Packers’ defense has serious cap challenges

By Chris Havel

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers’ defense improved by Lambeau leaps and bounds under the direction of first-year coordinator Joe Barry in 2021.

Green Bay (13-4) finished as the NFL’s ninth-ranked defense under Barry, who replaced Mike Pettine in the previous offseason. It was interesting that the Packers retained every defensive assistant coach except Pettine, which could have been problematic with Barry coming in as “the new guy.”

The Packers’ 38-3 blowout loss in the season opener did nothing to engender confidence in Barry’s scheme, either.
Nevertheless, he quickly ingratiated himself with the players through his passion, consistency and scheme. He also got his assistants on board by giving them the latitude to have meaningful and significant input. In other words, Barry put his players in position to succeed, and allowed his coaches to be “hands on.”

They rallied after the humiliating loss to New Orleans and stayed the course.

The formula worked to great success.

The Packers allowed 328.8 yards per game (10th vs. the pass; 11th vs. the run) and yielded 21.8 points per game to rank 13th overall. They ranked 16th in sacks with 39 and opposing quarterbacks’ passer rating (86.9) was 10th.

All reflect significant improvement from the 2020 season.

The Packers’ defense had a particularly dominant seven-game stretch from Oct. 3 through Nov. 14. Green Bay went 6-1 during that span while allowing its opponents to score an average of just 11.5 points per game.

The stretch concluded with a 17-0 shutout of the Seahawks and Russell Wilson. The defense also played a key role in narrow wins over Arizona, Baltimore and Cleveland in the regular season.

Then, it stymied San Francisco’s attack in the NFC divisional playoffs but it wasn’t enough to overcome awful special teams’ play and a sluggish offense. Green Bay lost 13-10.

Now, with Aaron Rodgers’ pending decision regarding his future as the backdrop, Packers’ GM Brian Gutekunst and coach Matt LaFleur are tasked with reloading on defense despite considerable salary cap challenges.

Last week, a look at the Packers’ offense revealed reason for optimism going into this season. The offensive line and running back positions are loaded. The receivers and tight ends need to be retooled, but if Rodgers and Davante Adams return LaFleur’s attack undoubtedly will rank among the NFL’s finest.

This week, I’ll take a look at the Packers’ defense going into 2022.

The salary cap challenges are daunting, to be sure, but not impossible to navigate.

The Packers have slashed $23.2 million from its cap in the past week. They restructured the existing contracts of Kenny Clark, Aaron Jones and David Bakhtiari with more to come.

The Packers are about $20 million above the cap, which means edge rushers Za’Darius and Preston Smith, kicker Mason Crosby and offensive lineman Billy Turner are candidates to have their contracts restructured or be given their release.

Safety Adrian Amos and defensive tackle Dean Lowry also may be asked to restructure their deals, too.

What we do know about the Packers’ returning defenders is promising.

The defensive line will be led by Clark, a young and ascending player who already ranks among the NFL’s best at his position. Rookie T.J. Slaton flashed glimpses of his play-making ability up front. Slaton appears to have a nose for the football.

Lowry played well after a subpar 2020 season and looks to build on that. Jack Heflin also is expected to be back and try to win a role as a rotational player. Kingsley Keke’s failure to grab a terrific opportunity is disappointing.

Clearly, Gutekunst needs to consider drafting a defensive lineman no later than Day 2 given the unit’s lack of depth and top-end talent behind Clark.

Rashan Gary provides juice to a rejuvenated pass rush. The third-year pro out of Michigan has steadily improved to the point where he’s been impacting games on a weekly basis. Gary has “All-Pro” written all over him after his 9 ½-sack season.

Preston Smith provided an excellent counterbalance to Gary. Smith’s nine sacks were second on the team. He also had two passes defended and two forced fumbles. Preston Smith was a key voice in the locker room. He won’t easily be replaced if it comes to that.

De’Vondre Campbell’s emergence in the heart of the defense was instrumental in Barry’s ability to build a competent unit. Campbell stuffed the stat sheet on a weekly basis to finish with a team-high 146 tackles (102 solo), six tackles for loss, five passes defended, two sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles.

Campbell’s projected market value, according to Spotrac, is $6.2 million. He was working on a one-year “prove it” deal. Boy, did he ever prove it.

Clearly, the Packers’ defense needs Campbell to return, or Gutekunst to acquire another defender with a similar skill set. Anyone that doubted the defense’s ability to function at a winning level without a stud at inside linebacker was wrong.

The Packers’ secondary remains a bright spot.

Eric Stokes had a wonderful rookie season and is entrenched opposite All-Pro Jaire Alexander. The Alexander-Stokes tandem could be among the NFL’s finest cornerback duos before it’s all said and done.

Stokes finished with 55 tackles, a team-high 14 passes defended and an interception. Opposing quarterbacks tried to pick on him early. Then they decided to look elsewhere.

In-season acquisition Rasul Douglas also was a key contributor. Spotrac projects his market value to be $9.2 million per year, which seems a bit high for a player that was signed off another team’s practice squad.

Hopefully the Packers and Douglas can reach an accord, which is possible depending on how much the scheme and Douglas’ gratitude play a role. Chandon Sullivan also had a productive season before being injured in December.

The safeties are set with Darnell Savage and Amos.

Amos had 93 tackles and eight passes defended with two interceptions. Savage recorded 63 tackles and nine passes defended with two interceptions. Henry Black proved to be a valuable reserve.

The defense’s framework remains in place.

Clark, Gary, Stokes, Alexander and Amos are all key veterans. An influx of talent via the draft and lower-tier free agency, coupled with continued good fortune signing “street” and “practice squad” free agents, has the future looking bright.

An edge rusher, an interior defensive lineman and a talented inside linebacker appear to be the obvious areas Gutekunst will go hunting in the draft.