Packers’ defense set – weaponry on ‘O’ next

By Chris Havel

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers’ 13-10 loss to San Francisco in the NFC’s divisional playoffs 10 weeks ago was painful but instructive.

The offense was lacking despite deploying All-Pros at quarterback and receiver, and the special teams’ units were abominable.

Only the defense was stellar.

The Packers’ offseason moves have been a concerted response to that playoff disaster. They extended Aaron Rodgers’ contract, but traded Davante Adams to Las Vegas for the 22nd and 53rd picks in the upcoming NFL draft.

Clearly, the Packers believe they can replace Adams and still retain their status as a legitimate Super Bowl contender. The fact is they couldn’t get there with him, and his skyrocketing salary made it increasingly problematic to try again.

It’s interesting that going into the 2021 season many viewed the Packers’ offense as the unit closest to being Super Bowl worthy. Now, as Green Bay prepares for this season, the offense has the greatest number of question marks.

For Matt LaFleur, the special teams’ units were first on the “to do” list.

I’d not be surprised if he suffered with insomnia until it was fixed.

The Packers’ head coach fired Maurice Drayton and hired highly regarded Rich Bisaccia to fix the special teams’ woes. Byron Storer, a longtime assistant of Bisaccia’s, and ex-NFL return specialist Micheal Spurlock, were added to the staff. Well-thought of Rayna Stewart was held over from the previous staff.

The Packers parted ways with Oren Burks, Henry Black and Isaac Yiadom. It’s no coincidence that the Burks-Black-Yiadom trio had the most snaps on special teams last season. Frankly, they needed to be replaced.

The Packers also booted punter Corey Bojorquez and signed free agent and former Chicago Bears punter Pat O’Donnell to replace him.

Mason Crosby is expected to be the place-kicker, while the return specialist(s) identity is undetermined for now, although it’s likely to be Amari Rodgers or a dual threat receiver-returner selected in the draft.

Defensively, the Packers return everyone who was someone last season.

Packers GM Brian Gutekunst retained all the key pieces in defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s unit, which opens the possibility of it going from “much-improved” to “highly dangerous.”

De’Vondre Campbell, the heart of the defense, will return at inside linebacker.

In-season acquisition Rasul Douglas also returns to join All-Pro Jaire Alexander and ascending second-year pro Eric Stokes. They are perhaps the league’s finest cornerback trio.

Gutekunst took it a step further by signing veteran defensive tackle Jarran Reed, who will team up with Kenny Clark to give the Packers a rugged and reliable duo up front.
Reed, the longtime Seahawk, will do what Kingsley Keke and Tyler Lancaster could not. He will give Clark a worthy partner in the trenches.

The only way I’d be tempted to spend draft capital on defense would be to acquire a high-end pass rusher. Generally, there are only two ways to land a pass rusher: To select one high in the draft, or to pay a king’s ransom in free agency.

If Gutekunst traded up to get a pass rusher, and allocated the remaining resources to receivers and offensive linemen, I’d be OK with it.

Otherwise it’s offense, offense and more offense in the draft.

The Packers have plenty of ammo with the 22nd, 28th, 53rd, 59th and 93rd picks.

They also have enough salary cap space – impossible as it seems – to sign at least one established NFL receiver to go with Allen Lazard, Randall Cobb, Juwann Winfrey, Rodgers and whichever receiver(s) the Packers draft.

Miami’s DeVante Parker may be available following the Dolphins’ blockbuster trade for wide-out Tyreek Hill. Parker (6-3, 219) possesses enough breakaway speed to be a replacement for the departed Marquez Valdes-Scantling.

Parker, 29, had 72 catches for 1,202 yards, nine touchdowns and 58 first downs with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback in 2019. He isn’t that far removed from those numbers. Imagine what he might do with Rodgers throwing to him?

The Jaguars’ Laviska Shenault (6-1, 227) is another trade possibility.

Shenault has 121 catches for 1,219 yards and five touchdowns through two seasons. He is a versatile weapon that can line up wide, in the slot or out of the backfield ala the 49ers’ Deebo Samuel.

A free agent such as Jarvis Landry is another option.

Landry, 29, wants to be paid like the perennial Pro Bowl receiver who led the NFL with 112 catches in 2017 and had a career-best 1,174 yards receiving in 2019. The problem is Landry isn’t THAT GUY anymore.

Then again he never was a speedster. He ran 4.61 out of college. He is known for making difficult catches in traffic, and possessing a knack for getting open.

Landry and a receiver or two in the draft makes sense.

So where will the Packers go to find a receiver in the draft?

Here’s the answer and it rhymes: The Packers should draft Dotson and Watson. That’s Penn State’s Jahan Dotson and North Dakota State’s Christian Watson.

Dotson (5-11, 185) is a 4.3 speedster with arguably the best hands in the draft. Dotson doesn’t drop passes while finding ways to magically appear behind the entire defensive secondary. He would be as explosive a weapon as the Packers have had in years.

Watson (6-4, 208) has exceptional body control and the explosiveness to high-point passes. He is similar to MVS except he’s bigger, just as fast (he runs 4.3 in the 40-yard dash) and a more polished route-runner out of college.

Watson also has more reliable hands.

Of course, Gutekunst could pair the 22nd and 28th picks, move up to the eighth overall pick, and select Ohio State’s Chris Olave or Garrett Wilson. Both are speedsters in the 4.3-second range with exceptional hands and instincts. Olave is the smaller, more polished of the two, while some project a high upside for Wilson.

ESPN’s Mel Kiper has the Packers selecting Texas A&M guard Kenyon Green with the 22nd pick and Arkansas’ receiver Treylon Burks with the 28th pick.

I suspect fans would initially scoff at using the 22nd pick on an O-linemen. While I see it as unlikely, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised, either. The Packers lost Billy Turner and Lucas Patrick in free agency. They also are awaiting the healthy return of David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins.

“If we didn’t add anybody to our offensive line, I feel really good about the guys coming back,” Gutekunst said earlier this month. “Obviously, Elgton’s coming off a big injury, but if you’re saying, ‘Hey, he’s healthy, ready to go,’ I’d feel really good about our group coming back.”