When the Packers defensive unit takes to the field in September it might be almost recognizable in comparison to what we saw last season. Let’s hope so anyway.
I’ve been thinking about some particular players who might benefit the most from the changes defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will be implementing. As I went through the list, I realized that almost every Green Bay defender’s performance could be a marked improvement over last season. Below are a few of the guys who ought to be the happiest due to Pettine’s arrival.
Yes, the guy who for years was the heart of the team’s defense has battled injuries for the past three years, but he was also been marginalized by a Dom Capers’ defense that squandered his talents.
Matthews no longer relies mainly on raw power as his method of sacking QBs. He has come to benefit greatly from a variety of stunts that allowed him to get to the quarterback.
I believe that Pettine, by his creative use of all defenders working interactively to free paths to the quarterback, will rejuvenate Matthews’ career. One of the first things Pettine did upon being hired was to contact Clay and he presumably said he intended to take full advantage of his versatility.
The last few years, Clay mostly had to rely on beating linemen in one-on-one combat in order to get a sack. I think the 31-year-old has a few good years still in him. Wouldn’t it be great if Matthews were to justify his $11 million salary under Pettine’s guidance?
Here’s another guy who’s loaded with talent that hasn’t been fully utilized. When Pettine strategizes, he starts with the defensive line and works outward from there. Daniels has the aggressive mindset that Pettine looks for. It’s likely that Pettine will try to put Daniels in positions that will lead to more pressure on the quarterback than we’ve seen for some time.
Over his first six years, Daniels has averaged 4.5 sacks. Given his mobility, I’d set a goal of eight sacks this season, better than his current high of 6.5 in 2013. We know Daniels is thrilled by Pettine’s arrival. When he heard the news, Daniels exulted: “I felt like it was Christmas Day… I know he’s going to do amazing things because we definitely have the guys.”
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
Even Clinton-Dix admits to being disappointed by his 2017 performance. His post-eason verdict: “Last year we had to do what was best for the team. I wasn’t involved a lot.” I think that’s accurate, though Clinton-Dix also clearly lost his focus and forgot how to tackle.
As an athlete, Clinton-Dix has plenty of talent and ability. Considering he’s been assigned to lurk deep in the defensive backfield and guard against the deep ball, he’s still managed to average over 88 tackles per season in his four years in the league.
He’s got ideal size and is a sound tackler and pass defender when his head is in the game. I suspect that Pettine will constantly challenge Clinton-Dix to live up to his promise when Ted Thompson used the 21st overall draft pick on him in 2014. This consensus All-American at Alabama needs someone to help bring out his best. Mike Pettine could be just that guy.
Last May, the Packers exercised their fifth year option on Clinton-Dix, so he won’t become a free agent until next year. That’s an additional incentive for Clinton-Dix to reinvigorate his game in 2018.
At a one-year salary of $5 million, the former Jets’ defensive lineman could prove to be Brian Gutekunst’s best move to date. Wilkerson spent his first two years in the pros playing under Pettine and his defensive schemes. He was developing into a star pass rusher when he recorded 12 sacks in 2015, but has averaged only four sacks in the past two seasons.
Even with his reduction in sacks, his stats compare very favorably with new teammate Mike Daniels. In Wilkerson’s seven years and Daniels’ six, Wilkerson has 404 versus 207 tackles; he has caused 10 fumbles, versus 2; he has 28 versus four passes defended; he has 43 versus 25 stuffs; sack-wise, he has 44 versus 27.
By the way, while Daniels is listed at 310 pounds, Wilkerson is four inches taller and five pounds heavier – and the new guy’s weight is much better distributed. Wilkerson is a fabulous athletic specimen, whereas Daniels succeeds despite his physique – at six feet tall, he might be the shortest defensive lineman in the NFL.
Yet it’s Daniels who has the four-year contract at over $10 million per year. When the Jets released Wilkerson in late February, they freed themselves from an obscene five-year, $86 million deal. The Packers got him for just $5 million.
When Pettine joined the Packers, there was immediate speculation whether he could help attract Wilkerson to come to Green Bay. Every once in a while the speculation turns out to come true, as it did here. The remaining speculation is whether Pettine can maximize his tremendous talent and get him back up to his stat line in 2015, which resulted in that mammoth but short-lived contract.
Pettine’s Prospects in Green Bay
I could go right down the defensive lineup and theorize how Mike Pettine might bring out the best in other Packers’ defenders, but for now I’ll leave it at these four.
You might note that the above players have loads of potential. Three of the four (Daniels was a fourth-rounder) are first-round draft selections. Matthews is a six-time Pro Bowler; Clinton-Dix made the Pro Bowl in 2016 and Daniels did so for the first time last year.
Best of all, the ages of the foursome are desirable. Clay is far from through at 31. Daniels and Wilkerson are 28. Clinton-Dix, about to begin his fifth season at the tender age of 25, should still be getting better.