Not great. Looks like the Packers need to draft another CB. Again.

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Leatherhead's picture

February 05, 2021 at 12:31 pm

Mostly agree with this. They are the major needs. I'm not sure it'll be an OT...it might be a versatile interior lineman....a Jenkins-type. And the starting CB is obvious.

The DL thing.......we've got Clark locked up for several seasons. If we draft a really good DL, we'll have that pair for four years in the middle of the defense. I like that. If we're only going to play two defensive lineman at a time, it'd be best if they were both really good.

I don't understand the unhappiness with needing to draft a CB...again.....I think the current buzzword is "retool". 9 of our 21 dressed defensive players are DBs. Again, that's half the defense. 4 edge rushers, 9 DBs, 5 DL, 3 ILB. So you should be drafting CBs more often than any other position. They get hurt. They leave in free agency. You need 9 on the gameday roster, 10 on the 53, and a couple more on the Practice Squad. There's not a team in the league that has 9 good, healthy DBs through a 16 game season, but if your starting corners are solid it really helps the pass defense.

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MarkinMadison's picture

February 05, 2021 at 12:57 pm

If you look at rounds 1 & 2 for the last six drafts, the Packers have spent 7 picks on DBs. That is a LOT of premium draft capital. It is not that I mind the Packers drafting DBs, it is just that I wish they weren't always in need of spending premium picks on them, because this has been done at the expense of investing in other positions, especially DL and WR.

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flackcatcher's picture

February 05, 2021 at 05:07 pm

Not much choice in a passing league. DL has become a not a need with the new rules. More teams are adopting the 3-3-5 and looking for hybrids at both OLB and SS and looking for pressure from the OLB playing at the line. None of us should be surprised to see more 2DL fronts across the league.

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MarkinMadison's picture

February 05, 2021 at 12:57 pm

If you look at rounds 1 & 2 for the last six drafts, the Packers have spent 7 picks on DBs. That is a LOT of premium draft capital. It is not that I mind the Packers drafting DBs, it is just that I wish they weren't always in need of spending premium picks on them, because this has been done at the expense of investing in other positions, especially DL and WR.

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Leatherhead's picture

February 05, 2021 at 12:31 pm

Mostly agree with this. They are the major needs. I'm not sure it'll be an OT...it might be a versatile interior lineman....a Jenkins-type. And the starting CB is obvious.

The DL thing.......we've got Clark locked up for several seasons. If we draft a really good DL, we'll have that pair for four years in the middle of the defense. I like that. If we're only going to play two defensive lineman at a time, it'd be best if they were both really good.

I don't understand the unhappiness with needing to draft a CB...again.....I think the current buzzword is "retool". 9 of our 21 dressed defensive players are DBs. Again, that's half the defense. 4 edge rushers, 9 DBs, 5 DL, 3 ILB. So you should be drafting CBs more often than any other position. They get hurt. They leave in free agency. You need 9 on the gameday roster, 10 on the 53, and a couple more on the Practice Squad. There's not a team in the league that has 9 good, healthy DBs through a 16 game season, but if your starting corners are solid it really helps the pass defense.

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PeteK's picture

February 05, 2021 at 08:42 am

I believe CB is our first draft priority , and a good starter can be had in later picks. Gladney #31 ,Diggs #51, Ojemudia #77, Sneed #138 were all good CBs from last years draft.

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dobber's picture

February 05, 2021 at 02:05 pm

It was a mistake to not take a developmental CB in 2020. As LH says above (and as others have quoted from Wolf), there are some position groups where you take guys every year. OL, DL, and CB: you need a bunch, and you burn through them.

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Packerfansupreme's picture

February 05, 2021 at 08:52 am

I agree cornerback is their biggest need. The biggest indication is King's field time despite all his mistakes

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hobowilly's picture

February 05, 2021 at 09:56 am

Great topic! It's so upsetting the CB room, stemming back to the absolute fiasco in 2015, where our first 2 picks were Randall and what's his name, who was a basketball player. But, as we all know this is the Not For Long! It took the wisdom of a long time scout and FO guy by the name of Gutey to pick a winner in Alexander. Ole J. Jackson appeared to be a winner too, but folks it's time to move on when you are a roster player and week to week healthy scratch. I feel the same way about Burks as well, and although he plays special teams, it appears mgmt is good with taking up a roster spot for "just" a ST'er.

