Green Bay Packers: A Very Early Look at the 2011 Defense

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Green Bay Packers: A Very Early Look at the 2011 Defense
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Nick Collins celebrates after returning a Rothlisberger pass for a touchdown in the Super Bowl.

2011 Green Bay Packers 53 man roster:

Defense (27)

 

Four Safeties

1. Nick Collins

Collins made the Pro Bowl the past three seasons, and he saved his biggest play of the year for the biggest moment, returning a Ben Roethlisberger pass 37 yards for a touchdown in the Super Bowl.  

He is entrenched as the Packers top safety, having signed a contract extension just prior to the 2010 season.

2. Morgan Burnett

Burnett was off to a decent start as a rookie, starting the first four games of the 2010 season before suffering a torn ACL in Week 4 against the Lions and ending up on injured reserve.  

If he can pick up where he left off, he should regain his starting spot over Peprah. Peprah did a great job filling in, but simply doesn't have the ball-hawking, playmaking ability that Burnett has.

3. Charlie Peprah

Peprah did a way better job filling in for the injured Burnett than Atari Bigby.  So much so that even when he regained his health, Bigby was unable to knock Peprah from the starting lineup.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Woodson was injured on this play and forced to miss the entire second half of the Super Bowl. Had this injury happened earlier in the game the Packers might have been in trouble

He has proven to be a very capable backup and makes the team as the third safety ahead of Bigby, who will be released. 

4. Derrick Martin

Martin beats out Atari Bigby, Anthony Smith, and Jarret Bush because he is the better overall player, when you take into account his play from scrimmage as well as on special teams. He's also got the ability to play corner in a pinch.

 

Six Cornerbacks

1. Charles Woodson

Woodson is still a top 10 corner in the NFL and could be a top five safety if and when he swicths to that position a la another great Woodson, Rod.  In 2010, Charles still produced 92 tackles, two sacks and seven turnover-producing plays, scoring one touchdown despite what media pundits claim was a down year.

2. Tramon Williams

Williams now draws the ssignment of locking down the opposition's top receiver week in and week out. He excelled in the role.

He also proved to be another playmaker on the Packers defense, intercepting six passes in the regular season and another three in the playoffs.  He returned for a 70-yard touchdown at the end of the second quarter against Atlanta, giving the Packers a 28-14 lead and all the momentum in the world.  

Shields is a player, just watch these skills while the ball is in the air.

He also ended the Philadelphia game by picking off Michael Vick in the end zone in the Wild Card round.

3. Sam Shields

After going undrafted, the Packers offered Shields the most money as a free agent and he ended up in Green Bay.  The rest is history. 

Shields proved to be the steal of the draft, effectively becoming a starter in Green Bay as their nickel corner, playing on over 70 percent of the defensive snaps in 2010.  

He developed into a playmaker as the season wore on, culminating in his two interceptions, one sack, one forced fumble in the NFC championship game.  His second pick came as the Bears faced a 4th down late in the game driving for the tying score in Packers territory.

4. Josh Gordy

Yet another undrafted free agent corner.  Like Williams and Shields before him, he is one in the long line of undrafted corners the Packers have high hopes for.  

He spent most of 2010 on the practice squad before being moved up to the active roster for the playoff run.  

At 5'11", 195 pounds and with good speed, Gordy is similar in stature and skills to both Williams and Shields.  If he possess their ball skills, the Packers will have yet another undrafted steal in their midst.  

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Richard Sherman cornerback Stanford, another former receiver could likely be a Packer in 2011 replacing Pat Lee, Jarret Bush, or Brandon Underwood.

5. Pat Lee (upgrade possibility)

The former second round pick has never gotten it done on the field and is somewhat injury prone. I would be surprised if he is a member of the 2011 Packers.  

Look for Green Bay to select at least one cornerback in the April draft, possibly relatively high, say the second or third round.  Green Bay will target a bigger corner, 6'0"-plus, as they already have Williams, Shields, and Gordy, who are 5'11" or shorter.  

Ras-I Dowling of Virginia is an option in the second or third round along with Devon House of New Mexico State, Curtis Brown of Texas and Brandon Burton from Utah.  Stanford's Richard Sherman, Colorado's Jalil Brown, Chris L Rucker of Michigan State, the Citadel's Cortez Allen, or Texas' Chykie Brown could all be options somewhere in the fifth round area.

6. Brandon Underwood (upgrade possibility)

Underwood, after being the offseason favorite to serve as the Packers nickelback, fell out of favor with the coaches.  

First, it was the immaturity he showed getting into a sticky situation with two stripper/prostitutes in the summer.  

Then, his play on the field suffered and he did not perform in the manner the coaches had expected him to.  

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Look for Matthews III to be even better in 2011, that's a scary thought for opposing offenses.

Inactive most of the season, he became a contributor on special teams in the playoffs.  He has the physical size and tools to be an NFL cornerback and the Packers might give him another chance to prove himself in 2011.  

