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Personnel-wise, defensive foundation in place for Packers' new coordinator

Secondary likely to undergo the most change for 2024

Jeff Hafley
Jeff Hafley

GREEN BAY – General Manager Brian Gutekunst has devoted significant draft resources on defense during his tenure, and he believes the Packers' new defensive coordinator has plenty of quality players at his disposal.

As such, Gutekunst does not see Jeff Hafley's vision for the defense having an outsized influence on player acquisition in free agency or the draft for 2024.

"It's not going to be like a wholesale change – hey, we've got to ship off and bring a bunch of new guys in – it's not going to be like that," Gutekunst said Thursday. "I think as we get into the nuances of what Jeff wants to do, … (there) may be conversations about where they play and how they fit."

In that vein, Gutekunst emphasized the current construction of the defensive roster keeps open any number of tweaks and adjustments due to the players' versatility, particularly up front.

Kenny Clark, for example, can line up anywhere on the defensive line from nose tackle to the five-technique outside. Edge rushers Rashan Gary and Lukas Van Ness have experience rushing from interior spots. And inside linebacker Quay Walker, whom Gutekunst called "a fantastic versatile piece," can take on various run, rush or coverage responsibilities.

"We'll get into that over the next few weeks and see where that lands," he said.

As Hafley learns the Packers' personnel and Gutekunst learns how Hafley wants to play defense, discussions will be ongoing.

Where Gutekunst anticipates the most change is in the secondary, particularly at safety, where the Packers have three veterans headed for free agency – Darnell Savage, Jonathan Owens and Rudy Ford.

Seventh-round rookie Anthony Johnson Jr., special-teamers Benny Sapp III and Zayne Anderson, along with practice-squad holdover Tyler Coyle are currently the only safeties under contract for next season.

Any of the three pending free agents could be brought back, but Gutekunst suggested that position could potentially undergo an overhaul.

"A little bit of that will be determined as we sit down with Jeff and get his vision for what we're going to do on defense," he said. "But we're going to have to add numbers there, for sure. Certainly, that has our attention."

Again, versatile pieces are desired, because it helps a defense to have safeties who can rotate between playing deep and near the line of scrimmage, as well as fill in at nickel cornerback when needed.

The Packers' improved salary-cap situation along with possessing five draft picks in the first three rounds should allow for a significant acquisition (or two) at safety if desired.

Cornerback is certainly high on the radar, too. While Jaire Alexander will remain the team's top corner and seventh-round rookie Carrington Valentine showed plenty of progress, Eric Stokes lost the last 1½ seasons to injuries, while Corey Ballentine and nickel Keisean Nixon are pending free agents.

There's a lot to sort out, but plenty of time to do so, as a defense whose ups and downs prevented it from fulfilling its promise the last two seasons gets new coaching leadership.

"This year there were moments when we were really good, but I think there's much, much more out there for us," Gutekunst said of the defense's play. "We played pretty consistent football in the front seven. The back end is probably where we weren't as consistent as we needed to be, and I'd like that to be shored up.

"There will be some moving pieces there going into next year."

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