Packers look within to fill defensive departures
PHOENIX - The offensive structure is in place for the Green Bay Packers. So far, the defense has been a different story.
The Packers have lost two perimeter cornerbacks since the start of free agency in Tramon Williams and Davon House. A few weeks earlier, the organization started rebuilding at inside linebacker with the release of veterans A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones.
Throw in the uncertainty of Letroy Guion and B.J. Raji's situation on the defensive line and you get a good feel for how different Dom Capers' defense could look in 2015.
The Packers checked off their biggest needs on the eve of free agency in re-signing receiver Randall Cobb and right tackle Bryan Bulaga, a move that ensures 10 preferable offensive starters will be in the fold for at least the next two seasons.
Conversely, the Packers have subtracted four contributors on defense and signed only one: Indoor Football League linebacker Josh Francis. If Raji or cornerback Jarrett Bush aren't retained, seventh-year linebacker Clay Matthews would become the longest-tenured defensive player.
Mike McCarthy isn't worried about leadership. Speaking Sunday at the NFL annual meetings in Phoenix, the Packers coach saw the unit make significant strides in the category last season.
"I think the biggest improvement we made as a football team last year from the prior year is the leadership," McCarthy said. "I thought the leadership of our football team was the best we ever had. I think that was a big part of our success and a big part of our team growing and continuing to get better as the year went on."
The loss of Hawk and Williams hit close to home for McCarthy, though. Hawk was the first player the Packers drafted after he was hired in 2006. Williams joined the team as a practice-squad player midseason that year before developing into a fixture on the defense.
When McCarthy thinks of Williams, he harkens back to the divisional-round game against Atlanta in the 2010 playoffs when he returned a Matt Ryan interception for a touchdown just before halftime. It was one of nine interceptions Williams had in 2010 (including playoffs).
Hawk struggled last season and was let go with one year left on his contract. The Packers made a play to retain Williams, but were outbid for the 32-year-old cornerback when Cleveland offered him a three-year, $21 million contract that pays him $14 million in the first two years with $10 million guaranteed.
The market for House, a rotational defender, skyrocketed in the opening days of free agency. He finally landed in Jacksonville on a four-year, $25 million deal with $10 million guaranteed.
"I think Tramon's deal was tough, personally was tough because I think everything you go through," McCarthy said. "Seeing a young man work from the practice squad and the position he put himself in. He was the same guy. He was so consistent. Personally, I didn't want to see that happen.
"Davon, I don't think anybody really knew where the market was going to go. This is part of it. This is probably a normal year for us. I don't know what the numbers look like. I know when it all shakes out you lose some guys you hope to have back, but you just keep going."
The departure of Williams and House empties what had been an extremely deep cornerbacks room, but McCarthy isn't deterred. With Micah Hyde's development in the slot, an opening on the perimeter be the opportunity needed to get fourth-year cornerback Casey Hayward a more consistent role.
Hayward, a former second-round pick, was a defensive rookie of the year candidate after grabbing six interceptions in 2012. After a hamstring injury limited him to three games in 2013, Hayward saw action in all 18 games (including playoffs) last season but played less than 40 percent of the defensive snaps.
He still finished with 42 tackles, seven deflections and three interceptions. The Packers are also high on 2014 sixth-round pick Demetri Goodson, an athletic but raw prospect who played strictly on special teams last season.
"Tramon played three years with over 1,000 reps for us. You don't just replace that," McCarthy said.
"I'm excited about Casey. He had his injury, the injury and how he was able to get through the whole season and finish strong and so forth. I think he's got definitely a chance to take a step. Obviously with the loss of Tramon, who has been an outstanding, accountable, available player for us for a number of years. There's obviously a big opportunity there for all of our young corners."
Despite the edict for improved play at inside linebacker, general manager Ted Thompson hasn't dipped into free agency. Brandon Spikes, Rolando McClain and Mason Foster all remain unsigned, but the Packers lean towards developing within.
The decision to part ways with Hawk and Jones leaves Sam Barrington as the only inside linebacker under contract with actual in-game experience. Two converted outside linebackers, Carl Bradford and Nate Palmer, also are stationed inside. They'll compete with former undrafted free agent Joe Thomas and Francis this offseason.
The wild card is Matthews, who moved inside as a bye-week solution to the defense's lingering problems against the run. After making the move and promoting Barrington next to him, the Packers ranked among the league's best defenses over the final stretch of the season.
Former cornerback Charles Woodson said last week during a stop in Green Bay that he'd pitched the idea of consistently using Matthews inside to Capers after they drafted him in the first round in 2009. Needing a fix, the Packers seem to have stumbled upon something.
"It really started the last two years, I focus more on how many plays, how many snaps people played, as opposed to where people play," McCarthy said. "I think that's something that gets lost in this whole external evaluation. Depth charts, where guys are playing… our job is to put guys in a position where they'll be successful. That doesn't mean line them up at one position all the time. It means playing them the right number of plays, creating the right number of opportunities, where you're putting him in the right position so he can impact because at the end of the day it's about December, January, February football. You have to build up to that."
The Packers shored up receiver and offensive line with Cobb and Bulaga's return. It's expected they'll add another cornerback in the draft after Williams and House's exits. Their offseason plans for the defensive line likely hinge on Guion and Raji's future.
Guion was arrested in early February for two felony possession of marijuana and carrying a firearm. His camp is expecting a resolution soon. McCarthy has made it clear he wants him back, but he remains unsigned.
Raji tore his right biceps in training camp, which required season-ending surgery. He hasn't had any reported visits and could be a candidate to be brought back on another one-year, incentive-laden contract. It would be a good insurance policy if Guion is suspended by the league for any amount of time for violating the personal conduct policy.
The organization has also seen progress from 2014 third-round pick Khyri Thornton, particularly when it comes to his work in the weight room and conditioning. He missed all of last season with a hamstring injury sustained at the end of the preseason.
McCarthy has reiterated how the offensive line has been the deepest of his tenure. If all the pieces fall into place, there's no reason in his mind why the defensive line couldn't follow suit.
"You look at Randall, Bryan, same with Letroy, B.J., shoot, we want all those guys back," McCarthy said. "We want all of our guys back, especially our big guys. I think our offensive and defensive line has a chance to be as strong as it's ever been combining both units."
However the chips may fall, McCarthy feels good about where his team is even if there hasn't been a Julius Peppers or Guion-type signing in free agency. With Hawk and Williams gone, the Packers will turn to their youngsters like every year.
So far, Green Bay is the only team that hasn't signed another team's free agent this offseason and McCarthy is OK with that. While others spend, it's business as usual for Green Bay.
"I think the reasons why we were in a position in 2014 that we were in is because we stayed the course," McCarthy said. "We relied on young players a lot early in the season. It paid off for us later in the season.
"You still have to keep growing from within. I think the biggest improvement a team needs to make from the personnel is the first-year players to the second year or if a guy has an injury or something, that second to third year. That one-to-three years, to me, that's where the biggest improvement comes. You'll have the influx of young talent. I know that's exciting when you get a high draft pick, a guy you're excited about. The reality of it is it is pro football. Everyone goes through transition, it takes some time. We have to really focus on guys that we have and make sure we need to be better."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.