Packers’ Defense Will Hinge on PFF’s Rookie to Watch, X-Factor

The Green Bay Packers will need major contributions from two newcomers to fix their biggest defensive weakness.
Xavier McKinney
Xavier McKinney / Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – If it’s true that defense wins championships, is the Green Bay Packers’ defense ready to compete at a championship level?

That side of the ball got a major facelift this offseason, with coach Matt LaFleur replacing Joe Barry with Jeff Hafley as defensive coordinator and general manager Brian Gutekunst adding three key assets with safety Xavier McKinney in free agency and safety Javon Bullard and linebacker Edgerrin Cooper with second-round draft picks.

In Pro Football Focus’ roster rankings – the Packers aren’t in the top 10 – McKinney was named the team’s X-factor and Cooper the rookie to watch.

In a rare plunge into high-stakes free agency, Gutekunst handed McKinney a four-year, $67 million contract. By annual average, McKinney is the fourth-highest-paid safety in the NFL.

A second-round pick by the Giants in 2020, McKinney has stayed healthy for two of his four seasons. He was terrific in 2021, when he set a career high with five interceptions, and 2023, when he had three interceptions and career highs of 11 passes defensed and 116 tackles.

“He is a dude,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said recently.

The pairing of McKinney and Bullard should be much, much better than former first-round pick Darnell Savage and low-cost free-agent signing Jonathan Owens, who started down the stretch last year for Green Bay and combined for zero interceptions and four passes defensed.

As noted by PFF’s Jim Wyman and Dalton Wasserman, McKinney was PFF’s top-graded safety in coverage last year.

“His prowess in a single-high alignment is an ideal match for Jeff Hafley’s defense,” they wrote. “McKinney’s presence should improve a secondary that has struggled to cover the middle of the field.”

Last year, 84 safeties played at least 400 snaps. From that group, according to PFF, 16 allowed a passer rating of less than 70.0 and 12 had a missed-tackle rate of less than 8.0 percent. McKinney, who was seventh in passer rating (52.1) and fifth in missed-tackle percentage (5.7) was one of only three players on both lists.

Along with that, McKinney quickly grabbed a leadership role.

“I think it’s good when you’ve already got a team full of guys that are great people, great players,” McKinney said. “All around have just welcomed me and haven’t made it hard for me to just come in and be myself. Everybody just making me feel comfortable and just me being who I naturally am.

“Taking that role is something I’m used to and have done for a long time. It don’t really throw me off. It just makes me even better, just having these guys around me and them letting me know that I can be myself and be who I am.”

At linebacker, the move to Hafley’s 4-3 defense and the release of De’Vondre Campbell necessitated a marquee addition at the position. Enter Cooper, an athletic playmaker at Texas A&M who made several plays in the backfield during OTAs.

“De’Vondre Campbell departed for San Francisco this offseason, leaving a void next to Quay Walker at linebacker,” PFF’s writers said. “Second-round pick Edgerrin Cooper is the most likely man to fill that spot. Cooper is an athletic presence who led all FBS linebackers with a 90.8 overall grade last season.”

McKinney, Bullard and Cooper could help cure the Packers’ biggest weakness. And Cooper, who had eight sacks last year, could add some juice as a pass rusher to give Hafley another trick up his sleeve.

“I just think he’s an explosive player,” linebackers coach Anthony Campanile said. “He has a lot of explosive traits physically. And he’s got a really good get-off. So, there’s some stuff there where you look at that and that definitely jumps out off the tape. If you watch those reps, he’s got the ability to run people down – and he does that in pass coverage, as well.

“So, to me, he’s just kind of got a well-rounded foundation in terms of his skill-set, what he’s able to do, and usually that does translate into being a good pass rusher.”

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Bill Huber


Bill Huber, who has covered the Green Bay Packers since 2008, is the publisher of Packer Central, a Sports Illustrated channel. E-mail: History: Huber took over Packer Central in August 2019. Twitter: Background: Huber graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he played on the football team, in 1995. He worked in newspapers in Reedsburg, Wisconsin Dells and Shawano before working at The Green Bay News-Chronicle and Green Bay Press-Gazette from 1998 through 2008. With The News-Chronicle, he won several awards for his commentaries and page design. In 2008, he took over as editor of Packer Report Magazine, which was founded by Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Nitschke, and In 2019, he took over the new Sports Illustrated site Packer Central, which he has grown into one of the largest sites in the Sports Illustrated Media Group.