Boston College head coach Jeff Hafley’s name didn’t come up in the extensive conversation about the Green Bay Packers’ potential new defensive coordinators — until they hired him for the job. It’s an intriguing surprise, though, that gives fans even more reason to be excited about the 2024 season. Hafley will build a scheme for Green Bay that maximizes the ability of the talent already on the roster. And perhaps the best barometer of Hafley’s success will be linebacker Quay Walker‘s play.
In his press conference last week, general manager Brian Gutekunst admitted that the primary setup for the defense will be a 4-2-5 with an extra nickel defensive back. The prevailing thought is that the remainder of the base snaps will come in a 4-3 defense. That would be a dramatic change from the Mike Pettine and Dom Capers days, and it would allow some of the top-end talents on Green Bay’s defense to slide into more impactful positions. Rashan Gary and Lukas Van Ness can put a hand in the dirt and bear down from the edge of a four-man defensive line, with Kenny Clark, T.J. Slaton, Devonte Wyatt, and Karl Brooks rotating in and out to clog up the middle.
What the linebacking crew behind the talented front four will look like remains uncertain, but Quay Walker will most certainly be a key figure within it. Former Boston College player Isaiah McDuffie profiles more of a middle linebacker within a 4-3 defense, leaving Walker to shift out wide. Walker has spent the better part of his first two years in the league working from an inside spot. But as we’ve known from the time the Packers drafted him, allowing Walker to use his natural gifts as an outside linebacker will help unlock the totality of Green Bay’s defense.
“Outside linebacker is kind of natural for me because I’m kind of built like one already,” Walker said in a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article during the 2022 season. “I played it in high school, I played it a little bit at UGA. It’s kind of natural for me.”
Walker has the kind of special size and speed that works across different defensive positions, and Hafley’s task will be to build a scheme that maximizes that kind of talent. Green Bay has four picks in the top 80 selections this year. The smart money says they spend at least one of those picks on a safety, but pass-rush depth is always a possibility. They could also address linebacker early, likely as a middle-round pick. But Hafley should be salivating at the chance to fully unlock Walker in a new role out wide.
Through two seasons, Walker’s strengths haven’t shown as a coverage linebacker; Pro Football Focus ranked him in the bottom five among linebackers. He’s found a role as a sure tackler in the run game, but the Packers haven’t unleashed him in the backfield as often as he can play there. Walker has played 86% of the snaps over his two seasons in the league. But he only has 12 tackles for loss, ranking 24th out of 34 players to play 30 or more games at linebacker over the past two seasons. Allowing Walker to play more to his natural abilities in the pass rush and pursuit would allow him to elevate his game, even in his third season. His sideline-to-sideline speed will let him find his way behind the line of scrimmage far more often than he has.
If Green Bay’s defense is going to catch up to where the offense is seemingly headed, several players will need to make a leap in terms of impact and production. Brooks and Van Ness should grow in their second year. Rashan Gary is that much further removed from his knee injury. And even a guy like Eric Stokes could find an impactful role as a nickel corner. Yet Quay Walker possesses such natural gifts in a role that Green Bay hasn’t schemed up since they hired Dom Capers in 2009. Jeff Hafley has a tall task ahead of him, with expectations sky-high. Walker blossoming in a new role would be a huge help for his rookie defensive coordinator.