What to watch for on defense during Packers OTAs

By: Paul Bretl 5/20/24

Offseason Team Activities (OTAs) have already been underway for several weeks now for the Packers, but Monday marks the first time the entire team, both veterans and incoming rookies, will be in the meeting rooms and on the practice field together.

Full-team OTAs will run for the next three weeks, with one practice available to the media each week. As is always the case in mid-May, anything we see this time of the year should be taken with a grain of salt. However, as I take in these practices, there will still be four key things on the defenisve side of the ball that I’ll be looking for.

Versatility at safety

The buzzword we’ve heard GM Brian Gutekunst use this offseason when discussing the safety position is “interchangeable.” As Gutekunst has said, he wants the two safety spots and the nickel cornerback to be able to rotate, which will keep opposing offenses off-balanced, not knowing who will be where or what responsibilities each player will have. 

Xavier McKinney has shown in his career that he can fill a variety of roles, and in drafting Javon Bullard and Evan Williams, the Packers believe both those players can as well. We saw a glimpse of this during rookie minicamp, with Bullard playing both deep and in the slot, along with Williams playing deep and in the box. In addition to where each of these players line up, I’ll also be watching who is lining up next to McKinney and what the situation is.

“Speaking to that,” said defensive backs coach Ryan Downard about the versatility at safety, “like Seattle, for example, they had a guy, Earl, who was traditionally in the post, and Kam was in the box, but you go back and watch their point of attacks, Kam’s got some reps in the post, too. So they both could do both things.

“Again, I just think in terms of preparation, you can’t always say OK this guy’s always going to be the one that’s rolling down into the box and he’s rotating to the post if he’s showing depth. I just think there’s an advantage not only from a game-planning standpoint but then I just think the things you’re able to do with the players – like if you have a guy that can cover and tackle, that’s obviously better than a guy that can just cover or can just tackle. Might be a little greedy on my part, but that’s what we’re striving to get.”

Speed at linebacker

Fast and physical. That’s what the Packers were looking to add at linebacker, and we, again, caught glimpses of that during rookie minicamp. Both Ty’Ron Hopper and Edgerrin Cooper showcased their speed in the run game, flowing to the sideline to fill running lanes, and both made plays in coverage as well. As Hafley pointed out when speaking with the media recently, in today’s NFL, teams need linebackers who can operate in space, with the ability to erase both the run and passing games. On paper, the Packers have that between Cooper, Hopper, and Quay Walker. 

“Obviously, a lot of speed, right,” said Gutekunst after Day 2 of the draft about Cooper, Hopper, and Javon Bullard. “They bring a lot of speed. These guys are really good football players. They run and hit.

“Cooper,” added Gutekunst, “the speed that he brings to the table at the linebacker position is rare. So I think we got a lot faster, which I wanted to do this weekend.”

My guess this early in the offseason is that we see Isaiah McDuffie lined up next to Walker as Cooper continues to learn the system and adjust to the NFL, but from the sounds of it, that starting linebacker spot next to Walker is wide open this summer. Most of the Packers’ defensive snaps are going to come in nickel with just two linebackers on the field, but when in their base 4-3 defense, another unknown right now is who the middle linebacker will be. We saw Hopper fill that role during rookie camp, but I would again anticipate McDuffie starting there, at least for the time being.

An attacking interior defensive line

I went into greater detail here, but in short, one of the big changes under Hafley will be along the defensive front, where the defenders are responsible for only one gap instead of two. This should result in a more proactive, attacking front rather than a read-and-react approach. As defensive line coach Jason Rebrovich said, it’s all about tackles for loss and sacks. A name that keeps getting brought up this offseason is Devonte Wyatt, as someone who should thrive in this style of defense.

“It’s an attack front, guys,” said defensive line coach Jason Rebrovich. “If you put the tape on with San Fran, Houston, the Jets, things like that, been very fortunate in my background being in Buffalo and in Jacksonville and that’s really what we did back then, so been fortunate to be around it. 

“But it is, it’s about TFLs and sacks. We’re going to look to create havoc in the backfield. Every down, we’re looking to penetrate and make something big happen. Offensive linemen, not moving so fast laterally, they’re going to have to stay on the line of scrimmage a little bit longer with the movements and the ability for us to get in the backfield.”

Carrington Valentine and Eric Stokes

The cornerback position comes with some question marks heading into OTAs and, eventually, training camp. One of those unknowns is around who will be starting opposite of Jaire Alexander: Carrington Valentine or Eric Stokes. Valentine is coming off a rookie season where he allowed a completion rate of 55 percent with five pass breakups. A Year 2 jump from Valentine would go a long way in providing stability to this unit, but that’s never a given either. Stokes’ 2023 season, meanwhile, was limited as he dealt with injuries. 

“I feel pretty good about it right now because we’re running around in shorts and everybody’s healthy,” said GM Brian Gutekunst after the draft. “So, you know, I understand the question. If it would have fallen right, we would have addressed that probably. But it just didn’t. it was kind of one of those years with that position. But right now, I really like our group and I like the way they look. We’ve got a long way to get to September with everybody healthy, but I like the way it looks right now.”

This is a Packers’ secondary that recorded just seven interceptions last season–the second-fewest in football. Hafley’s ability as a teacher, with his coaching background rooted in the secondary, along with his ability to create simplified game plans, will be important factors in getting more ball production out of this unit. Hafley has shared his love of press-man coverage, and while we will see more of that than we did under Joe Barry, zone is still going to be a big part of his defense. 

As LaFleur mentioned during Hafley’s introductory press conference, a more “vision-based” approach with eyes on the quarterback is going to hopefully help generate more turnovers. My guess is that Stokes gets the “start” next to Alexander, but nothing is set in stone this time of the year. Also of note, I do wonder if we see Bullard getting slot snaps over Keisean Nixon.