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Packers see bright future ahead for ascending defense

Key pieces remain in place for coordinator Joe Barry’s top 10 unit

LBs Preston Smith, Rashan Gary and DL Kenny Clark
LBs Preston Smith, Rashan Gary and DL Kenny Clark

GREEN BAY – As much as things changed for the Packers this offseason, the complexion of their top 10 defense remains very much the same entering 2022.

After finalizing the trade of Davante Adams to Las Vegas, Green Bay invested the extra cap space into re-signing All-Pro inside linebacker De'Vondre Campbell and cornerback Rasul Douglas.

The two veterans were essential to how the defense performed under first-year coordinator Joe Barry, with Campbell leading the Packers with 145 tackles and Douglas pacing the secondary with five interceptions, including two returned for touchdowns.

While retaining Campbell and Douglas ranked high on the Packers' list of offseason goals, General Manager Brian Gutekunst didn't stop there. Green Bay also inked edge rusher Preston Smith to a long-term extension and signed durable defensive tackle Jarran Reed, who has 237 tackles and 24½ sacks in 89 career games (80 starts) over his six NFL seasons.

"What's great is we were able to get the majority of our defense back in place," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said at last month's NFL Annual Meetings. "We're really excited about some of the additions we made there, a guy like Jarran Reed and getting Rasul Douglas back, and De'Vondre Campbell obviously was the key piece."

In Barry's first season in Green Bay, the Packers ranked ninth in total defense (328.2 yards per game), 10th in passing (219.1 ypg) and tied for sixth with 18 INTs. Green Bay's 26 total takeaways were the defense's most in seven years.

Perhaps the most impressive part was how Barry and his unit adapted to losing its two returning All-Pros, Jaire Alexander and Za'Darius Smith, who missed a combined 29 games. Just three defensive starters (Adrian Amos, Darnell Savage and Dean Lowry) were available for all 17 regular-season contests.

Yet, the defense stayed the course and was at its best during January's NFC Divisional playoff game against San Francisco, limiting the 49ers to 212 yards and two second-half field goals.

"Last year, as we grew as a defense, we had some really good moments where we made it really difficult on our opponents," Gutekunst said. "Even with some of the injures we had with Z and Jaire, they were really able to hold their end of the bargain up. Look at that playoff game, that was one of the better performances defensively that we've had in the playoffs in a long time."

The defense didn't get through the offseason completely unscathed, as cap constraints factored into the decision to release Za'Darius Smith, who then signed with the Minnesota Vikings.

The maturation of 2019 first-round pick Rashan Gary made the Packers feel better about the move, though. Upon graduating into a full-time starting role, the 24-year-old pass rusher set career highs with 28 quarterback hits and a team-high 9½ sacks.

Across from Gary, Preston Smith bounced back with 38 tackles, nine sacks, 17 QB hits and two forced fumbles. Smith and Gary each started 16 games and combined for 1,370 snaps, shouldering a bulk of the edge-rushing workload with Za'Darius Smith missing all but one regular-season game.

"We really thank Z for what he's done for our organization for the past couple years," Gutekunst said. "That was a big addition to our defense when we kicked off '19. But I think obviously that nasty word, salary cap, drives a lot of decisions. I think with the emergence of Rashan and Preston playing so well last year, I think those things came into play."

The Packers spent the next wave of the free agency building depth on the defensive line and in the secondary, signing Reed and former Raiders cornerback Keisean Nixon.

A mainstay on Las Vegas' special teams under Rich Bisaccia, Nixon possesses inside and outside defensive versatility. Meanwhile, the 29-year-old Reed has missed just eight regular-season games over six NFL seasons.

The 6-foot-3, 313-pound defensive tackle has played at least 600 defensive snaps in four of his last five seasons, giving Barry another lineman with three-down potential to work with Kenny Clark, Dean Lowry and 2021 draft pick T.J. Slaton.

"It gives us a fourth in that rotation right now," said Gutekunst of Reed's addition. "Certainly when we go base … he's a guy I think we can plug right in there. As a pass rusher, maybe he'll give us a little more than we've had in the past. Getting a proven player like Jarran at this point in free agency was important for us."

Later this month, Gutekunst and his scouts have an opportunity to add even more to the defense with the Packers currently holding 11 picks in this year's NFL Draft. After everything Barry's defense accomplished in the face of injuries last year, the anticipation is building for what might be possible in Year 2.

"I'm excited about that group, seeing what Joe can do with them in the second year, especially with some healthy pieces that weren't there last year," Gutekunst said. "It will be interesting what we can add between now and September, but I like the group we have coming back."