One of the most interesting aspects of the NFL offseason is that it’s the one time when teams can truly tell us what they think they are and where they need to go. Between free agency and the draft, we get a glimpse of how teams approach that balance. Over the next week or so, we’ll look at a few teams and what their offseason plans signal.
The Green Bay Packers surprised some people when they didn’t draft a wide receiver with either of their first-round picks during the 2022 NFL Draft. Instead, Green Bay went to the defensive side of the ball with the selections of a pair of Georgia Bulldogs in linebacker Quay Walker and interior defender Devonte Wyatt.
Green Bay eventually doubled up on receivers with Christian Watson in the second round and Romeo Doubs in the fourth. This came after the Packers stayed out of the free agency rush, adding only veteran Sammy Watkins for the receiver room.
Having some type of replacement plan for the loss of Davante Adams was viewed as the top priority by many, but the Packers put a bigger emphasis this offseason on fixing a defense that was 21st in EPA per play in 2021.
After back-to-back MVP seasons from Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay could be justified in thinking the quarterback play and a proven offensive system could make up for a potential lack of high-end talent in pass catchers. The opposite can’t really be said about the defense.
The Packers ran into an issue some of the Fangio defense adopters found as they didn’t always have the pieces of execution to fit the run from those two-high, light box structures. Per Sports Info Solutions, the Packers used a light box on 72% of their defensive snaps, the fourth-highest rate in the league. When opponents ran against those light boxes, the Packers allowed the fourth-worst positive play rate, which played a part in the defense having the worst EPA per play against the run overall.
That type of bad run defense could tank any team — it’s especially bad for a franchise that continually runs into the San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs.
With the additions of Walker and Wyatt, the Packers have two more strong run defenders who also add value against the pass. Wyatt has a quick first step that should allow him to take advantage of his gap-and-a-half responsibilities against the run and hop into the backfield when he’s able to rush the passer.
Walker has the ability to fit the run from the second level, especially behind a defensive line that creates openings and he can peel back well in zone coverage giving the Packers another layer of coverage in the middle of the field. Walker, like the other Georgia linebackers, was one of the best tacklers in college football with just a 7% broken plus missed tackle rate, per SIS.
These players will add to a front seven that already includes Kenny Clark and Rashan Gary (sixth in pressure rate in 2021).
Just getting to fine against the run will be a massive improvement for the defense, especially since opponents haven’t run on the Packers all that often. Last season on early downs, Green Bay opponents had the fourth-highest pass rate in the league. Yet the Packers were so bad at defending the run when opponents did take to the ground, it took a defense that was above average against the pass to one that rated in the bottom third of the league overall.
And while the Packers did need to add some reinforcements against the run, this is still a team that clearly prioritizes pass defense, as evidenced by the extension given to Jaire Alexander.
On the surface, Alexander got a four-year extension worth $84 million with $30 million guaranteed. The $21 million average annual salary tops the cornerback market but other key metrics of the deal put Alexander’s deal among the top at the position, but not a clear No. 1.
The Packers typically only guarantee signing bonuses in contracts. While his $30 million signing bonus tops the $25 million given to Jalen Ramsey and J.C. Jackson ($25 million), the signing bonus almost nearly had to be that big to get close to the guarantees of other top cornerback contracts.
Alexander’s 2022 salary will be just over $1 million, which included with the signing bonus gives the corner $31 million in Year 1 cash. Per Over The Cap, that ties the extension signed by Marshon Lattimore for the third-highest Year 1 cash at the position behind Tre’Davious White ($35.9 million) and Marlon Humphrey ($38 million).
Lowering Alexander’s 2022 salary with this extension will also lower his cap hit this season below the $13 million he was scheduled to make. That should save the Packers about $6 million on the 2022 cap.
By three-year cash, how most contracts are measured against each other around the league, Alexander’s $61 million tops the recent extensions of Lattimore, Humphrey, and Denzel Ward, and falls just below the $62 million for Ramsey.
Alexander is every bit of the star corner he’s now being compensated to be. He was only able to play in four regular season games after an injury in Week 4, but did get back on the field for limited playing time in the Divisional Round. During the 2020 season, Alexander was one of the most effective corners in the league. He ranked 24th in Adjusted Yards allowed per coverage snap, which accounts for touchdowns and interceptions, and his 40% completion percentage allowed was the best among 148 corners with at least 100 coverage snaps.
It’s also possible for Alexander to play a similar role to what Ramsey plays with the Rams as a dominant outside corner who can also play in the slot to get closer to the ball and open up opportunities for other defenders. Through Week 4 last season, Alexander played 33.9% of his coverage snaps in the slot. He allowed just two of six targets (five catchable) to be completed, per SIS.
That came after Alexander’s stellar 2020 season on the outside, where he played 76.6% of his coverage snaps. Among 57 corners with at least 200 coverage snaps lined up outside, Alexander was fourth in Adjusted Yards allowed per coverage snap.
Moving Alexander to the slot more often would allow the Packers’ next best two corners to play outside. Rasul Douglas has his breakout with Green Bay over the second half of last season while he played just 14% of his coverage snaps in the slot. Rookie first-round pick Eric Stokes fought through some typical ups-and-downs seen from rookie corners but finished 44th among 93 qualified corners in Adjusted Yards allowed per coverage snap. 22% of his coverage snaps came from the slot.
The versatility of all of these corners is a strength, but Alexander’s presence can make it all work more efficiently. This will be a bigger factor since Chandon Sullivan, who served as the Packers’ main slot corner (12th in Adjusted Yards allowed per coverage snap), signed with the Minnesota Vikings this offseason.
A corner like Alexander can also influence some of the coverages Green Bay is able to use. Under Joe Barry, the Packers used Quarters (seventh) and Cover 6, a quarter-quarter-half coverage (fifth) among the highest rates in the league, per TruMedia.
Early in the season, the Packers allowed Alexander to play aggressively on the outside of the Cover 2 side in the Cover 6 alignment, which allowed Green Bay to shade more defenders to the other side of the field. Alexander also had a few snaps as the flat defender from the slot in those alignments.
Last year the Packers used dime personnel on 24% of their defensive snaps, which was the fifth-highest rate in the league. As is the case with Ramsey in the Rams defense, Alexander can take some of those flat responsibilities when he lines up in the slot and closer to the line of scrimmage, which opens up more for the other defenders in coverage.
When the Packers were in dime, they used Cover 6 22% of the time, which was the third-highest rate in the league behind the Denver Broncos and Chicago Bears.
A healthy Alexander for a full season in this scheme could be a skeleton key for the rest of the defense.
While the Packers are a veteran team, they’re flooding the team with young players to build the next version of the roster around — and players who can immediately impact Rodgers’s last run at the helm, for however long that might be. Alexander just turned 25 years old and won’t hit 30 before his extension expires. Stokes just turned 23 years old. Darnell Savage turns 25 at the end of July. Add in the two 2022 first-round picks and there is a clear youth movement on the defensive side of the ball that should also spark a quick improvement.
For Green Bay to get the most out of its current roster, a more balanced team might be necessary. The Packers are trusting their quarterback to make the offense greater than the sum of its parts. Meanwhile, the defense is adding all the parts it can get.