A reasonable response would be: how could this unit not improve on its 2016 performance?
Last year, the Green Bay Packers gave up 4,308 yards in the air. That translates to 269 yards per game. Four NFL teams gave up at least 1,000 fewer yards. That’s how porous the Packers’ secondary was. The Packers ranked 31st in this category, ahead of only New Orleans.
Meanwhile, the Packers were a respectable eighth in the league in rushing yards yielded per game. If 269 sounds bad, here’s how many passing yards they gave up in the final six games, including the three playoff games: 354 (Bears), 353 (Vikings), 332 (Lions), 295 (Giants), 291 (Cowboys), and 392 (Falcons).
That’s 336 passing yards per game. Part, but far from all, of the reason for such an atrocious number is that the Packers simply ran out of healthy defensive backs as the season wound down. Contrast that with the Packers’ first six games: they gave up an average of only 242 passing yards, and they only allowed more than 300 yards once – in a win against the Lions.
The mean for the 32 teams was 3,890, so if the Packers give up 418 fewer passing yards in 2017, they’ll likely improve to the middle of the league. That’s only an improvement of 26 yards per game, which sounds doable to me.
Last year’s performance by the secondary was an aberration. From 2015 and going back to 2012, the team ranked sixth, 10th, 24th, and 11th in the category, and never gave up more than 4,000 passing yards.
As for the personnel, the veterans should all be getting better rather than declining. Morgan Burnett is now in his eighth year, Davon House is in his seventh, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is in his fourth, Damarious Randall, Quentin Rollins, and LaDarius Gunter are in their third year, and Kentrell Brice, Marwin Evans, and Josh Hawkins are in their second year. All these guys should be getting better.
It’s the same for the inside linebackers: Jordan Tripp is beginning his fourth year in the league, Joe Thomas and Jake Ryan are in their third, and Blake Martinez is in his second season (and looking much improved). This is a young group. In fact, they were too inexperienced last year.
No, I’m not smoking anything, but I think the Packers’ defense will finish in the top half of the league this season in passing yards yielded.
Of the top two draft picks, Kevin King could get around 50 percent of the snaps. He can become a starter if he picks up NFL-style play quickly. While I’m higher on safety Josh Jones than King, what are you going to do, put Burnett on the bench? The Packers will probably put Jones on the field immediately as an inside linebacker on passing downs. He’ll probably get a tryout there on running downs, too.
Marwin Evans will have his playing time increased, while Josh Hawkins could be destined for the practice squad. However, the Packers are currently giving him a look with the ones.
I’d like to see Kentrell Brice’s snaps increase, but that might only happen if Clinton-Dix gets hurt.
Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez will solidly nail down the two ILB spots, but only on likely running downs. Joe Thomas is on the bubble for making the final roster.
I still think LaDarius Gunter belongs in the slot, but defensive coordinator Dom Capers apparently does not. That leaves him, barring injuries, without a lot of snaps. He’ll still stay on the roster.
I’m not very familiar with Jordan Tripp, but I suspect Josh Jones will be ahead of him on the inside linebacker depth chart.
I don’t have a clue about Randall or Rollins. Each will have to earn back any playing time they get by vastly improving over last year.
This is a pretty optimistic forecast – but I hate to think what might happen when the Packers visits Drew Brees and company in New Orleans in week 7. The Saints have a great record on their home field. The last time the two teams met there, in 2014, it was a nightmare. Brees carved up the Packers’ defense, with over 400 yards passing on his way to a 44-23 rout.