Gutekunst’s Failure At Safety Looms Large

Of the 18 players that the Green Bay Packers have drafted in the first round since taking Aaron Rodgers in 2005, 15 have been defenders. The team has aggressively and persistently sought to build an elite defense to complement the future Hall of Famer’s prolific attack.

Everything came together in 2010, with Rodgers hoisting his lone Lombardi with the help of a defense that finished second in points allowed per game. Despite continuing to invest in massive pass-rushers and promising young safeties in nearly every subsequent draft, the Packers have yet to recapture the magic of that Super Bowl unit. They’ve fallen in conference championship games due to a barren secondary or a pitiful run defense.

Even after trading Davante Adams last spring, general manager Brian Gutekunst brought in a pair of Georgia defenders with the team’s two first-round picks, passing on a move for one of the many top receivers flying off the board on Day 1. Fans and media were aghast and stayed so until Christian Watson’s midseason breakout helped the vision make a little more sense.

The flip side of some of the outrage and incredulity was the growing expectation that Green Bay’s defense would be really good, perhaps good enough to drag Rodgers and the offense to the playoffs rather than the other way around. However, after a mid-tier finish on both sides of the ball prevented a playoff berth for the first time in the Matt LaFleur era, one of the positions the Packers have invested the most in still looms as perhaps their biggest need.

After signing free-agent safety Adrian Amos to a four-year, $36 million deal and drafting Darnell Savage, the explosive Maryland safety, ahead of the 2019 season, the Packers suddenly appeared set at the back end of their defense for years to come. Both posted phenomenal seasons in 2020, earning Pro Football Focus grades of 89.9 and 72.1, respectively. While that was a season during which miscues and missed opportunities on both sides of the ball felled the Packers only one game away from the Super Bowl, yet again, the safety position was in great hands. Now, only two years later, those grades have plummeted to 54.2 and 47.5. I don’t think anyone will be surprised, nor disappointed, if yet another first- or second-round pick goes toward yet another rebuild of the safety group.

Amos is set to hit the open market, where he should receive a solid amount of interest as a productive veteran and reputable clubhouse leader. Savage will return for at least one more season after Green Bay picked up his fifth-year option before 2022, but his trajectory is looking eerily similar to that of HaHa Clinton-Dix. A fellow Packers first-round safety in 2014, Clinton-Dix showed flashes of Pro Bowl prowess early in his tenure, and Green Bay exercised his fifth-year option. But his play declined after that, and he spent a few years as a journeyman before recently retiring.

Savage’s explosive profile absolutely gives him the ceiling to play his way into a second contract following 2023, especially if Green Bay’s defensive staff can nail down the best way to use his athleticism. He’ll have to showcase better tackling, but Gutekunst and the team are hopeful he can build on some of the better play he put together toward the end of the season.

After the Packers’ biggest investment devolved into their greatest need over the span of only two years, Gutekunst expect to be on the lookout for safeties at this year’s draft. A handful of proven safeties like Jessie Bates III and Jordan Poyer are set to hit the open market. However, Green Bay’s cap situation will make it hard to add basically anyone; they are paying Amos through 2026 just to stay under the cap. Alabama’s Brian Branch and Jordan Battle are names to watch, alongside Texas A&M’s Antonio Johnson and Boise State’s JL Skinner.

While the draft seems far away during the playoffs, especially for a franchise that is used to winning, it’s at least more exciting than what’s (hopefully) the final part of the Rodgers Offseason Saga trilogy. Let’s hope 2023’s first-round defender, potentially another safety, helps the unit turn a corner that the previous 15 have not.

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