Silverstein: Getting Aaron Rodgers to accept that defense will be the Packers' strong suit won't be easy

Tom Silverstein
Packers News
View Comments

GREEN BAY – Here are some undeniable facts that should make you think twice about the way Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst approached the 2022 NFL draft:

  • Each of the last three Super Bowl champions ranked in the top 10 in scoring defense.
  • The last time the Packers won a Super Bowl (XLV) they had the No. 1 scoring defense.
  • The Super Bowl they won before that (XXXI), they had the No. 1 scoring defense.
  • Six of Gutekunst’s seven first-round draft picks since becoming GM have been defensive players.

As loud as his fan base was clamoring for him to move up in the draft and take one of the highest-ranked receivers on his draft board, he smartly looked at the price it would cost him in draft picks and said no.

He really liked what Georgia insider linebacker Quay Walker could do for his defense and decided to stay at No. 22 to take him. When he saw Walker’s teammate, defensive tackle Devonte Wyatt, drop into his lap at No. 28, he decided to wait on taking North Dakota State wide receiver Christian Watson and add another piece to his defense.

As he explained it, there wasn’t one receiver who was going to dramatically change the wide receiver room the moment he stepped inside. So, he drafted defense and picked up receivers in the second (Watson), fourth (Romeo Doubs) and seventh (Samori Toure).

“There were some good players in this draft,” Gutekunst said, explaining his decisions. “I don't know if they would have changed our offense, you know what I mean? They certainly would have helped.

“For me, I think what we were able to add in the draft with the three guys we drafted, I think they can help us, you know? We’ve got to get them here and they’ve got to get on the field, and we'll see what they can do with what (coach) Matt (LaFleur) and those guys want them to do.”

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur may have to sell quarterback Aaron Rodgers on the benefits of having a strong defense.

The same could be said for Walker and Wyatt, but the truth is these were two cogs on the best defense in college football, one which saw five of its members taken in the first round. These guys aren’t receivers the Packers hope can pick up the system and start to produce at season’s end, they are much more.

Walker is going to be starting next to all-pro DeVondre Campbell at inside linebacker come the first day of training camp and will immediately be an upgrade to anyone they’ve had at that position since Clay Matthews played there in 2015.

Wyatt won’t be expected to start, but there’s a decent chance he will alongside Kenny Clark and either Dean Lowry, T.J. Slaton or Jarran Reed. Few would argue that Wyatt was no worse than the No. 2 defensive tackle in the draft based solely on talent (he dropped because of some character concerns), so there’s a chance he can be an upgrade.

The last time the Packers' defense was on the field, it held the San Francisco 49ers to 212 yards and two field goals and that was with star cornerback Jaire Alexander playing eight snaps in his first game back since injuring his shoulder in October.

The Packers don’t need Walker and Wyatt to carry the defense, they need them to only do what their former Georgia teammate Eric Stokes did in his rookie season, which is solidify a starting position and play better than the guy who was there the previous year.

One of the few positives to having to trade wide receiver Davante Adams to the Las Vegas Raiders was that the Packers were able to use the salary-cap savings to re-sign Campbell and fellow free agent Rasul Douglas, meaning the only players who contributed to the defense last year that aren’t returning are slot corner Chandon Sullivan and defensive lineman Tyler Lancaster.

“I would say there’s high expectation for our whole football team, but specifically our defense, is very high,” Gutekunst said. “And I thought they played really well last year. They ended on a very high note playing at a very high level. And we got some guys coming back that'll be here in their second year that I think will be important.

“And I like the way that group is growing together. Again, it's a new season, and they've got to put in the work and the time and chemistry and all the things that go with that. But I think the expectation level for that group is going to be high.”

More: Packers draft two players off Georgia defense after early run on receivers

More: Packers trade up to draft receiver Christian Watson of North Dakota State

The expectation on offense is that Gutekunst will continue to look for veteran receiver help and quarterback Aaron Rodgers will find a way to transition from an Adams-centric passing game to a more diverse attack. Whether it’s Watson or veteran Sammy Watkins or second-year pro Amari Rodgers, someone – or perhaps all of them – will need to play a key role on offense.

It’s not unlike 1996 when the Packers were a year removed from star receiver Sterling Sharpe’s departure due to a career-ending neck injury and lost leading receiver Robert Brooks at midseason with a torn patellar injury.

The receiving corps featured Antonio Freeman in his second year and veterans Don Beebe, Terry Mickens and Derrick Mayes. Quarterback Brett Favre was forced to spread the ball around to his tight ends and running backs, and even though general manager Ron Wolf claimed Andre Rison on waivers, his contribution was mainly just a touchdown in the Super Bowl.

The leading receiver that year was Freeman with 56 catches.

Rodgers may be put in a similar situation this year. The Packers never have to worry about him throwing interceptions like they did with Favre, but getting him to accept that the defense, and possibly the special teams if respected assistant Rich Bisaccia can turn things around, will be the strength of the team won’t be easy.

The past two Super Bowl champion quarterbacks — the Los Angeles Rams’ Matthew Stafford and Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady — had to play second fiddle to their outstanding defenses. When the situation called for them to take over a game, they still had enough left to do it, but the key was doing it organically or when it was absolutely needed.

It’s questionable whether Rodgers can accept that role. The Packers’ failures in the playoffs most recently have been because the team either relied on him too much or he unnecessarily took it upon himself to win the game. Sometimes it was with ill-timed decisions to change runs to passes and sometimes it was by holding the ball too long looking for something more than he needed.

More: Twitter reacts to the Packers finally drafting a receiver in the second round

More:Twitter reacts to the Packers selection of Georgia linebacker Quay Walker in the first round

Doing those things helped get the Packers in the playoffs, but it hasn’t taken them further. The Packers don’t win Super Bowl XLV without Rodgers playing out of his mind, but it’s possible to win a game like that playing mistake-free and relying on your defense.

LaFleur is the one who will have to convince Rodgers that defense and special teams might be the way to a second ring. It doesn’t mean handcuffing Rodgers, it means making sure he reads the situation right and doesn’t try to take over when it’s not necessary.

Asked if he would be OK with defense and special teams being the strength of the team, LaFleur assured the room he would.

“We'll do whatever it takes to win, bottom line,” LaFleur said. “So if that calls for 40 runs in the game or calls for 40 passes, it doesn't matter. It's all about winning.”

On the same weekend the Packers did more to strengthen their defense, it sounded like he meant it. Let’s see how the defense and special teams develop and check in with LaFleur this fall. Then we’ll know if Gutekunst’s plan is working and LaFleur is true to his word.

View Comments