GREEN BAY, Wis. – Quay Walker could change the way the Green Bay Packers play defense.
Last season, Joe Barry’s first as coordinator, the Packers lined up with six-plus defensive backs on 24.0 percent of their defensive snaps. That was the sixth-highest rate in the NFL, according to Sports Info Solutions. While that was down sharply from the Mike Pettine era – No. 1-ranked dime rates of 49.9 percent in 2019 and 48.8 percent in 2020 – that’s still a lot of light-in-the-box snaps.
Not to mention a lot of light-on-the-scale snaps.
The addition of Walker, the first of Green Bay’s first-round draft picks, could mean two things for the defense so long as he can use his uncommon combination of height (6-foot-3 3/4) and athletic ability (4.52 in the 40) to play coverage.
First, it’s not that Barry – and Pettine before him – hates linebackers. Rather, their reliance on using six-plus defensive backs comes from the realization that a defense is much more likely to lose games via the passing game and that below-average athletes at linebacker will be destroyed in today’s matchups-driven NFL.
Walker has the size of a linebacker and the speed of a safety to perhaps counteract cat-quick running backs and athletic tight ends. He showed that ability during the rookie camp with an interception during the first practice.
“It’s always better to be bigger and faster and stronger, all those kinds of things,” position coach Kirk Olivadotti said on Wednesday. “It was nice to see that he could catch, because you know not all linebackers can catch real well. So, that part of it was nice to see. We’ll see exactly where he’s at. I’ll be honest with you, when you look at him on film, he does some really good things athletically and does go after the ball and can make some things happen.”
Second, using All-Pro linebacker De’Vondre Campbell and Walker in a tandem will provide more bulk and toughness than pairing Campbell and a safety.
The tale of the tape makes that obvious. Walker measured 6-foot-3 3/4 and 241 pounds at the Scouting Combine. Last year, safety Henry Black spent most of the season as the team’s sixth defensive back in those dime packages. Before the 2020 draft, he measured 5-foot-11 3/4 and 206 pounds and ran his 40 in 4.54 seconds. So, Walker beat Black by 4 inches, 35 pounds and 0.02 seconds.
That’s a lot of additional size to keep on the field, and that could improve the run defense. When Black was on the field last season, the Packers allowed 5.01 yards per running play, according to league data. As a unit, they allowed 4.70 yards per carry – a 0.31-yard difference. In 2020, safety Will Redmond handled the sixth-DB duties. The team allowed 5.31 yards per carry when he was on the field compared to 4.55 yards overall – a 0.78-yard difference.
One reason why the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defense is so good is because they have an elite off-the-ball tandem at linebacker with Devin White and Lavonte David. With a top-flight duo of three-down players, the Bucs played dime only 2.0 percent of the time. Because they could play traditional defensive packages almost exclusively, they finished seventh in yards allowed per play in 2021 and sixth in 2020.
Simply put, it’s just a different game when the linebackers are sturdy enough to stop the run but athletic enough to stop the pass. The defensive coordinator doesn’t have to compromise by choosing one defensive package over another.
“It’s a production-based league,” Barry said on Tuesday. “Guys have to be in position to make plays. You look at what that did for our defense last year with Dre, and that’s what Quay [provided]. If you watch any Georgia football game last year, it’s hard not to see ‘7’ flying around making plays. He has that ability. He has that skill-set and I think he has the mindset of what you want when you talk about if you can surround yourself with a bunch of guys who love football, good things are going to happen, and Quay loves ball.”
Of course, it is all projection at this point. Walker was a one-year starter at Georgia who didn’t intercept a pass or force a fumble as a senior. He wasn’t even an all-conference performer.
The path to turning potential into production will start at OTAs next week.
“We’re at the baby steps of this whole thing,” Olivadotti said. “We obviously have a plan. You don’t take somebody at that pick (if you don’t). We’ll see how the whole thing works out but I’m excited about it. I’m excited, first of all, that he’s come in and just been the way that he is, just looking to work and trying to get things done and trying to figure things out. He’s trying to get things to slow down on him. I think he’ll probably tell you that right now. He’s got things going pretty quick for him right now.”