Dougherty: Brian Gutekunst in search of missing ingredient for Packers' defense
We can see Brian Gutekunst’s priorities after only two years of rebuilding the Green Bay Packers’ defense.
Right at the top of that list is speed.
Of course, speed always has been important in the NFL, but it becomes even more so as the game increasingly becomes about matching up in open space and rushing the passer.
The league’s best defenses play a half-tick faster than everyone else, and Gutekunst by all appearances is drafting with that in mind.
Continuing what former general manager Ted Thompson started in his final draft, Gutekunst in the last 12 months has spent two first-round draft picks on defensive backs (Jaire Alexander and Darnell Savage) who challenge the Packers’ minimum size requirements but bring a new dimension of explosiveness on that side of the ball.
Likewise, his other first-round pick this year, pass rusher Rashan Gary, has uncommon speed (4.58-second 40) for a player his size (277 pounds). And Gutekunst’s third-round pick in 2018, Oren Burks, is much faster (4.59) than average for an inside linebacker.
That’s on top of Thompson’s final draft, 2017, when the former GM added a cornerback (Kevin King) with exceptional speed (4.42) for his size (6-3⅛) and a safety-linebacker (Josh Jones) who’s extremely fast (4.41) for a 220-pounder.
That’s not to say everything Gutekunst has done on defense neatly fits the pattern. The cornerback he drafted in the second round in 2017, Josh Jackson, ran 4.56, which ranks in the bottom quarter (24th percentile) of cornerbacks who attended the scouting combine since 1999, according to Mock Draftable. And Gutekunst signed Adrian Amos in free agency at $9 million per year even though he ran 4.56, which is pretty much average (51st percentile) for a safety.
But overall, the pattern is there. The Alexander and Savage picks make that clear, because Gutekunst took them with his most treasured assets (first-round picks) even though Alexander (5-10¼) fell just below the Packers’ usual 5-10½ cut-off for defensive backs, and Savage (5-10¾) came in barely above.
Gutekunst was willing to trade off a little size to gain a lot of speed. Alexander’s 40 at the combine (4.38) was in the 89th percentile for cornerbacks at the combine the last 20 years, and Savage’s (4.36) was in the 97th percentile for safeties. Even the sixth-round shot Gutekunst took at cornerback (Toledo’s Ka’Dar Hollman) has speed as his greatest selling point (4.36 at his campus pro day).
There’s an NFL axiom that playing really good defense requires two or three difference makers. Dom Capers, the former Packers defensive coordinator, used to say that often, and for good reason.
Back in 2010, for instance, the Packers won the Super Bowl with the league’s No. 2 scoring defense, and they had three difference makers: Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson and Nick Collins.
More recently, the Seattle Seahawks’ dominant defenses from earlier this decade were extreme because they fielded five playmakers: Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Michael Bennett, Bobby Wagner and Kam Chancellor.
The Packers, as of now, might not have even one player of that caliber, though defensive lineman Kenny Clark could be on his way. The jury is very much out on everyone else. But Gutekunst appears to be trying to build a defense so that even if it fails to field players of that caliber still can rank among the league’s best because it’s fast and physical across the board.
While Gutekunst’s accumulation of pass-rushing depth resembles Seattle, the model could end up being just as much the Baltimore Ravens. Though the Ravens’ defense wasn’t dominant last season, it finished No. 2 in fewest points allowed and No. 1 in fewest yards despite a lack of star power.
Only two of the Ravens’ defenders (linebacker C.J. Mosley and safety Eric Weddle) made the Pro Bowl. They had no first-team All-Pros and only one second-teamer (Mosley). Yet, they were one of the league’s best defenses, albeit in a down year defensively in the league.
The area on defense where the Packers remain slow is inside linebacker, where Blake Martinez’s 40 (4.71) falls into the 65th percentile for his position. With the way the game is played today, offenses will be game planning to target him against running backs and tight ends.
This is where Burks and Jones become important. The Packers very much need one of the two to become a player this year.
DRAFT BIO: Rashan Gary
DRAFT BIO: Darnell Savage Jr.
Burks has good speed and explosiveness (39½-inch vertical), plus length that puts him in the 80th percentile for inside linebackers in height (6-3⅛) and 81st percentile in wingspan (79½ inches). Last year he flashed coverage ability in camp but then played his way off the field early in the season.
Gutekunst didn’t add an inside linebacker until the seventh round (Ty Summers), so he’s counting on Burks to be a lot better in 2019. The middle of the Packers’ defense needs it.
Jones was drafted in the second round in 2017 to be a starter by now, but he flopped on the back end because of coverage errors. If he’s going to make it in this league, he needs to play near the line of scrimmage.
If I were the Packers, I’d probably just move Jones to linebacker and be done with it. That’s the way defenses are going anyway, playing glorified safeties in the nickel and dime to match up better underneath. If Jones ever gets it, the middle of the Packers’ defense would get faster immediately.
But regardless of how that goes, Gutekunst has already reshaped the Packers’ defense. It’s all about speed.