Lastly, i'm a huge fan of Gutey, and some may criticize but you gotta love his directness and hard work ALL year long to put the best roster together. What's tough for us all is when he picks half of his picks as "future players"....hence his building his roster philosophy for the future. All too many fans expect any teams pick (esp high, rds 1/2) to start their rookie years, and further, if you have a top 10 pick expect them to be "impact" players right out of the box. As most of us can recall, most of the time it's: NOT THE CASE!

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Dragon5's picture

February 05, 2021 at 10:58 am

I suggest having strong Plan B options for our secondary this year. King, if retained, is always a high injury risk being a 7 life path. We've seen it time and time again and prior to him, it was oft injured 7 life path CM3. Alexander, Amos, and V.Scott are in personal 7 years increasing their odds of injury this year. In March 2019, I said "TE we seek likely already on the roster (Robert Tonyan)...just needs to be coached up / reps." I can't vouch for Jackson replacing King given the sample size we've seen has been rather ugly, but I can certainly pray that given he's entering year 4, he better as he's playing for a new contract. In his college ballhawking days, he played with confidence...if he could only get that back. If Jerry Gray can't coach him up, he's done. For a CB UFA, Cameron Sutton fits the bill as a lower cost, low risk, corner that has the versatility to play slot, outside, even safety and if I'm Gute, I outbid his market to get him; the caveat, he too is in a personal 7 year increasing his odds for injury.

My second concern is Christian Kirksey (if retained), Preston Smith (if retained), and Z'Darious Smith are MONKEYS and their enemy year is on deck Feb 1st 2022, which may have a negative impact during the 2021 season much as it did for Bahk just prior to his enemy year (OX) beginning next Friday. I suggest cap saving moves with the first two and I am anticipating Kamal Martin and Kris Barnes, both TIGERS, to continue to emerge into solid starters ahead of the TIGER year.

Alexander, Savage Jr, Gary, V.Scott all OX expected to outperform as long as they're healthy. Being soul mate / secret friend of the OX, RATS Kingsley, Sullivan, Jackson, Ento will have favorable energy to perform in 2021 as well.

Likely not a popular option for Packer fans, but Suh, a TIGER, is an ideal gap fill on the DL for 2 years even if he's a renowned perennial a**hole; quite frankly, this defense needs that toughness. If DC candidate Ryan Nielsen is hired, Sheldon Rankins will probably be on the radar.

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CoachDino's picture

February 05, 2021 at 05:14 pm

not with you on this one Maggie.

ILB is last by far - not even close the worst - They don't have 1 good player, not one. sure we give Barnes some credit, even martin and I do think Kirksey found his footing. Would barnes or Martin be of much interest to other teams? Not really. I like Barnes ability but he is lacking (He graded out terrible this year)_ We all like martin as he is a big hitter yet he is lost out there and hasn't graded out well. Summers and burkes are complete busts at LIB and are on the team for ST.

DL is not nearly as bad as one may think. To be far Kenny Clarke graded out low vs previous years but he has stepped up again toward the end is an elite player. Keke is looking very good until injuries hit him. As role players Lowery and lancaster are fine, its when we depend on them to be more than that there are issues. So basically you have 3 down lineman - 1 is considered Elite, 1 is an up and comer who was having a good year until injury and two role players. I no longer buy into the run stuffer narrative. There's a reason they don't get drafted or paid. Lack of value. Plus how much do they even play 25% of the snaps. Pettine showed that he could stop the run with the guys he had when that became the focus.

Cornerbacks is a tough one. Just having Jaire makes it a good unit and it showed. It was against the best QBs that the weaknesses were exposed. So I do agree that CB is a big need area.

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