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Tom Oates: Mike Pettine has pieces needed to build effective defense for Packers
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Tom Oates: Mike Pettine has pieces needed to build effective defense for Packers

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Defensive end Kingsley Keke had 11 tackles for loss and 7½ sacks last season at Texas A&M.

GREEN BAY — One of the great mysteries involving the Green Bay Packers is how they keep spending premium draft picks on defensive players and yet their defense never gets any better.

It’s been that way since the bottom fell out of the defense in 2011.

After the Packers completed still another defense-first draft Saturday, taking defenders with five of their eight picks, including both first-rounders, the amount of resources they have thrown at the defense is staggering.

In the past eight drafts, the Packers used 18 of their 24 picks in the first, second and third rounds on defensive players. All seven first-round picks during that time played defense. Seven of the 10 second-round picks were spent on defenders.

Despite committing so many draft picks to defense, the Packers haven’t seen comparable results on the field. Not since the 2010 Super Bowl season have they finished in the top 10 in the NFL in either yards or points allowed. In four of the past six seasons, they ranked in the bottom third of the league in points allowed.

If that stretch of poor defensive play is ever going to stop, now is the time. The five defensive players added in this year’s draft — edge rusher Rashan Gary of Michigan and free safety Darnell Savage of Maryland in the first round, end Kingsley Keke of Texas A&M in the fifth, cornerback Ka’dar Hollman of Toledo in the sixth and inside linebacker Ty Summers of TCU in the seventh — completed a 12-month restocking process, one that finally put enough talent in place to turn the defense into a unit that might actually be able to go out and win a game for the offense sometime, especially since the offense likely will experience growing pains under first-year coach Matt LaFleur.

The process began with last year’s draft, the first conducted by general manager Brian Gutekunst, when cornerbacks Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson and inside linebacker Oren Burks were selected in the first three rounds. A month ago, Gutekunst dove into free agency with gusto, adding three big-ticket defenders — outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith and safety Adrian Amos — to the mix.

This year’s draft completed the remaking of the defense. Stalwarts such as Clay Matthews, Nick Perry and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix are long gone and their replacements are poised to break out. Indeed, the Packers no longer have any excuses to field a substandard defense because the pieces that could lead to their improvement are finally in place.

Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine is in his second year, which means his scheme is in and he can start showing his renowned creativity. The recent influx of talent has made the defense deeper, more athletic and more versatile. The Packers improved their pass rush by adding a slew of interchangeable parts that will give Pettine the options he craves. They improved their speed and playmaking ability in the secondary by adding cornerback Kevin King (if he’s ever healthy) in 2017, Alexander last year and Savage and Hollman this year. Both rookies ran sub-4.4s in the 40 during pre-draft workouts.

“I feel really good (about the defense) right now,” Gutekunst said Saturday. “These guys have to come together as a team, but that takes a lot of work and a lot of time. I’m excited about Mike Pettine and the second-year guys we have in his system, but with the additions we’ve made I think we’re very optimistic about what these guys can do.”

First, they’re young, which should make for an enthusiastic, aggressive, hungry group. Of the 20 or so players who are expected to be in the defensive rotation, only three are older than 26 and only cornerback Tramon Williams is in his 30s.

Second, by adding the Smiths, Gary and Keke to a pass rush group that includes linebacker Kyler Fackrell, nose tackle Kenny Clark and ends Mike Daniels, Dean Lowry and Montravius Adams, the Packers have given Pettine the ability to mix and match in order to create a pass rush, an approach that is right in his wheelhouse.

Third, the pass coverage should take a quantum leap in speed, especially with Savage and Amos at safety and Burks expected to make a big jump after an injury-plagued rookie season. A converted safety, Burks could give the Packers the middle-of-the-field coverage they’ve been lacking.

LaFleur, an offensive coach by trade, knows what the addition of multiple pass rushers up front and speed in the back end can do for a defense.

“I think it’s added a lot of playmakers on the defensive side of the ball,” he said. “I’ll tell you one thing, just being an offensive coach my entire career, you can never have enough pass rushers, and I think we definitely upgraded our ability to rush the passer. There’s nothing harder on an offense, especially if you can rotate guys through and just keep sending fresh guys at an offensive line.”

The Packers improved their athleticism on both sides of the ball and hit every area of need except for a slot wide receiver the past three days, but this draft will be judged on how much the rookies can help the defense. Gary is a boom-or-bust pick who many think was handcuffed by Michigan’s scheme and Savage looks like the most sure-thing among the rookies, but if both turn into elite-level playmakers, the Packers defense might finally be back.

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