There was a stretch of nearly two months last season when the Green Bay Packers’ run defense was ranked as the worst in the NFL. It had become such a problem that head coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers made the dramatic bye-week shift of moving Clay Matthews to inside linebacker.
As training camp approaches, there are many players who will be key to the Packers’ defense this season. Now that we’ve concluded the list of Green Bay’s 10 most important offensive players, here’s a look at who’s most important defensively for the Packers.
No. 10: Morgan Burnett, safety
Age/experience: 26 / 6th NFL season
Stats last season: 129 tackles, one interception, three tackles for loss, one forced fumble and 1.5 sacks
Expectations for 2015: Morgan Burnett led the Packers in tackles last season. He also was responsible for sliding to the ground in the NFC championship game after Julius Peppers signaled "no mas" to him (meaning "go down"), which led to Seattle’s comeback win. Burnett is just one full season removed from a poor 2013 campaign. The presence of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in 2014 allowed Burnett to be able to do what he’s best at: playing near the line of scrimmage. He’s not a centerfielder-type safety and was unlikely to ever succeed in that type of role. In Year 2 alongside Clinton-Dix, Burnett will be expected thrive even more.
Injury history/position depth: Burnett has missed a total of four games over the past two seasons. Green Bay has depth at safety if Burnett is sidelined at all in 2015. Sean Richardson does some of what Burnett does well with his tackling ability. Micah Hyde will also spend time at safety and could slide into Burnett’s spot.
No. 9: Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, cornerbacks
Age/experience: Both 22 years old and entering their first NFL seasons
Stats last season: n/a
Expectations for 2015: There are always increased expectations on top draft picks. Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins will find that out this season. Though cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt has already described the position as being a difficult one to adapt to quickly in the NFL, that won’t completely change public perception. Randall and Rollins won’t be asked to win starting jobs as rookies, not so long as Sam Shields and Casey Hayward are healthy. But they both have to be ready to compete and contribute right away. Considering that both rookies began their college careers playing other sports (Randall with baseball, Rollins with basketball), it could be a steeper learning curve than usual.
Injury history/position depth: Randall and Rollins will compete with Demetri Goodson to be the number three outside cornerback. One of those three has to be ready in the event that Shields or Hayward suffer an injury – which, given both of their histories, will likely happen at some point. If Randall and Rollins can’t beat out Goodson (a sixth-round pick in 2014), it won’t be a good first impression for them.
No. 8: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, safety
Age/experience: 22 / 2nd NFL season
Stats last season: 94 tackles, one interception, two tackles for loss, zero forced fumbles and one sack
Expectations for 2015: Clinton-Dix lived up to his first-round-pick expectations last season. He was far from perfect, but he provided the immediate boost to the secondary that Green Bay needed. Clinton-Dix became an every-down player throughout the second half of his rookie year, and there’s no reason to believe that won’t be the case going forward. If his performance in the NFC championship game is a sign of what Clinton-Dix will do on a weekly basis in 2015, the Packers’ defense will be difficult to throw deep on. McCarthy often talks about the jump that players need to take from year one to year two, and if Clinton-Dix is able to take that jump, he could grow to become one of the league’s better safeties.
Injury history/position depth: Clinton-Dix stayed healthy last season. If he suffers an injury this year, Hyde would likely take over for him. Hyde will never likely play outside cornerback, allowing him to focus on his responsibilities as a backup safety and slot corner.
No. 7: Sam Barrington, inside linebacker
Age/experience: 24 / 3rd NFL season
Stats last season: 52 tackles, zero interceptions, three tackles for loss, zero forced fumbles and one sack
Expectations for 2015: Two years ago, Sam Barrington was a seventh-round pick who didn’t play any defensive snaps as a rookie. In the second half of last season, though, Barrington proved his value as a quality complement inside to Matthews. Barrington’s willingness to do the dirty work and hit hard made him a popular player with his defensive teammates. Barrington has to clean up every aspect of his game if he’s going to be a long-term starter, but the development he’s already shown has given the Packers faith that he has a lot of room to grow. If he performs well in training camp, Barrington should start all 16 regular-season games.
Injury history/position depth: Green Bay’s depth chart behind Barrington consists of all unproven players. Last year’s fourth-round pick Carl Bradford will have to play well in training camp to make the 53-man active roster, and second-year undrafted player Joe Thomas will need to earn his way on, too. Jake Ryan, a fourth-round pick in this year’s draft, will definitely be part of the team. But Ryan will have to play well if he’s going to contribute as a rookie and take any snaps away from Barrington.
No. 6: Julius Peppers, outside linebacker
Age/experience: 35 / 14th NFL season
Stats last season: 44 tackles, two interceptions, four tackles for loss, four forced fumbles and seven sacks
Expectations for 2015: Julius Peppers was everything the Packers could have hoped for when signing him a year ago. He transitioned smoothly to outside linebacker, made game-changing plays and was a leader in the locker room and on the field. Green Bay’s front office was so impressed that it didn’t even attempt to mess with his contract this offseason (which carries a $12 million cap hit). Entering his 14th season and in his mid-30s, the gray-bearded Peppers is eventually going to slow down for good. There were signs he had hit that point in 2013 while with Chicago, but he rebounded very well. In order for Matthews to remain at inside linebacker, Peppers has to play at a high level on the outside.
Injury history/position depth: Peppers’ durability is the stuff of legend. He’s missed just two games due to injury in his career. Mike Neal and Nick Perry both have something to prove opposite Peppers, as they’re both in the final year of their contracts. The play of the outside linebackers – especially without Matthews there full-time – will be key for Green Bay’s defense.