GREEN BAY – The Packers made a significant investment in the future of their defense when they spent not one, but two first-round picks on prospects from the reigning national champion Georgia Bulldogs a year ago.
Twelve months after drafting Georgia alumnus Eric Stokes in the first round, the Packers added two more Bulldogs last April when they selected linebacker Quay Walker 22nd overall and defensive lineman Devonte Wyatt at 28.
Walker played immediately for Green Bay, starting 16 games, and earning a spot on the PFWA All-Rookie Team after leading the Packers' defense with 119 tackles, in addition to seven passes defensed, three forced fumbles and 1½ sacks.
Wyatt's development process was more gradual. The 6-foot-3, 304-pound defensive lineman shadowed veterans Kenny Clark, Dean Lowry, and Jarran Reed for most of his rookie season before making his biggest impact – a strip sack of Detroit quarterback Jared Goff – in the Packers' regular-season finale.
Entering Joe Barry's third season as defensive coordinator, the Packers are expecting even more from Walker, Wyatt and a talented unit that finished strong in 2022 and returns all but three starters.
"I think there were a lot of games that our defense gave us an opportunity to win the game, and I felt like towards the end of the season that we were getting better and better and better," said Head Coach Matt LaFleur at last week's NFL Annual Meetings.
"I thought Joe was doing a good job of communicating with our players. I thought our staff was doing a great job together, putting our guys in a better situation, having just more clarity on what it is we wanted to be and our playstyle, and I thought it got better."
Seeing Walker's promise, Barry and the Packers' defensive coaches parked the rookie next to All-Pro inside linebacker De'Vondre Campbell from the very start of organized team activities.
Walker's 4.52 time in the 40 translated to his playstyle, as the 6-foot-4, 241-pound linebacker demonstrated sideline-to-sideline speed and a knack for getting his hand on the football (seven passes defensed).
The only downside to Walker's rookie season was a pair of ejections, first in Week 8 in Buffalo and then in Green Bay's regular-season finale against Detroit. After the season, both LaFleur and General Manager Brian Gutekunst expressed confidence the 22-year-old linebacker will learn from his mistakes.
Walker finished second among NFL rookies in tackles, which also were the fifth most by a Green Bay rookie since 1975. He was the only NFL rookie with five-plus tackles in 16 games this season, according to Stathead.com.
Now that Walker has a full year under his belt, the Packers believe he's positioned to expand his role even further this upcoming season.
"I think Quay is an exceptional athlete," LaFleur said. "He's a versatile player, whether it's lining him up on the edge, which we did a little bit last year. I think he can cover in man coverage situations. He's just got that ability.
"There's a lot of room for growth for him quite frankly, and more responsibility, and a lot of that is going to come with him knowing all the little details to every call and how you're playing each play."
Perhaps no position on the roster is deeper than inside linebacker, with Walker, Campbell, Isaiah McDuffie and Eric Wilson all back. The defensive line is a bit of a different story after losing both Lowry (Minnesota) and Reed (Seattle) as unrestricted free agents.
Their departure opens two starting spots in the base defense next to Pro Bowl defensive lineman Kenny Clark, with Wyatt and third-year veteran T.J. Slaton the most likely candidates to see a surge in playing time.
Wyatt played 224 snaps over 16 games, recording 15 tackles, three quarterback hits and 1½ sacks during a rookie season that closely mirrored his first year in Athens, Ga.
"I think he showed flashes," said LaFleur of Wyatt. "I think (defensive line coach) Jerry Montgomery does a great job of preparing those guys upfront to get the tips and tells of what an offense may be doing, and he's going to have to put a lot of time and effort and work in to make sure that he's up to the same standard as, like, a Kenny Clark."
In all likelihood, the 2023 Packers may skew young, and the coaching staff will adjust accordingly. With the nine-week offseason program starting on April 17, the Packers plan to use their time to the fullest.
"It's going to be a big offseason in terms of how we go through OTAs and the practice time," LaFleur said. "We're probably going to be on the field a little longer than we have in years past. We're going to be in the building a little bit longer, we're going to use the entire four hours. I'd say in years past we've been 3½ to 3:45. I just think there's a lot of things we can do to help all our players."