One player at each Packers defensive position group to watch during Week 2 of OTAs

By: Paul Bretl 5/28/24

This will be the second week of Organized Team Activities (OTAs) for the Green Bay Packers, with Wednesday’s practice open to the media.

Last week’s practice that we were able to view was moving at a slower pace during team drills. Matt LaFleur mentioned afterward that this was intentional, with the focus being on teaching, and as the players get more practices under their belts, the pace will pick up.

“I think it’s gonna happen organically,” said LaFleur on when things will speed up. “We kinda approached the offseason last year in a similar fashion. That first week was more jog-through and then we started to pick up the tempo as we went.

“I obviously wanna be mindful and make sure we’re doing things the right way around here, but I think learning how to practice is part of the process. You got a lot of new guys in there and they gotta learn and we’ll pick up the speed as we progress later throughout OTAs.”

Also of note, there are two groups on opposite ends of the field that are going through 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills at the same time. One group is made up primarily of expected starters. On the other side of the field are the backups. Working with the ‘starters’ initially were only returning players. The rookies were with the second group.

So when the Packers were in their new base 4-3 defense, it was Eric Wilson next to Quay Walker and Isaiah McDuffie. Lining up next to Xavier McKinney was Anthony Johnson, while Rasheed Walker started at left tackle and Andre Dillard at right tackle with Zach Tom sidelined.

Eventually, we saw Jordan Morgan taking snaps at both right and left tackle. With Josh Jacobs out, Marshawn Lloyd was the second running back behind AJ Dillon, and Edgerrin Cooper saw snaps at linebacker with this group. This, of course, doesn’t mean Anthony Johnson will be starting come Week 1, but it goes to show that starting snaps won’t be handed out either. The rookies have to first show they can handle the new responsibilities being thrown at them.

“They’ve been great,” said LaFleur of the rookies. “I think that’s one thing, personally, that I have so much appreciation for Gutey and his staff for the type of people that they bring in the building.

“You can never be around enough high-character people that love the game of football, that are willing to put in the work and are very coachable. It makes it a lot easier to come to work each and every day. It gives you more excitement to come in here to try to build something special together.”

So in preparation for this week’s practices, one of which the media can view, here is one player from each position group on defense that I’ll be keeping my eyes on.

Defensive Tackle: Colby Wooden

Colby Wooden put on a few pounds this offseason, as LaFleur said, which will better suit him and his role in Jeff Hafley’s defense. This is an attacking, one-gap defensive front, where rather than reading and reacting, it’s all about getting upfield. With this more aggressive play-style, there is an added emphasis on the depth of this unit with players being rotated heavily. That puts an added importance on Wooden at the back end of the Packers defensive tackle depth chart to make a jump in his second season.

“I would say last year we were more reading,” said Wooden on what the defensive front was asked to do under Joe Barry. “This year we’re asked to just not think and go, which that plays into our favor. 

“We would get stuck on, you know, play-action, they would hold us and because we’re reading we can’t get to a pass rush and so this year, we’re not reading we’re just going. Full stop running on the way to the quarterback.”

Defensive End: Lukas Van Ness

The Packers pass rush was very hot and cold last season. They were either incredibly disruptive or quite quiet, with little in between. More consistency is needed. Hafley’s one-gap system hopefully helps with that, but a jump from Lukas Van Ness in his second season will go a long way as well. Van Ness started to build some momentum over the second half of last season. The Packers transition to a 4-3 defense will have Van Ness with his hand back in the dirt, which is how he played the majority of his snaps at Iowa.

“Biggest jump in my opinion in my years and time of being in the NFL is from your rookie to sophomore year,” said defensive line coach Jason Rebrovich. “Every guy that you see that luckily I’ve been around, I say I, we, us, organization, coaches, from Year 1 to Year 2 that is when that light, that is when it clicks. 

“At this level as you guys have heard me say, it’s knowing about you’re matchup. It’s knowing about protections. It’s knowing about the scheme. You’ve got to know where the fit is. You’re not looking over at the sideline and looking at a card to tell you where you’re alignment is like college football is right now. And it’s different and these guys have got to take the time to learn it.”

Linebacker: Edgerrin Cooper

As already mentioned, Cooper didn’t begin last week’s practice that was open to the media with the starters, but he did eventually see some action with that group. Although this wasn’t a full-speed practice, Cooper’s sideline-to-sideline speed against the run was quite evident, as was his ability to operate in space when in coverage. The big thing I’ll be watching for with Cooper is that he continues to see more playing time with the starting group because that means on film progress is being made. 

“Just learn as much as I can and prepare myself,” said Cooper about what he wants to accomplish. “I made a promise to myself, we’re going to go 110 percent every day and just try to wait for me on Sunday nights.”

Cornerback: Eric Stokes

I’m going to make the assumption that the starting cornerback spot opposite of Jaire Alexander is still wide open, but last week it was Eric Stokes who got the start over Carrington Valentine, for what it’s worth. With some uncertainties around this position group entering 2024, a healthy and bounce-back season from Stokes can go a long way in providing stability. I’m not sure anyone knows what to expect from Stokes this season after he saw limited action in 2023 and is coming off a shortened 2022 season where he struggled prior to his injury. Like Christian Watson, Stokes worked with UW-Madison to find the root cause of his hamstring issues from last season, and the early results are promising.

“Time will tell,” said LaFleur about Watson and Stokes. “Certainly you’ve got to get through the entire offseason, into training camp. There’s a lot of volume in training camp, so we get through that, then we’ll feel pretty good about it. Both he and Stokes look like they’re probably in the best shape I’ve seen either one of them.”

Safety: Javon Bullard and Evan Williams

I’m going to cheat and put down both rookies for the safety position. Last week, on the side of the field opposite the “starters,” it was Javon Bullard as the free safety and Evan Williams as the strong safety. Not only am I interested in seeing if either line up next to Xavier McKinney this week, but also the versatility that each player possesses. The Packers believe both players can handle both safety roles along with playing in the nickel. In addition to the versatility that Bullard and Williams bring, each brings a fast and physical play style to the table as well. 

“I’d like to say this is the best group I’ve been a part of since I’ve been in the league, and that’s from me to the whoever the last person is, doesn’t matter. Everyone has done a great job,” McKinney said after Tuesday’s practice.

“I think the talent level in our room is out of this roof. It’s going to be fun to play with these guys because everyone is smart. We’re all working off each other and build off each other and compete with each other to make each other better.”