However, this is certain: of the three (Bush, Lee, and Underwood), two will not be on the Packers in 2011.  I say Underwood stays, if any of them do, because of his upside.  

 

Nine Linebackers

1. Clay Matthews III OLB

Matthews is on the verge of becoming a superstar heading into his third NFL season.  Look for him to avenge his narrow defeat in the Defensive Player of the Year award voting by making sure it's not even close in 2011.  

2. Desmond Bishop ILB

Bishop finally got the shot he has been waiting his whole career for when Nick Barnett went on IR with a wrist injury.  

He made the most of it, asserting himself as the Packers top playmaker amongst their inside linebacker group.  He has solidified himself as a key member of the team heading into the future, earning a contract extension which he signed just prior to the Packers' playoff run.

3. A.J. Hawk ILB

Should the Packers keep Barnett or Hawk?

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Hawk is due $10 million for the 2011 season and there is no way the Packers are going to pay him that.  Look for the Packers to lock him up long-term for a lot less than $10 million per year.  

Hawk has indicated he would like to stay in Green Bay and is a team player so I believe a deal will get done.  Hawk could be released if a deal can't be worked out or the Packers choose to go in another direction.  

However, the defense operated so smoothly with Hawk communicating the plays after Barnett was injured.  I have a hard time believing they will let him go.  

He also had three interceptions on the year and did not give up a single touchdown in pass coverage, dispelling notions he is a liability in coverage.  

4. Nick Barnett ILB (upgrade possibility)

If the choice is Barnett or Hawk, I believe that's a no-brainer.  You keep Hawk.  He has appeared in all 80 regular season games in his career while Barnett has ended his season on injured reserve two of the last three seasons.  

Barnett is a me-first guy, which was evidenced once again by his Twitter comments leading up to the Super Bowl, and Hawk is the consummate team player.  

Barnett is hands-down the more athletic player, better in space and as a blitzer, but I think the Packers coaches and management have grown tired of his act.  Remember he is not a Ted Thompson guy- he was drafted by the Mike Sherman regime and is one of very few holdovers left from that era.  

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Georgia's Justin Houston could be the Packers pick at # 32 in the first round. Shown here dealing with a Cam Newton Stiff arm, he recorded 10 sacks in 2010.

Now, if it were my decision I would think long and hard about keeping both players, as 2010 season was a demonstration in how bad injuries can be for a team in the NFL.  Having both along with Bishop and Chillar would give the Packers four virtually interchangeable inside backers.  

The question is, can Barnett handle a backup role? The answer is almost certainly no.  If the coaches think they can make it work, keeping them all is the best option.

Barnett is due around $4 million next season.  Chillar and Bishop have very similar contracts which are set to pay them both around $2 million each next season.  If you can get Hawk signed for a similar amount to Barnett, $3 million or $4 million per, you're paying your inside backers $11 million to $12 million for 2011. It's certainly a big number, but not impossible.  

The other thing about Barnett is he has the most trade value of any of the Packers inside linebackers.  I realistically think the Packers could get a solid fourth round pick from a team that plays a 4-3 defense.  

Any 4-3 team looking for a starting middle linebacker would love to have Barnett.  The Tampa Bay Buccaneers come to mind.  

It's entirely possible that the Packers determine they can't go into 2011 paying their inside backers that much, or that Barnett will be a problem if asked to take on a lesser role in the defense.  

Should the Packers resign DE Cullen Jenkins?

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In that scenario, there is only one option I am going to list, unlike at the other positions where I have listed multiple options.  That is trade Barnett for a fourth round pick to the Tampa Bay Bucs or a like-minded team and use that fourth round pick to select Casey Matthews, linebacker out of Oregon.  

Matthews is a team player, has exceptional bloodlines, and has shown to be a high-effort player who I think would excel on special teams from day one while becoming a solid backup.  

The play he made to poke the ball away from Cam Newton at the end of the National Championship game was big time, as it gave Oregon a final chance to win the game.  That one play showed hustle, intelligence, great athletic ability, and a never say die attitude.  

I can imagine Matthews making plays like that one as a part of the special teams coverage units.  So, in the end I do think the Packers will sign Hawk to an extension and trade Barnett.  I just hope they turn that pick into another Matthews.

5. Erik Walden OLB

Walden was signed off the street midseason after the LB position was decimated by injury with Jones, Poppinga, and Chillar all ending up on IR within weeks of each other.  Walden showed he is raw but talented, posting a 16-tackle, three-sack game in the must-win season finale against the Chicago Bears.

The Packers are once again America's team, just ask Lil Wayne.

6. Frank Zombo OLB

Zombo came out of nowhere to start eight games at outside linebacker in place of the injured Brad Jones and played well, posting four sacks before suffering a knee injury against Detroit and missing the next six games.  He then returned to start in place of the injured Erik Walden in the Super Bowl, recording the Packers only sack in the game.

