Brian Gutekunst had his work cut out heading into last year’s draft. He had four picks in the first two days, but he needs far more than that. After opting to find Rashan Gary a potential partner for years to come with the 13th-overall pick, he devoted Day 2 to Jordan Love’s pass-catching group, adding Luke Musgrave, Jayden Reed, and Tucker Kraft. Each was a vital component of a young air game that’s finally starting to come along. But he neglected safety. When Darnell Savage and Rudy Ford went down, things could have gotten ugly.
Fortunately, seventh-round rookie Anthony Johnson Jr. has patched the hole in center field nicely, and he’s flashed while doing so.
Johnson plays downhill and seeks contact. On the surface, it seems like a pretty standard, if important, trait for any safety. But his energy and intensity stand out on a Packers defense that has been notoriously soft. That softness prevented multiple Rodgers-era teams from having a chance to win crucial playoff games, most notably in San Francisco in 2021 when Raheem Mostert gashed them for over 200 yards.
On Monday, Matt LaFleur said that Savage is “potentially” ready to be activated to the 53-man roster. It’s a welcome bout of optimism, given that the injury report has read like a scroll these past few weeks. Still, LaFleur and defensive coordinator Joe Barry must carve out a role for Johnson when the starters return, even though he was inactive until November. Savage was selected only nine picks after Gary in Gutekunst’s second draft, but he has followed a much different trajectory.
Gary recently inked a mega-deal that placed him among the league’s elite edge rushers, but Savage has rarely played with the explosiveness his profile suggests. He has often been injured and is potentially in his final season in Green Bay. The Maryland product posted an 8.35 relative athletic score (RAS) in the pre-draft process, promising elite speed and agility. But the downhill intensity and hit-sticks we have been seeing from Johnson are exactly what has been missing from his game.
For what it’s worth, the Packers are 3-0 with Johnson and Jonathan Owens starting in place of Savage and Ford. Owens also presents Green Bay’s only answer to the Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift hype train. It’s difficult mentioning him without reference to who he’s married to, and it’s a bummer that I couldn’t resist contributing to that. Still, they dominated in Detroit with 12 tackles and a defensive touchdown. He is on an expiring contract, just like the starting safeties, so he’s another guy worth getting more opportunities.
There are a few confounding variables with that 3-0 record for Johnson and Owens — most notably, improved offense and pass-rush. With regard to the latter, it hasn’t just been Gary, either. Kenny Clark, Karl Brooks, and Devonte Wyatt are all in the top 28 league-wide in win rate. It was jarring and exciting to see Detroit’s pocket collapse so quickly, given that they have a good offensive line. That’s obviously going to make it a lot easier to win downfield. However, it’s not just Johnson’s output that’s exciting; it’s the traits he’s playing with.
Green Bay’s defense has maintained an interesting, frustrating dynamic. The Packers keep refreshing it with first-round picks who many people believe will have a breakout season, only to consistently underwhelm. Sometimes, it’s injuries, sometimes it’s pure incompetence from Barry, and sometimes it’s an excruciating inability to stop the run. It’s always something, and that hasn’t changed in the past couple of seasons. However, 2022 first-rounder Quay Walker has injected energy that could help get the Green Bay D over the hump. He’s had growing pains on and off the field, but he’s manned the middle of the defense like he’s on the Baltimore Ravens.
The Packers desperately needed more of that, and they’ve found some of it with Johnson. Even though he nearly went undrafted, it’s much easier to develop guys who already play with those intangibles. For all that’s been made of Gutekunst’s struggles in the middle rounds, he has brought home a healthy amount of late-round steals. Johnson appears to be another one of those cases, as is Carrington Valentine, also in the secondary and getting a lot of reps due to injury.
Not only did Jordan Love ball out, but his supporting cast made plays in a way they haven’t all season. That’s what it will take to put together another upset Sunday night at Lambeau, and this one will feel damn good if they can get it done. Competing during a rebuild is fun, even if the top of the NFC will likely be a first- or second-round death sentence. When it comes to the safety position, let’s hope they stick to at least a little bit of what’s been working.