Positional value was a major consideration for critics when the Green Bay Packers selected off-ball linebacker Quay Walker in the first round of the draft. Green Bay’s decision to take Walker was a surprise. There are more valuable options in terms of wins above replacement, like wide receiver, edge defender, interior defender, or cornerback. The Packers also didn’t exactly need another linebacker.
However, the Walker pick was a harbinger of what’s to come for the defense.
The Packers had not used a first-round pick on an off-ball linebacker since they took A.J. Hawk fifth-overall in 2006. And Green Bay had historically devalued the position, using low draft picks or inexpensive free agents to fill the area. Nobody could have thought the Packers would use significant resources to have not only one but two high-end players at the position.
After signing De’Vondre Campbell for $2 million last offseason, the Packers saw his impact in the defense and re-signed him to a five-year, $50 million contract. It is a team-friendly structure, though, with just $15 million in guarantees – none of it after 2022. He has a $4.2 million cap hit in 2022. Drafting Walker with the 22nd-overall pick indicates that the Packers not only give more value to the position under defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s system, but it also shows that Green Bay will change its defensive approach.
Bye-bye, three-safety looks
Last season, the Packers frequently used three safeties on the field simultaneously. Adrian Amos (playing 97.13% of the defensive snaps) and Darnell Savage (96.2%) were dominant starters. Notwithstanding, third safety Henry Black played one-quarter of the snaps, while second linebacker Krys Barnes appeared in less than 50% of the plays.
As The Athletic’s Ted Nguyen pointed out when explaining the Vic Fangio-tree system, based on two-high looks, the Packers were comfortable using lighter boxes and the Penny front – three interior defensive linemen, two edge rushers, and only one off-ball linebacker.
“Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry, who coached under (Brandon) Staley and brought the system to Green Bay, calls it (Penny front) frequently in their sub-personnel, probably because they have a lot more talent up front than Fangio did in Denver,” Nguyen explained. “When you have guys like Aaron Donald and Kenny Clark inside, it’s easier to trust that they won’t allow runners to quickly get north and south.”
But that might not be the case anymore. With two talented linebackers and Devonte Wyatt and Jarran Reed reinforcing the interior of the defensive line, the Packers can and probably will use lighter fronts and let their versatile linebackers on the field together, with the versatility to stop the run or cover.
“It’s been a while since we’ve been able to stay in certain packages with two inside’ backers that we think can handle everything in run defense and the passing game,” said general manager Brian Gutekunst after the first round of the draft. “I think this really gives our defense a ton of flexibility.”
The difference in investment was noteworthy. While the Packers have added Wyatt and Reed to the defensive line, plus Walker and the Campbell re-signing to the linebacker group, the team let Henry Black walk in free agency and sign with the New York Giants. The only addition to the safety group was seventh-round pick Tariq Carpenter, who will probably be used more as a special teamer.
Even though Joe Barry comes from a tree that values coverage over run-stopping, he is also a former linebackers coach. Therefore, his background indicates he’ll try to mix both factors. That’s why it makes so much sense for the Packers’ new defense to have linebackers who can cover. Last season, Campbell was the linebacker with the highest percentage of snaps covering in the slot. Now, the personnel allows Barry to implement everything he philosophically wants to do.