Dougherty: Packers spring surprises in further bolstering their defense

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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Talk about a defensive overhaul.

In less than two months, Brian Gutekunst has splurged on three defensive players in free agency and, in Thursday night's draft, spent his two first-round draft picks on that side of the ball: pass rusher Rashan Gary and safety Darnell Savage.

That’s five key new players for his Green Bay Packers’ defense, which definitely needed the overhaul. The Packers, after all, haven’t been good on that side of the ball since they ranked No. 2 in points allowed in 2010.

The three free agents (outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, and cornerback Adrian Amos) were signed not just to be starters but at a combined total of $54.6 million this year to be very good players.

DRAFT BIO: Rashan Gary

DRAFT BIO: Darnell Savage Jr.

Oct 29, 2016; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan Wolverines defensive end Rashan Gary (3) rushes the passes against the Michigan State Spartans during the second half at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

As for the draft picks, Gary was selected at No. 12 overall to make a difference in the rushing rotation as a rookie. And Savage, who cost two fourth-round draft picks for Gutekunst to move from No. 30 to No. 21 to get him, should be an immediate starter if the Packers’ evaluation was worth its salt.

“We did some things in free agency that kind of allowed us to really let the board come to us,” Gutekunst said. “I’m sure you all know, this is one of the better defensive drafts in a long, long time. So we knew the numbers were a little bit heavier on the defensive side, and again, it was just one of those things, we’re really excited how it all turned out tonight.”

The Gary pick was a surprise at first blush with Mississippi State pass rusher Montez Sweat still on the board. Sweat was more productive (12 sacks last year to Gary’s 3½) and tested better at the NFL scouting combine (4.41 40 to Gary’s 4.58).

But the Packers’ concerns with Sweat might have been more about his personality than his enlarged heart, which was an issue with some teams but not at all for others. After the Packers picked Gary I texted a scout for another team about which of the two he would have taken, and he answered Gary. When asked why, he said nothing about Sweat’s heart but expressed major reservations about his psychological makeup and uneven temperament.

If that’s the reason the Packers passed on Sweat, it’s hard to blame them.

But just this week another red flag popped up on Gary with reports that he has a shoulder injury that will need to be managed this season and might require surgery next year.

Gary denied he has a torn labrum and that he will need surgery this year or next, though it’s generally a good rule of thumb to not take anyone at face value when it comes to injuries in the NFL. After what the Packers have gone through with cornerback Kevin King — he’d had shoulder problems in college that have continued through his two years in the NFL — you have to wonder just how big a risk Gutekunst has taken on with Gary.

For his part, Gutekunst said he “felt very comfortable long term that that issue was going to be resolved,” though he didn’t appear to rule out future surgery.

“He obviously played through it this year,” Gutekunst said. “He feels good. It’s kind of one of those things where we’ll see how it goes. We don’t anticipate anything initially.”

Then there’s Gary’s talent vs. production issue. There’s not much reason to question Gary’s ability — he was the country’s top-ranked recruit coming out of high school and was considered almost universally an upper-tier talent in this draft.

But it’s hard to square that with a college career in which he had only nine sacks in 22 games the last two seasons combined. As one veteran defensive line coach in the league told me recently when asked about Gary, “If you haven’t ever sacked the quarterback in college you’re not going to be a big-time sacker in the NFL.”

But the Packers see a guy who impacted games more than his sacks stats suggest and that he’ll be a better sacker in the NFL.

“Production is just the way you look at it, right?” Gutekunst said. “If you watch the tape and you look at some of the different kind of (analytics) stats, he affected the passer. He affected the game, and at times he wrecked it. Certainly he is a premier athlete. He has an exceptional motor on the field. Really since February, we really locked in on him.”

The Packers still don’t have a pure speed rusher, and passed on one (Florida State’s Brian Burns, who went to Carolina four picks later) to take Gary. But Gutekunst has gone to great lengths to improve his front seven this offseason. It’s hard not to wonder if Gary (6-4⅜, 277 pounds) is a little redundant with Za’Darius Smith (6-4, 272) and Preston Smith (6-5, 265). But Gutekunst is proving he subscribes to the theory that football is a big man’s game.

“These are big men with length and power and speed,” Gutekunst said. “I felt we needed to get bigger in the front, and we have. And we needed to get more explosive in the front, and I think we have. Not a coincidence. Those are the body types we’re looking for.”

Maryland defensive back Darnell Savage Jr. (4) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018, in Bloomington, Ind. Indiana won 34-32. (AP Photo/Doug McSchooler)

Savage, in the meantime, is a center fielder at safety, which has been a hole in the Packers’ secondary for years in a league that becomes more passing oriented by the season. They might have had one on their roster in former first-rounder Damarious Randall but played him out of position at cornerback and then traded him away last year because former coach Mike McCarthy wanted him out of the locker room.

Though Savage wasn’t a big name in the media for much of the draft process, as the draft neared it became clear that teams regarded him highly and possibly even as a first-round pick. Gutekunst clearly targeted him, because a couple other free safeties of note (Virginia’s Juan Thornhill, Delaware’s Nasir Adderley and Florida's Chauncey Gardner-Johnson) were still on the board, too, and if nothing else the GM could have waited and gotten one of them at 30.

But Gutekunst felt so strongly about Savage’s speed (4.36 40) and playmaking (eight career interceptions) that he gave up two extra picks (fourth-rounders) to move ahead of a team or teams he suspected were going to draft Savage. It’s always good to have a safety who can outrun his mistakes, which Savage’s 4.36 speed suggest he can. In describing Savage, Gutekunst used a word, “rare,” that always jumps out coming from a scout.

“(Savage’s) athleticism, ability to cover ground and take the ball away we thought was rare,” the GM said.

Also on the board at No. 21 were tackles Andre Dillard of Washington State and Jawaan Taylor of Florida, and running back Josh Jacobs of Alabama. Dillard went to Philadelphia on the next pick, Jacobs to Oakland two picks after that, and Taylor wasn’t taken in the first round.

But those were all offensive players, and Gutekunst saw the top of this draft as a way to improve a defense that finished in the 20s in points allowed the last three seasons and hasn’t been good since the team last won the Super Bowl nine seasons ago.

“Obviously (defense) was a focus of ours,” Gutekunst said.

The question now is whether he signed and picked the right guys.


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