Early signs point to LB Isaiah McDuffie having a role in Packers’ defense

By: Paul Bretl 7/8/24

In addition to already having Quay Walker, the Green Bay Packers invested into the linebacker position early on in this year’s draft, taking Edgerrin Cooper in Round 2 and Ty’Ron Hopper in Round 3. But regardless, early signs point to Isaiah McDuffie having a role on the defense this season.

“I mean, that’s out of my control,” said McDuffie on the team drafting two linebackers. “I come in every day ready to work with the mindset to get better. New guys in the room, I feel like they can contribute to the team, bring ’em along with us.

“So, no, I wouldn’t say I had any hard feelings toward it, but I would say at the end of the day, I know what I have to do. And if I go out there and produce and do my job I’ll be on the field.”

Due to injuries to both Walker and De’Vondre Campbell last season, McDuffie would play nearly 50 percent of the Packers’ defensive snaps. He proved to be a very sound tackler, missing only six of his 92 attempts, and was at his best against the run, flowing sideline-to-sideline and filling gaps.

“I would say so, for sure,” said McDuffie when asked if he liked what he put on tape last year. “I would say there were some things I was proud of. Going into this season, I’m holding my head high and I’m ready to continue on that path.”

In the early going of offseason programs, McDuffie has been a regular lining up next to Quay Walker. When the Packers have been in their base 4-3 defense, it has been Walker as the middle linebacker, with McDuffie and Eric Wilson alongside of him. When Cooper has been worked in, he has taken Wilson’s place.

Then, when the Packers are in nickel with only two linebackers on the field, which is the alignment that the majority of their defensive snaps are going to be played in, McDuffie has been the primary linebacker next to Walker. While depth charts in May and June may not mean a ton, as of now, McDuffie appears to be LB2.

The fact that McDuffie is seeing the starting snaps over Cooper at this stage of the offseason shouldn’t be all that surprising, given his experience not only in the NFL but also, McDuffie’s final season at Boston College was with Jeff Hafley as his head coach.

“I think any time you kind of have a headstart with knowing the guy it helps,” McDuffie said about his relationship with Hafley. “Football’s a small world, so the more people you know and relationships you build, it’s always a positive.”

Cooper would impress during OTAs and minicamp, but as Matt LaFleur pointed out, he’s entering a critical stretch as he continues to familiarize himself with the playbook and get his body ready for the training camp and the grueling NFL season. To some degree, Cooper may experience the typical growing pains that just about every rookie goes through. McDuffie, meanwhile, can provide a steady presence alongside Walker.

As Cooper continues to acclimate to the NFL level and Hafley’s system during training camp, the Packers may prefer his upside and playmaking potential over McDuffie’s experience and ability against the run. However, it’s not as if the Packers have to choose Cooper or McDuffie–why not both?

Although the Packers will certainly want to be mindful of tipping their hand based on their defensive personnel, Hafley has spoken often about maximizing a player’s strengths, which for McDuffie is run defense and for Cooper that’s being able to operate in space, along with both players being asked to blitz–something we’ve seen a lot of from this linebacker unit during offseason programs.

“The things I believe in defense,” said Hafley at his introductory press conference, “whether you’re playing 3-4 or 4-3, press man which I do love, zone coverages, vision and break, quarters, match, it comes down to can you take your players who you have and put them in the best position to succeed? And can you take your players and maximize their ability?

“Like, every player wants to get better, and that’s our job to do. Our job is to put the players in the best position to succeed and make plays.”

Two words we’ve heard often this offseason when describing the Hafley defense are ‘run’ and ‘hit’–a play-style that suits McDuffie and this Packers athletic linebacker unit well.

Hafley’s ability as a teacher to draw up digestible game plans that can be implemented in the allotted timeframe helps his players understand the why behind not only what they are being asked to do and how it ties into the bigger picture of the defensive game plan, but also the responsibilities of their teammates. As Hafley has pointed out, a terrific game plan on paper means nothing if it can’t be executed properly.

Players having confidence in what they’re being asked to do results in fast and physical play–which is the ultimate goal for this defense–along with a much more proactive rather than reactive approach, with the defense doing the dictating.

“The biggest thing is running to the ball,” said McDuffie about Hafley’s defense. “And at the end of the day, I think I do that well, just getting to the ball, tackling the guy with the ball. I feel like they’re going to put us in positions to do that, and I’m excited about that.”