The 2010 Green Bay Packers reached two heights that have eluded the team in the decade since – a Super Bowl ring and a top-five defense. As Matt LaFleur’s squad prepares for another push at the former, hype is building around the high-octane secondary that may help them get there. For years, Green Bay’s offense, led by the transcendent duo of Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams, shouldered most of the load en route to a slew of deep playoff runs. With Adams out of the picture, the attention has turned to Joe Barry’s defense, and its handful of high draft picks with elite physical traits.
With star cornerback Jaire Alexander back from injury, 2021 breakout Rasul Douglas returning on a three-year deal, and standout rookie Eric Stokes poised to make a big leap, the Packers’ secondary is consistently ranked among the league’s nastiest. Joining Alexander, Douglas, and Stokes are safeties Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage. The Packers signed Amos in free agency in 2019, and he has emerged as a dependable leader and Pro Football Focus‘ top-graded safety over the past two seasons. On the other hand, Savage has shown flashes of the explosiveness and playmaking ability that made him the 21st-overall pick in 2018. However, he has yet to fully prove himself when it comes to consistency and physicality.
After earning a 76.7 PFF coverage grade and snatching four interceptions in 2020, Savage took an alarming step back last season. His numbers fell to 63.6 and two, respectively, and he allowed a 115.1 passer rating when targeted. The loss of Adams means that the margin of error on the defensive end is razor-thin. Will the Packers get the Darnell Savage who dominated A.J. Brown and the Tennessee Titans, or the one who Mark Andrews torched on a crucial play? That question matters a lot now.
Green Bay has exercised the fifth-year option on Savage’s rookie contract, which means they’ll have until the end of the 2023 season to determine whether or not he is the long-term answer at free safety. When the time comes to make that decision, there could be a few guys ahead of him in line to get paid, namely Rashan Gary, Elgton Jenkins, and Amos. That’s particularly significant, considering the cap crunch Brian Gutekunst and the front office will be facing once again.
So far, Savage’s career eerily resembles Ha Ha Clinton-Dix‘s run in Green Bay. The Packers also used the 21st pick on Clinton-Dix. He appeared on the brink of stardom before falling out of favor, and they traded him to the Washington Commanders in the middle of his fifth season. Clinton-Dix has struggled to gain footing with any of the numerous organizations he has played for since.
Some analysts like FTN Fantasy’s Dan Fornek have gone as far as to call Savage the “Achilles heel” of Green Bay’s defense. However, he also has the potential to put them over the top if he returns to or surpasses his 2020 form. Savage will be operating in a secondary that has no liabilities on the outside when healthy and a front seven that is faster and tougher with the additions of Quay Walker and Devonte Wyatt.
Working with the most talented unit of his career thus far will give Savage the license to be more aggressive, making plays on the ball and coming up in the run game, making him the potential X-factor of this group. He may be the key to ensuring that Joe Barry’s defense cracks the top five in his second year at the helm, which would open Rodgers’ door wider than it has been since his first and only title run.
Two years from now, Savage could have earned anything from a Jamal Adams-level extension to a Clinton-Dix-esque trade. With legitimate deep threats beginning to pop up on each NFC North team — Justin Jefferson, Jameson Williams, and Darnell Mooney — the Packers cannot afford to have a liability manning the center-field role on defense. But with the flashes Savage has put on tape, it’s hard to believe they won’t find a way to get the best out of him in a season where it feels like the stakes are as high as they’ve ever been.