7. Brad Jones OLB

Despite ending up on injured reserve, Jones has proven to be at least a capable backup at the outside linebacker position opposite Clay Matthews III.  As a former seventh round pick still playing under his rookie deal, Jones also comes at a reasonable price so he sticks for another year.

8. Brandon Chillar ILB 

It's possible Chillar could find himself the odd man out at ILB.  He is a bit high priced for a backup, making around $2 million in 2011.  Although the Packers love his versatility, he is used as a hybrid safety in Dom Capers Big Okie defensive package.  

If I had to bet now I would say Poppinga is out for sure and possibly Barnett if the Packers want to get younger inside, so Chillar stays.

9. Brady Poppinga OLB (upgrade possibility)

After suffering a season ending knee injury in 2010, it's a virtual, albeit unfortunate, certainty that Poppinga will not get a chance to contribute to the Packers repeat bid in 2011.  He has a pretty high cap number for a backup, somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 million, and he hasn't proven to be an effective outside blitzer.  

I expect him to lose his roster spot to a rookie draft pick that the Packers want to book end with CM3.  Perhaps even a first rounder like Justin Houston of Georgia, Akeem Ayers of UCLA, or Aldon Smith of Missouri.

 

Seven Defensive Linemen

1. Cullen Jenkins DE (upgrade possibility)

Jenkins is set to become a unrestricted free agent when a new collective bargaining agreement is worked out.  And, the 29-year-old will command a big contract with somewhere around $15 million guaranteed.  

I'm just not sure the Packers want to pay Jenkins that kind of money.  While he is certainly worth it; he tied for second on the team in sacks in 2010 with 7.5, despite missing five games and playing with a club on his hand for roughly the first eight weeks after breaking it in the first half of the opener at Philadelphia.  

Had he been able to use two hands to grab, he certainly would have had at least 10 sacks, pretty amazing numbers for a DE in a 3-4 defense. 

Green Bay may have to go in another direction which would be a mistake.  They could either give former first round pick Justin Harrell one more chance to resurrect his football career or address the position in a draft that is deep with talent along the defensive line.  

Temple's Muhammad Wilkerson, Illinois' Corey Liuget, or Wisconsin's J.J. Watt, if he were to slide, are all options in the first round.  

In the second, North Carolina's Marvin Austin, who has a similar build to Jenkins, or Iowa's Christian Ballard could end up Packers.  

Further on in the draft they could pick Jarvis Jenkins out of Clemson or Allen Bailley of Miami in the third or Arizona State's Lawrence Guy in the fourth an intriguingly athletic player for his size. 

2. B.J. Raji NT

Raji is a star in the making who is far more than your average block-eating nose tackle.  Raji is a playmaker, as proven by his 7.5 sacks on the year as well as his crucial interception return for a touchdown in the NFC championship game.

3. Ryan Pickett DE/NT

Pickett moved to defensive end in 2010 and showed he's a player no matter where he lines up.  Pickett is a huge key to the Packers run defense on early downs and at 29 has another couple years left in the tank.

4. Johnny Jolly DE

Jolly had a great season in 2009 but let some off the field issues ruin his 2010 season, and he was forced to miss the team's Super Bowl run.  Word is Jolly wants to return to Green Bay in 2011 after serving his year-long suspension and is hungry to prove he belongs both on and off the field.  

I think the Packers give him a chance considering the uncertainty surrounding Jenkins and the fact that last time he played, Jolly started all 16 games recording 39 tackles, a sack, 10 passes defensed, an interception, and a forced fumble.

5. Mike Neal DE

Although Neal only played in two games, he did record a sack and a forced fumble while displaying an ability to be a disruptive force along the line.  

He was drafted as insurance for the Johnny Jolly situation last season and the Jenkin's situation this year.  He could find himself in the starting lineup opening day if Jenkins does not return.

6. C.J. Wilson DE

After being extremely upset he didn't get drafted until the seventh round, Wilson went out and proved he was probably right becoming a key member of the DE rotation as the season progressed.

7. Howard Green NT/DE 

Green was a huge midseason acquisition after being waived by the New York Jets, in more ways than one.  

Beyond his size, Green made what turned out to be one of the biggest plays of the Super Bowl when he hit Ben Rothlisberger's arm as he threw, causing the ball to float into the arms of Nick Collins who returned it for a touchdown.  It gave the Packers a 14-0 lead the Steelers never were able to recover from.  

Green, Raji, and Pickett from end to end make a very formidable line to attempt to run on when the Packers are in their base 3-4 defense, the Okie.  Green will be back as the seventh defensive lineman unless the Packers choose to keep just six and use the spot at another position.

 

One Punter

1. Tim Masthay

Masthay was a huge part in getting the Packers past the Bears in the season finale as well as in the NFC Championship game when he was able to nullify the dangerous Devin Hester in the return game with good hang time and angled kicks consistently.  

The Packers have finally found the punter to replace Craig Hentrich, who left Green Bay for Tennessee and the first $1 million a year contract given to a punter after the Packers last Super Bowl.

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