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Veteran core, rookie additions have Joe Barry excited for defensive possibilities

Packers’ second-year coordinator sees bright future ahead for his unit

Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry
Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry

GREEN BAY – After re-signing several key veterans and welcoming two first-round picks, the Packers enter 2022 with one one of their deepest defenses since the turn of the century.

While there were some departures this offseason, General Manager Brian Gutekunst and the front office still managed to keep the nucleus intact from Green Bay's top-10 defense from a year ago.

Preston Smith was extended, De'Vondre Campbell and Rasul Douglas were re-signed, and veteran defensive lineman Jarran Reed was even added during free agency.

What's more, the Packers drafted a pair of Georgia Bulldogs, Quay Walker and Devonte Wyatt, in the first round to infuse more size, speed and athleticism into the defensive front.

As Joe Barry enters his second season as defensive coordinator, his expectation for his unit remains very much the same as Year 1 – to help put the Packers in position to win a Super Bowl.

"When you have a quarterback like we have and if we keep doing our job building on defense, our mindset is that we want to win a world title," Barry said. "That's the mindset we have every single day when we walk into this building."

Free agency began with a bang for Green Bay. Days after signing Smith to a contract extension, the Packers officially put pen to paper on a long-term deal with the All-Pro Campbell.

The 6-foot-4, 232-pound linebacker joined Green Bay during minicamp last June after waiting for the right opportunity to materialize. Campbell quickly found his comfort zone in Barry's defense, leading the Packers with 145 tackles.

Campbell was assignment sure, too. According to Pro Football Focus, the seven-year veteran was the only linebacker in the NFL with more than 80 solo tackles last year that also had fewer than 10 missed tackles. PFF cited him for only four.

"Obviously he did what he did on the field (and) all the things he brings to the table, just from consistency, leadership, production," Barry said. "I tell (2021 sixth-round pick) Isaiah McDuffie all the time, 'If you're ever confused on how to act or what to do, watch '59' in every aspect. Watch him in meetings. Watch him in walkthroughs. Watch him in practice.'"

This offseason, Campbell will welcome a highly touted prospect to the inside linebacker room in Walker, whose 6-foot-4, 241-pound stature mirrors that of Campbell's.

Walker was a 15-game starter for the national champions this past season, registering 67 tackles (5½ for a loss) and 25 quarterback pressures. His size and 4.52 time in the 40 at the combine ultimately led to the Packers investing a first-round pick into an inside linebacker for the first time in 16 years.

Roughly an hour after taking Walker 22nd overall, Green Bay doubled down on Bulldogs when they drafted his teammate, Wyatt, at No. 28. The 6-foot-3, 304-pound defensive lineman recorded 39 tackles and 27 pressures in 14 games in 2021.

In the long term, Walker and Wyatt appear to possess the type of three-down versatility that could afford Barry increased flexibility with how he wants to deploy his nickel sub-package.

"I spring out of bed every single day and sprint to the office knowing they're gonna be here," said Barry of Walker and Wyatt. "This time is invaluable to everybody but specifically young guys like Quay and D-Wyatt who are coming in as rookies and learning a brand new way of language, a brand new playbook."

Possibly the Packers' biggest reason for optimism wasn't a free-agent signing or rookie draft pick, but rather the return of All-Pro cornerback Jaire Alexander, who missed most of 2021 due to a shoulder injury he sustained in Week 4 against Pittsburgh.

The 25-year-old cornerback returned for an eight-snap appearance against San Francisco in the NFC Divisional playoffs, but Alexander still wasn't quite back to 100%.

Perhaps the only silver lining to Alexander's absence was it led to Green Bay signing Douglas off Arizona's practice squad. The eventual Pro Bowl alternate went on to lead the Packers' defense with five interceptions (two returned for a touchdown) in just 12 regular-season appearances.

With Douglas re-signed and 2021 first-round pick Eric Stokes coming off an impressive rookie season, Barry has a lot of options in the secondary with Alexander back in the mix.

"A lot of guys would have just cashed it in and said, 'Hey, I'll see you in May,'" Barry said of Alexander's brief return for the postseason. "He busted his butt to get back and really was not 100%. He played his butt off in that playoff game.

"It goes to show you what kind of character he has, what he's all about. You talk about football character, Jaire Alexander has it. It's exciting to have obviously Jaire, to have Eric, to get Rasul back in free agency was great."

The Packers also bring back two-time Pro Bowler Kenny Clark, sack leader Rashan Gary, starting safeties Darnell Savage and Adrian Amos, and veteran stalwart Dean Lowry, who's coming off his best NFL season.

It has Barry and his staff primed and ready to get to work on improving a defensive unit that gave up just six points during last January's playoff loss to the 49ers.

"Our goal is to play great every single week and we got a bunch of guys in that locker room that have that mindset," Barry said. "We're chomping at the bit to get started."