Who or what is the next big thing on the gridiron? In Around The NFL's "Making the Leap" series, Gregg Rosenthal spotlights emerging units or players to keep an eye on during the 2019 NFL season.
First, the disclaimers: 1) Defenses are unpredictable; 2) the world could end in the meantime; and 3) should doesn't mean much when it comes to one of the most talented quarterbacks of all time.
Perhaps new coach Matt LaFleur will shake off his torn Achilles tendon and help Rodgers get right back into the MVP discussion on an offense bursting with fireworks. But the Packers' defensive roster is loaded, and anything less than a top-10 performance will be a massive letdown shared primarily by general manager Brian Gutekunst and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. Green Bay invested an incredible amount of money and draft picks into fixing its consistently mediocre defensive side of the ball, and that unit now looks audacious on paper. For the first time in a long time, perhaps Rodgers won't have to try to be Superman to win on Sundays.
Doubling down on Mike Pettine
Mike Pettine is enjoying his second chance at his second chance. The brash former Rex Ryan acolyte waited a few years to return to the coaching ranks after being fired by the Cleveland Browns following the 2015 season, aware he may only get one more shot at a big-time NFL job and that many opportunities are career-suicide missions.
Pettine chose well when he joined the Packers last year, a Super Bowl-winning head coach and a Hall of Fame quarterback neatly in place. But after Mike McCarthy's ouster last December, Pettine's job status was precarious at best. New head coaches rarely retain an incumbent coordinator, and the Packers' defensive efficiency actually grew worse in 2018 than it was under Dom Capers.
LaFleur gave Pettine a lifeline after the front office "strongly encouraged" the new head coach to retain Pettine, according to Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. The two men share a history with LaFleur's mentor, Kyle Shanahan; though, Pettine and Shanahan's time together in Cleveland was hardly smooth.
However Pettine stayed in the picture, there was wisdom in retaining him. Gutekunst began to build the defense in Pettine's image during the 2018 NFL Draft, selecting sticky defensive backs to bring the coordinator's vision to life. Forcing Packers defenders to learn a third system in as many years would have been counterproductive, even if the transition to Pettine's defense wasn't smooth. Silverstein's report suggested that the hiring of LaFleur may not have been Gutekunst's decision to make, so in some ways the general manager's and defensive coordinator's interests are even more aligned. This defense has to work or these two men will face the blame.
While injuries played a huge part in Green Bay's defensive struggles last year, the popular firing of Capers didn't yield results. The team slightly improved in yards and points allowed, but actually fell from 20th to 29th overall in Football Outsiders' trusty efficiency rankings. Instead of bailing from a long-term plan after one year, Gutekunst and the front office doubled down. They spent huge money in free agency on three defensive starters, then used their first two draft picks on defense again, selecting edge rusher Rashan Gary (No. 12 overall) and safety Darnell Savage (No. 21).
Second-year CB rising quickly
This article was originally conceived to make the case for why cornerback Jaire Alexander would make the leap this season. Instead, I'm expecting Alexander's ascent to All-Pro consideration to help raise the level of the young players around him. Still just 22 years old, Alexander showed superstar traits throughout his rookie season, especially against the Rams in Los Angeles. It was perhaps the splashiest game by any cornerback all of last season, a performance that had Joe, Troy and the gang positively gobsmacked. Buoyed by his star turn, Alexander finished ranked No. 22 among all cornerbacks by Pro Football Focus in pure coverage score. He stacked week after week of quality starter play until succumbing to a sluggish finish. Bill Belichick, among others, doesn't see the Louisville product as a one-game wonder.
Belichick made it fairly clear at the time he wished that Gutekunst didn't trade up to take Alexander at No. 18 overall, five spots ahead of the Patriots, alluding to Alexander as one of the "top guys on the board" for New England at the time.
"He loves football and has great football skills; fast, athletic, good hands, good ball skills, can tackle, can play inside in the slot, can play outside on the perimeter, good zone vision, break on the ball, good man-to-man coverage, has good quickness, can match up with fast receivers, can match up with quick receivers," Belichick said.
