GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It might seem low on the priority list considering all the hubbub around quarterback Aaron Rodgers, but the Green Bay Packers have to address a problem in their secondary this offseason.
For starters, defensive coordinator Joe Barry must create a more harmonious staff. And then, Barry and coach Matt LaFleur need to figure out which players fit best in which spots -- something that was a struggle last season. Finally, general manager Brian Gutekunst will need to fill a few holes on the roster, especially if veteran safety Adrian Amos leaves in free agency.
Barry’s return for a third season and the departure of defensive backs coach/passing game coordinator Jerry Gray aren’t independent of each other. Gray, who was a candidate for the job that went to Barry in 2021, declined to accept a contract extension last offseason and instead chose to let his deal expire after the 2022 season. That left him free to explore all options without the Packers blocking him from interviewing for other jobs, and the veteran with 36 years of NFL experience both as a player and assistant coach left for the Atlanta Falcons, where he has the title assistant head coach/defense.
In his final season in Green Bay, Gray barely hid his differences with Barry. On multiple occasions, Gray tried to distance himself from Barry’s game plans and personnel decisions, especially when pressed about why Pro Bowl cornerback Jaire Alexander wasn’t used to shadow opponents’ top receivers in certain situations and whether safety Darnell Savage would be better suited to play in the slot.
“You need to ask Joe about that,” Gray said late last season, repeating a stance he had taken at least one other time earlier in the season. “He’s the one that’s doing the scheme. I’m just staying in my lane.”
LaFleur hired Greg Williams, who spent the last four seasons on the Arizona Cardinals coaching staff, to coach cornerbacks. Safeties coach Ryan Downard returns and is expected to have an expanded role overseeing the entire secondary, although the exact titles have not yet been revealed.
“We brought in Greg Williams to coach our corners; I think we’re excited about that,” Gutekunst said last week at the NFL scouting combine. “But yeah, I think there was some times during the year where those guys were trying to figure out exactly how we wanted to attack things.”
It sounds like a lot of disfunction and uncertainty for a unit that still helped the Packers rank sixth in passing yards allowed last season, although perhaps a better measure was opponent QBR (17th) and opponent passer rating (14th) to go along with myriad blown coverages and missed assignments at critical times.
“Although it wasn’t always pretty, I did think we started to improve as the year went on,” LaFleur said after the season. “And I thought we saw more of an identity.”
Barry, Downard and Williams will have to figure out what to do with several players this season, especially if cornerback Eric Stokes comes back healthy from his season-ending right ankle injury last year.
After Stokes went out, cornerback Rasul Douglas moved from the slot position back to his natural outside spot, where he was more impactful. Now, Douglas is a candidate to move to safety, especially if Amos departs. Amos is expected to command in the range of $8 million per year on the free agent market, a price the Packers are unlikely to consider for him.
Gutekunst did not dismiss the idea that Douglas could play safety.
“I think he could,” Gutekunst said last week. “He has such good eyes and instincts when he’s back there and seeing the whole field. Any time you move a guy inside -- whether it’s the nickel or the safety -- and you have both sides you really have to worry about, there’s a curve there that’s going to take some time to really understand that. But his skill set as far as his eyes, his ability to go get the ball, his angles, his instincts and he’s a pretty good tackler, too, he could make that transition if that’s what we decided to do.”
That move could also allow Savage to move from safety into the slot position full time. Savage was playing out of position at free safety last year and wants to be closer to the line of scrimmage, whether that’s as a slot cornerback or strong safety (where Amos played last year). Savage, however, is a player the Packers would consider trading in a Rodgers deal if they're trying to offload Savage's $7.9 million salary that's guaranteed under the fifth-year option of his rookie deal.
“We have some options there,” Gutekunst said. “It’s really a nickel league now, so what’s the best five we have and how that fits, I think we’ll get to by the time the games roll around, but I don’t know how that’s going to fit right now.”