Before they fired longtime head coach Mike McCarthy in December, the Green Bay Packers had become allergic to change. The result, predictably, was a stale, unimaginative offense and an aging defense that was, at best, no more an asset than a liability.
But with McCarthy gone, the dissatisfied Packers have made it clear they desire to evolve. A third consecutive losing season with future Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers at the helm would be unacceptable, and with the heart of the offseason complete, the Packers have done everything in their power to avoid that outcome.
In the process, general manager Brian Gutekunst has moved Green Bay back into the thick of Super Bowl contention.
Gutekunst knew the personnel was hardly the problem on offense. McCarthy's system put too much pressure on Rodgers and was void of creativity. The hope is that'll change dramatically under new head coach Matt LaFleur—a new-school offensive mind with roots that are entwined with celebrated offensive crackerjacks Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan.
But the problem with the defense was related to talent. A Green Bay D that surrendered 25.0 points per game in 2018 ranked 30th in the NFL in terms of DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) at Football Outsiders. They were no longer able to rely consistently on top edge-defenders Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, both of whom had been Green Bay lifers as first-round picks in 2009 and 2012, respectively.
The consequence was a lack of bite. They just didn't make enough plays on defense to get Rodgers and Co. on the field. Only the San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions registered fewer takeaways last season than the Packers, who haven't ranked in the top 10 in that category since 2014.
And so for the last seven weeks, the focus for a team that has generally performed well against the run has been on a pass defense that allowed the fifth-highest opposing passer rating in the NFL last season.
In free agency and at the draft, Gutekunst added five new highly touted defensive players, all of whom should play significant roles in 2019. LaFleur's presence will be the key difference on offense, but these five young dudes will represent the revamped, new-look Packers D in the fall.
Za'Darius Smith (age 26): The 2015 fourth-round pick steadily improved during his first four seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, a tenure that ended with a breakout campaign that included 8.5 sacks, even though he was on the field for just 67 percent of Baltimore's defensive snaps. He was also a top-10 pass-rusher among edge-defenders, per Pro Football Focus. The 6'4", 272-pounder is clearly ascending, which is why he landed the sixth-most-lucrative contract on the free-agent market, according to Spotrac.
Preston Smith (age 26): Another physically intimidating pass-rushing force who has overachieved from the 2015 draft class is Preston Smith, who, according to Spotrac, was one of just 12 players to earn a contract worth at least $13 million per year in free agency. The second-round pick has a pair of eight-sack seasons under his belt with the Washington Redskins, but he also has four career interceptions and 13 passes defensed. He should bring some much-needed durability to the edge in Green Bay. And like Za'Darius, he has steadily improved and should be due to break out in Wisconsin.
Adrian Amos (age 25): Also one of the 30-highest-paid free agents of 2019, Amos is a coverage whiz who might still be underpaid in Green Bay. PFF praised the deal for its tremendous value from a team perspective, and for good reason. The 2015 fifth-round pick has flashed Pro Bowl-level skills in pass defense, which is exactly what the Packers could use. Per PFF's Mark Chichester, 47.1 percent of Amos' "career targets have resulted in either a defensive stop or a forced incompletion," which is tied with Charles Woodson for the best rate since PFF starting measuring such things.
Rashan Gary (age 21): He's big, he's fast, he's strong and he destroyed the NFL Scouting Combine, which is why the Packers made Gary a top-12 pick despite the fact that he recorded just 9.5 sacks in three years at Michigan. The production hasn't been there, but he's still raw, and his ceiling is wildly high. The best part is he should have time to work on that development without facing too much immediate pressure in Green Bay, since the Smiths are already there alongside interior defensive linemen Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels. Still, Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will likely find ways to get Gary involved and capitalize on his physical gifts in 2019.
Darnell Savage Jr. (age 21): You knew these weren't your father's Packers when they spent big bucks on Smith, Smith and Amos, but they reinforced that new feel by uncharacteristically trading up nine spots at the bottom of Round 1 to select Savage, who rose late in the draft process but could make an immediate impact after being a three-year starter in the Big Ten. He intercepted seven passes in his final two seasons at Maryland, scoring twice, and his versatility will give the Packers immediate options. And while he might be a tad undersized, the 5'11", 198-pound Savage immediately becomes one of the fastest safeties in the league.
In addition to Amos, the Packers have five defensive backs—Savage, safety Josh Jones and cornerbacks Jaire Alexander, Kevin King and Josh Jackson—who were drafted in either Round 1 or 2 in the last 24 months, none of whom have turned 25.
They've gotten substantially younger and drastically more talented, and they've still got experience with Smith, Smith, Amos and the 29-year-old Daniels on board.
Green Bay's off-ball linebackers aren't stars, but Oren Burks, Kyler Fackrell and Blake Martinez were all picked in the first four rounds in the last four years. A little continuity is good, too.
Put it all together, and the Packers defense should at least help rather than hurt in 2019. And if their free-agent acquisitions and even some of those young defensive backs take steps forward, we could be looking at a top-five unit.
That'd bode damn well for Rodgers, who says he "really wasn't 100 percent" at any point last season but still threw 25 touchdown passes and only two interceptions. He apparently feels "incredible" now, and if that continues to be the case, he and his cohorts should excel in LaFleur's offense.
With a healthy Rodgers, a new offensive approach and so much fresh blood on defense, the Packers should again be considered favorites in the tough NFC North. They were better than their 6-9-1 record last year, and a correction based on the law of averages combined with the collection of aforementioned reasons for optimism could be worth at least a handful of extra wins.
Don't forget that Green Bay was in the NFC Championship Game just a short time ago. That 2016 defense surrendered 5.9 yards per play, which was one of the worst averages in the league and significantly higher than last year's mark of 5.6.
If that Packers team could make a deep playoff run with McCarthy and an already aging, mediocre defense, this version has to be considered championship-caliber.
The Packers have finally evolved. They aren't afraid to change, and they could be better than ever come September.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.