GREEN BAY – When Mike Pettine looks down at the roster he inherits, the Packers’ new defensive coordinator likes what he sees.
“The cupboard certainly isn’t bare,” said Pettine during his introductory news conference last month. “There are some quality football players here.”
Last season didn’t go according to plan for Green Bay. While the defense started strong during the first month of the season, injuries and inconsistency resulted in the Packers finishing 22nd in total yards and 31st in red-zone defense.
Looking for a fresh start, Head Coach Mike McCarthy chose Pettine to reset things. Prior to a two-year stint as the Cleveland Browns’ head coach, Pettine coordinated five top-10 defenses with the New York Jets (2009-12) and Buffalo Bills (2013).
Coming off a two-year sabbatical from the daily football grind, Pettine is energized by a Green Bay defense he feels is plush with young talent and primed for a bounce-back year.
It starts up front with Pro Bowl defensive tackle Mike Daniels and former first-round pick Kenny Clark, who blossomed during his second NFL season in Green Bay.
Still only 22 years old, Clark had 55 tackles, 4½ sacks (all in the final month of the season) and two forced fumbles in 15 starts. His 55 tackles were the most by a Green Bay defensive tackle since McCarthy switched to a 3-4 scheme in 2009.
Inside linebacker Blake Martinez also made a similar jump in Year 2, developing into an every-down linebacker and finishing second in the league with 142 tackles.
However, the linchpin of the defense remains linebacker Clay Matthews, whose versatility was one of the Packers’ greatest strengths under previous coordinator Dom Capers.
Matthews, who led the Packers with 7½ sacks in 14 starts last season, now holds the franchise record for career sacks (80). Pettine said he met Matthews during his first week on the job and is excited to get to work with the six-time Pro Bowler.
“The first thing that jumps out is his versatility. This is a guy that can play on the edge, he can rush inside,” Pettine said. “I’ve always believed in having those versatile, hybrid-type players for two reasons. One, a guy that can play multiple positions can give you depth so that if you have an injury … (you can) move him around. When you have versatile guys that adds depth.
“And the other thing is from an identification standpoint. On the other side of the ball they don’t clearly see he’s always this position (or) that guy’s always the strong safety, that guy’s always the free.”
The Packers have some questions to answer in the secondary, beginning with veteran safety Morgan Burnett. A two-time playoff captain, Burnett is approaching unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career. He has played every position in the secondary the past two seasons and also served as a hybrid linebacker in the “Nitro” nickel sub-package.
Green Bay also has three other veterans – cornerback Davon House, defensive tackle Quinton Dial and linebacker Ahmad Brooks – who are set to hit the market next month.
Here is a quick look at the 23 defensive players and three specialists the Packers have under contract for next season and their 12 upcoming free agents. Of those 12, six are controlled free agents who can be re-signed with an exclusive-rights or restricted tender.
Under contract for 2018 (26): LB Clay Matthews, LB Nick Perry, S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, DT Mike Daniels, DT Kenny Clark, LB Blake Martinez, LB Jake Ryan, DE Dean Lowry, CB Damarious Randall, CB Kevin King, CB Quinten Rollins, S Kentrell Brice, S Marwin Evans, S Josh Jones, LB Kyler Fackrell, LB Vince Biegel, DT Montravius Adams, LB Reggie Gilbert, CB Lenzy Pipkins, CB Josh Hawkins, LB Chris Odom, LB David Talley, LB Ahmad Thomas, K Mason Crosby, P Justin Vogel, LS Zach Triner.
Unrestricted free agents (6): S Morgan Burnett, CB Davon House, DT Quinton Dial, LB Ahmad Brooks, CB Demetri Goodson, LS Brett Goode.
Controlled free agents (6): LB Joe Thomas (restricted), S Jermaine Whitehead, CB Herb Waters, CB Donatello Brown, P Jake Schum (restricted), LS Taybor Pepper.