That about covers it. Alexander's thrilling stretch around midseason lost steam in December because of a groin injury, but he's already shown shutdown-corner ability. Pettine leans more heavily on his secondary than most coordinators, employing a variety of coverages and responsibilities. That becomes easier to accomplish if there's an alpha cornerback in place such as Alexander, just like Pettine had with Darrelle Revis in New York. He's been looking for another Revis since -- working with Stephon Gilmore in Buffalo and helping to draft Justin Gilbert in Cleveland (whoops).
Pettine loves to mix things up from week to week in the secondary, which requires talent, depth and familiarity with his system. Depth shouldn't be a problem.
Gutekunst used the extra first-round pick acquired in a 2018 trade down with the Saints to nab Savage at No. 21 in April's draft. He'll likely start opposite free-agent pickup Adrian Amos, who is coming off a fantastic year with the Chicago Bears. Josh Jones, a 2017 second-rounder, reportedly wants out of town in part because he doesn't see a path to playing time. Cornerback is similarly competitive, with recent second-rounders Kevin King and Josh Jackson competing with veteran Tramon Williams for snaps behind Alexander. It's hard to find a secondary with more prime, physically gifted draft picks and a coach in Pettine with a better track record at maximizing secondary skill. There's also reason to believe the Packers cornerbacks won't have to cover as long in 2019.
Strength in numbers
Pettine's influence on the Packers last season can be seen in the development of the secondary and the team's sack total. They finished among the NFL's top 10 teams with 44 sacks despite poor campaigns by highly paid edge rushers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry. The Packers were able to manufacture a pass rush with a stout front line and scheming. Pettine's job should be easier after Gutekunst spent beaucoup bucks in free agency on former Ravens outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith and former Redskins edge player Preston Smith to replace Matthews and Perry. Preston Smith is a steady presence who is also strong against the run, while Za'Darius plays with frenetic snap-to-snap energy. The Smiths figure to be spelled by Kyler Fackrell, who led the Packers with 10.5 sacks last year, and first-rounder Rashan Gary.
It's fair to question the contracts Gutekunst gave the Smiths, as many organizations have been undone by paying very good players superstar prices in free agency. But no one is going to quibble with signing-bonus money if this group creates consistent pressure. The best way to prevent expensive misfires in free agency or the draft is to pay for insurance. If even two of the three big-ticket Packers additions pan out, this group will be difficult to block because it is joining an already-strong defensive line.
Kenny Clark would already be a star if he played any other position than nose tackle. He broke out with a noisy 2018 season under Pettine as a terrific run-stopper and insistent factor on passing downs, finishing with 36 hurries, six sacks and four quarterback hits, according to PFF. He can also line up as a 3-4 defensive end. Packers mainstay Mike Daniels doesn't fit the same athletic profile as the players above, but he has been one of the better interior players in football for years because of his tenacity and pass-rushing ability. The foot injury that cost Daniels six games last season was a big reason why the defense struggled.
Gutekunst and Pettine value players who can line up in multiple spots. Both Smiths can move inside in a passing-down package when asked, giving Pettine innumerable combinations he can put on the field. Clark, Daniels and underrated holdover Dean Lowry provide a strong core to build around with Green Bay's new edge rushers.
This is a roster with firepower and depth at every level of the defense. It should be able to withstand injuries. Perhaps the only position that even hints at being thin is inside linebacker, where the team has a borderline Pro Bowler in Blake Martinez and 2018 third-round pick Oren Burks. So will it be enough?
Defense will lead the Pack
The NFC North looks like the best division in football in large part because of the defenses. The Bears are returning 10 of 11 starters from football's best unit a year ago. Mike Zimmer's Vikings defense, a top-four group in each of the last two years, has an almost-impossible combination of continuity and talent. Yet I don't think either group is far ahead of this Packers defense in talent. With former Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio now the head coach in Denver, Chicago's coaching doesn't look like as big of an edge. Most importantly, neither of those teams employ Aaron Rodgers.
It's been so long since Rodgers was supported by a difference-making defense that it's almost hard to imagine. Just picture Rodgers with a margin for error and short fields. Imagine him only needing 20 points to win a game, able to withstand uneven performances by winning different styles of games.
While much of the attention paid to the Packers nationally this offseason has focused on the team's divorce with McCarthy, the organization's confusing front office structure and the two-time MVP's relationship with his new coach, more notice should be paid to the other side of the ball. For the first time in a long time, Rodgers' job may not be so difficult.