Safety is arguably the Packers biggest positional need this offseason. If GM Brian Gutekunst chooses to address this position in free agency, there are three free agents with ties to the Packers' defensive coaching staff, including new defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley.
Both depth and playmaking are needed at the safety position. Under contract at the moment is Benny Sapp, Anthony Johnson, and Zayne Anderson. No Packers safety from 2023 finished in the top half of the NFL in forced incompletions, while missed tackles, and poor communication at times, especially without Darnell Savage when he was injured, led to coverage breakdowns.
On the flip side, Jonathan Owens was at this best when he was making plays at the line of scrimmage. Savage was commended for his new role as a leader on a few occasions by Matt LaFleur, while Johnson plays every snap at full speed. However, at the end of the day, this was a group with a low ceiling and when mistakes were made, they were often costly.
The playoff loss to San Francisco was a prime example of this with a missed tackle by Savage contributing to the 39-yard touchdown run by Christian McCaffrey along with Johnson being out of position on the touchdown pass to George Kittle.
"I think the back end is probably where we weren’t as consistent as we needed to be and I’d like that to be shored up,” Gutekunst said. “There will probably be some moving pieces there going into next year, but it’s kind of like it always is, I want a fast physical, aggressive defense that plays sound.
“And again, I thought there were some really, really good moments, particularly late where we were playing some very good football teams and they played very well. But the consistency is what I always look for.”
In addition to switching to a 4-3 scheme under Hafley, we may also see a lot more cover-1 from the Packers defense this season. Boston College ranked first in cover-1 usage during the 2021 and 2022 seasons, while ranking fifth this past year.
Although we may not see the Packers running single-high looks at the same rate – as Hafley said in a recent interview, college compared to the NFL are two very different games – if that coverage plans to be a bigger factor in Green Bay's week-to-week defensive plan, then it requires the right type of safeties to run it effectively. This includes a centerfield-like safety who can play deep and cover a lot of ground, along with someone comfortable playing down in the box, either helping against the run or covering the slot.
I wouldn't expect that the Packers are going to go on a spending spree in free agency, but compared to last offseason, there is more flexibility to make moves. At $2.8 million over the projected salary cap, there is still work to be done before the Packers can make any additions, and as always, there is give and take. Freeing up cap space for the current year by restructuring deals limits options in future years by pushing cap charges to 2025 and beyond.
“I think it just depends on the player, right,” said Gutekunst about free agency. “It depends on who that is and how he can impact our football team. I don’t think we’ll shy away from adding impact players if we have to push things down the road. We’d prefer not to do that, but at the same time, this is about winning and trying to win a championship, so if that’s something that makes sense, we’ll do it.”
On PFF's list of its 150 best free agents, 15 safeties were listed. Of note, three of those players have past experience either playing under Hafley or another member of the Packers current defensive coaching staff. While familiarity with a player and the player's familiarity with a coach or system certainly doesn't determine everything, when it comes to making an outside addition to the team via free agency, you can't overlook the importance of that familiarity factor either.
Tashaun Gipson has been in the NFL since 2012, when he signed as an undrafted rookie with the Cleveland Browns. Gipson played with Cleveland through the 2015 season, where his defensive backs coach was – you guessed it – Jeff Hafely for those final two years.
“I have nothing but love for Haf,” Gipson said at the Super Bowl via WBAY. “I wouldn’t be here without Haf. Haf believed in me. I was a 3rd-year pro and Haf believed in me and gave me an opportunity. And not only is he a hell of a coach, but he is a student of the game. He puts his players in the right position. I am happy for Haf. He is going to have success in Green Bay.”
More recently, Gipson has spent the past two seasons in San Francisco, in a 4-3 scheme where there is some potential overlap with what Hafley will want to implement in Green Bay.
In coverage, in 2023, Gipson allowed a completion rate of just 44 percent and 9.2 yards per catch. He came away with one interception and three pass breakups and was one of PFF’s highest-graded run defense safeties. The bulk of Gipson’s snaps came as a traditional free safety. The six interceptions Gipson recorded under Hafley in 2014 are still a career-high.
Jordan Fuller was a sixth-round pick by the Los Angeles Rams after playing his college career at Ohio State. During Fuller’s final season with the Buckeyes in 2019, Hafley was his defensive coordinator.
In Hafley’s first season with Ohio State, the Buckeyes went from ranking 72nd in the country in yards per play allowed in 2018 to first in 2019. In a recent interview with The Athletic, Fuller said that Hafley was nicknamed ‘The Wizard’ in part because of his ability to see and understand the game.
“I think his superpower is his mind and how he sees the game and how he understands the game,” said Fuller via The Athletic. “His in-game adjustments and him having us ready for certain looks that offenses would give us and stuff like that, it really felt like he gave us a winning edge.”
Under Hafley, Fuller had his best season as a tackler, going from allowing 11.5 yards per catch to 9.5 and coming away with two interceptions and four pass breakups. Last season with the Rams, Fuller was one of the better graded tackling and run defense safeties by PFF’s metrics and generated three interceptions and five pass breakups while holding quarterbacks to a completion rate of 57 percent.
Alohi Gilman was a 2020 sixth-round pick by the Los Angeles Chargers and spent three of his four seasons with the team being coached by now Packers defensive backs coach Derrick Ansley. During the 2021 and 2022 seasons, Ansley was the Chargers defensive backs coach and was the defensive coordinator in 2023.
In a breakout year, Gilman was PFF’s seventh-highest-graded safety and fifth-best by coverage, coming away with seven pass breakups and two interceptions. Gilman has shown to be a sound tackler and willing run defender. In 2023, he played 928 total defensive snaps after playing 900 combined over the previous three seasons.
“I think the biggest thing, when making plays, is knowing what you’re supposed to do,” Ansley said of Gilman. “Then, you can focus on what the offense is trying to do to you. He does a really good job of playing the game pre-snap. So, the game post-snap is a lot easier for him, a lot calmer for him.
“That’s a testament to his work ethic, on the field and in the classroom,” Ansley added. “He’s one of those guys that studies. He does a really good job of mentoring the younger guys, the younger safeties, and pushing those guys to be the best they can be. He’s doing a really good job for us now and he’s going to continue that through the rest of this camp.”