By GERY WOELFEL
The expectations for the Green Bay Packers defense this season are lofty.
And they should be.
The Packers have an embarrassment of riches on defense, riches that no other current NFL team possesses, riches that only a few other teams have had in more than a half century.
Barring an unexpected, last-minute change, the Packers will start six players on defense who were chosen in the first round of the draft when they play their regular-season opener on Sept. 11 against the Minnesota Vikings in Minneapolis.
Those players are:
- Nose tackle Kenny Clark, the 27th overall pick in the 2016 draft.
- Inside linebacker Quay Walker, the 22nd overall pick in the 2022 draft.
- Outside linebacker Rashan Gary, the 12th overall pick in the 2019 draft.
- Cornerback Jaire Alexander, the 18th overall pick in the 2018 draft.
- Cornerback Eric Stokes, the 29th overall pick in the 2021 draft.
- Safety Darnell Savage, the 21st overall pick in the 2019 draft
If Messrs. Clark, Walker, Gary, Alexander, Stokes and Savage all start against the Vikings, the Packers would tie an NFL record for most “home grown’’ first-round picks since the common draft era started in 1967.
The Packers could have possibly broken the NFL record and had seven, first-round picks start against the Vikings, but end Devonte Wyatt, the 28th overall pick in the 2022 draft, couldn’t beat out veteran Jarran Reed.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Packers will thus become the first team to start six “home grown” first-rounders since the Pittsburgh Steelers during the 2019 season. The Steelers’ first-round group consisted of end Cameron Heyward, outside linebacker T.J. Watt, end Bud Dupree, safety Terrell Edmunds, linebacker Devin Bush Jr., and cornerback Artie Burns.
The Steelers are one of just 10 teams since 1967 to start six first-round selections. The others are the New York Jets (2016), Houston (2015), Kansas City (2015 and 2012), San Diego (1991, 1992 and 1993), Indianapolis (1986) and New England (1982).
The Packers played the bulk of last season with five home-grown first-round picks before adding Walker in this year’s draft. They helped the Packers become one of the league’s better defenses, finishing ninth among the league’s 32 teams in allowing an average of 328.2 yards per game.
The Packers ranked 10th in passing defense (219.1), tied Indianapolis for 10th place in rushing defense (109.1) and tied Cleveland for 13th place in points allowed per game at 21.8.
The Packers would have fared much better in the latter category if they hadn’t surrendered 38 points to the Saints in the 2021 season opener. In the final 16 games, the Packers yielded only 20.8 points per game, which would have tied Tampa Bay for fourth place.
In light of last year’s strong showing, there is growing sentiment the Packers’ defense will not only be better but perhaps dominant this season.
“This might be, might be, the best defense that Aaron Rodgers ever played with,’’ said former NFL head coach and current NFL Network analyst Steve Mariucci, referring to the four-time NFL MVP quarterback who began his illustrious pro career with the Packers in 2005.
Added Mariucci, “I mean, this is a great defense.’’
Mark Murphy also believes the Packers defense has the wherewithal to be special. Murphy, the Packers president and chief operating executive, knows something about defenses. He played safety for eight seasons with the Washington Redskins from 1977 to 1984. He was an All-Pro selection in 1983 and played in two Supers Bowls, helping the Redskins win Super Bowl XVII.
“I think we probably have the best defense we’ve had since the Super Bowl championship team (2011),’’ Murphy said. “Look, at all three levels, we have an impact Pro Bowl, All-Pro type player.
“I know people love to score points, but defense wins championships.’’
That may indeed be the case, but it isn’t strictly based on having a plethora of first-round talent as vividly illustrated by the aforementioned teams. The majority of those teams which had six “home-grown’’ first-rounders had seasons not to remember.
The 2019 Steelers went 8-8, the 2016 Jets went 5-11, the 2012 Chiefs went 2-14, the 1991 Chargers went 4-12, the 1993 Chargers went 8-8 and the 1986 Colts went 3-13.
None of those teams made the playoffs.
And the other four teams?
The 2015 Texans went 9-7 and the 2015 Chiefs went 11-5. The Texans lost in the first round of the AFC playoffs and the Chiefs lost to the Patriots in the AFC division round.
The 1992 Chargers went 11-5 before losing in the second round of the AFC playoffs, and the 1982 Patriots went 5-4 before losing an AFC wild-card game to the Dolphins.
In other words, even though all of those team were stacked with first-round talent, they didn’t even reach their respective conference’s championship game, much less the Super Bowl.
The Packers are obviously hoping to break that drought.