Registering its first back-to-back losing seasons since 1990-91, Green Bay made sweeping changes entering the 2018 season. Fired during his 13th season as head coach, Mike McCarthy leaves with a .618 winning percentage, six division titles, 10 playoff wins and Super Bowl Championship during his tenure as the Packers coach.
Enter the 39-year old Matt LaFleur to take his place. Can LaFleur right the ship? How much better is this defense after an aggressive offseason to fix it? Let’s examine my preseason superlatives.
Breakout Guy: CB Jaire Alexander
My top rated cornerback in last year’s class, Alexander enjoyed an impressive rookie season. Starting eleven games in his first NFL season, Alexander had dominant moments, showcasing the skill set of a number one corner on an improved Packers defense.
Considering the investments Green Bay made on its defense this off season, the improved talent around Alexander should lead to even more big plays. Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith and Rashan Gary makes the Packers’ pass rush more dynamic while Darnell Savage and Adrian Amos being added to the secondary strengthens Green Bay in coverage. Alexander is going to thrive and be mentioned among the best in the league by the end of 2019.
Comeback Kid: Interceptions
The amount of interceptions Green Bay’s defense has secured is trending in the wrong direction. After recording the second-most (17) in the NFL in 2016, Green Bay was in the bottom six of the league in 2017 with 11 and recorded a lowly 7 last season which was the second fewest in the league.
Why are things going to be different in 2019? The pass rush should be significantly better and lead to more rushed throws while Green Bay’s young defensive backs all have another year of experience. With that said, Adrian Amos’ presence in the lineup may be the biggest reason why. Amos isn’t known for his ability to make plays on the ball, but his astute coverage spacing and reliability to play over top of routes will enable for the secondary to be more aggressive in front of him. Aaron Rodgers rarely throws interceptions so getting more takeaways will help Green Bay win the turnover battle and claim more victories.
Rising Star: DT Kenny Clark
Packers fans already know this, but Clark has probably been Green Bay’s best defensive player in each of the last two seasons. Entering a contract year with improved talent around him, this is the year that the rest of the football world wakes up and recognizes the dominance of Clark.
Clark has a rare amount of experience given his age. Turning 24 in October, Clark will have over three seasons of experience as he enters his prime. Every year he has grown as both a pass rusher and run defender, with room for even more development moving forward. Your list of top-10 defensive tackles in the NFL without Clark is wrong and that will be evidenced by the contract he should be signing in the coming months.
Don’t Forget About: S Adrian Amos
Staring at a big need at safety entering the offseason, Green Bay quickly filled it with one of the most sound back end defenders in football. A fifth-round pick in 2015, Amos immediately became a quality starter for the Bears and the arrow has pointed up in every season.
The Packers made sizable investments to improve its pass rush by signing Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith, adding Kenny Clark on the interior. Having a reliable safety in Amos lurking over top of what can be a dynamic and aggressive pass rushing situation maximizes the investments up front and improves the unit as a whole. Lastly, the value of Amos’ deal really pops. Inking a 4-year, $37 million deal looks like a tremendous value, especially compared to what Washington gave to Landon Collins.
Needs to Rebound: The Defense
In a highly-competitive NFC, the 22nd scoring defense and 18th overall defense isn’t going to cut it, even if Aaron Rodgers is your quarterback. After eight consecutive playoff seasons, Green Bay missed the postseason in each of the last two years so heavy investments were made get better defensively.
Investing over $150 million to acquire the services of OLB Za’Darius Smith, OLB Preston Smith and S Adrian Amos, Green Bay utilized both of its 2019 first-round selections on defensive prospects in DL Rashan Gary and DB Darnell Savage.
Talk about using premium resources to fix a problem, that’s exactly what general manager Brian Gutekunst did this offseason. Methinks a much-improved defensive unit will complement Aaron Rodgers and the offense in 2019. It better.
Dark Horse MVP: Offensive Tackles
Do you have a minute to talk about the best offensive tackle tandem in the league? Good, because that is what Green Bay has in David Bakhtiari at left tackle and Bryan Bulaga on the right side. With Bulaga’s deal set to expire after this season and Bakhtiari after 2020, how long they will be a duo remains to be seen. With that said, they are intact for 2019 and are critical for their role in keeping Rogers upright and able to dice up secondaries.
Under the Radar: RB Aaron Jones
GIVE. HIM. THE. BALL.
Which I expect to happen a lot more with Matt LaFleur as the head coach who ran the ball 51 percent of the time in Tennessee. By comparison, Mike McCarthy ran the ball just 34.2 percent of the time last season in Green Bay.
While the dynamics of the offensive personnel is much different between Tennessee and Green Bay, the Packers will certainly be more balanced in 2019. And that should mean more touches for Jones who has thrived each and every time he’s been given the opportunity.
In 24 career games, Jones has averaged 5.5 yards per rush but averages less than nine rushes per game. He should be the clear feature back for Green Bay moving forward and is primed for a big year in this offense.