Things undoubtedly will look different on the Green Bay Packers’ defense next season.
Along with whatever structural changes they make this offseason, personnel changes are inevitable. Casey Hayward already left for San Diego, Mike Neal remains unsigned and B.J. Raji abruptly stepped away from the game for at least a year citing family reasons.
Yet, there’s optimism that Green Bay’s 15th-ranked defense will be better next season despite the exit of at least six players who combined for nearly 3,000 defensive snaps and only two street free-agent acquisitions (reserve linebacker Leventee McCray and practice-squad defensive lineman Ray Drew).
The reality is the Packers feel they addressed their biggest need in December when they gave defensive lineman Mike Daniels a four-year, $41 million extension three months ahead of the Jacksonville Jaguars shelling out a five-year, $75 million deal to Denver’s three-technique end Malik Jackson.
Daniels, along with being arguably the best pass-rushing end they’ve had in the 3-4 scheme, brings a nastiness and toughness to the defense. He quickly has developed into the face of the attitude era that has emerged on the defense over the past three seasons.
“You can’t win a Super Bowl with nice guys on defense,” said Daniels during the first day of the team’s offseason program on Monday. “You look at the last teams — Ravens, Seahawks, Patriots and the Broncos — their defenses did a lot of that work. When the Giants beat the Patriots twice (in 2007 and 2011), it was that pass rush. So the defense is going to get it done.”
Coach Mike McCarthy said at the NFL scouting combine that he and defensive coordinator Dom Capers mapped out a three-year plan before last season to transform the defense from good to championship-caliber. He hasn’t softened from that stance despite general manager Ted Thompson's quiet perusal of free agency.
Although the exact blueprint won’t be rolled out for months, Daniels believes attitude plays a vital role in establishing identity. It’s why he’s been effusive in his praise of the front office for the acquisition of safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, inside linebacker Sam Barrington and defensive lineman Letroy Guion in recent years.
On the field, recent successes through the draft and free agency should be enough to fill Raji's and Hayward’s voids. The bigger issue is the Packers’ need to replace two of the most vocal leaders on the defense, let alone their position rooms. That’s where Daniels and Guion likely will come in.
Guion had the best season of his eight-year career when he replaced an injured Raji at nose tackle in 2014. A move to defensive end and three-game suspension set him back last season, but the Packers saw enough down the stretch to re-sign Guion to a three-year, $11.05 million extension in February
It turned out to be a good insurance policy with Raji's hiatus and Mike Pennel being suspended for the first four games due to a violation of the league’s substance-abuse policy. Depending on what happens through the draft, Daniels has no problem lining up next to Guion again.
“He’s going to get after you,” Daniels said of Guion. “He likes to poke the bear, so to speak, and when I say poke the bear I mean if a team has a guy that has a reputation for being the tough guy or the bad dude or whatever, he’s going to kind of get after him and get in his head and start the fight. I like that. I love that about him. We have a lot of guys that are like that.”
The Packers are planning to move Clay Matthews back to outside linebacker, so there should be plenty of snaps available to Barrington in the heart of Green Bay’s defense. Whatever plans they had for the former seventh-round pick last season were spoiled by a season-ending ankle injury in the opener against Chicago.
It’s the second time in Barrington’s three NFL seasons that he has finished the season on injured reserve, but his 2014 performance (53 tackles, one sack in 14 games with seven starts) was enough to convince the Packers they didn’t needed to renovate inside linebacker after the release of A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones last offseason. He was handling the three-down linebacker spot before the injury.
“He has the same mentality as me. He’s coming to start a riot,” Daniels said of Barrington. “That’s the way he plays football. We continue to feed into that type of identity, that personality in our defense. Sam, he’s a leader, he’s a guy (who) I don’t mind saying, ‘Hey, you’ve got it. Whatever you need done, I’ll get it done for you.’”
The Packers have two capable inside options in Barrington and Jake Ryan, but likely will want to improve their holdings at the position through the draft. Preferably, they’d like to secure a three-down linebacker who could tilt the field like Matthews did on an interim basis last season.
In the secondary, the Packers finally appear to have secured the difference-making safety in Clinton-Dix that they'd lacked next to Morgan Burnett after Nick Collins’ career-ending neck injury in 2011. Clinton-Dix didn’t miss a snap last season, registering 100 tackles, three sacks and an interception.
Once again, the 23-year-old safety turned his game up in the playoffs with nine tackles, four passes defensed and an interception. His performance would have drawn more acclaim if the season hadn’t ended the way it did in a 26-20 overtime loss in Arizona.
All offseason, Daniels’ thoughts constantly drifted back to how the Packers’ season has ended in overtime losses the past two years. You can be sure that he isn’t alone. It's what fuels the defense entering the 2016 season.
“It’s a team sport but, at the end of the day, it does fall back on the defense,” Daniels said. “They scored on us in overtime two games in a row out west. The lasting thought was, ‘Man, if only the defense could have done better and the defense could’ve pulled through.’
“I’m a man and I have pride and that makes me angry. I’m sure it makes a lot of other guys upset.”