Pass rusher an under-the-radar need for the Packers in 2024?

Perhaps flying under the radar, but a need that we could see the Green Bay Packers target somewhat early on in the 2024 NFL draft is edge rusher.

Getting after the quarterback is the name of the game in the NFL, but that importance increases in new defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley’s 4-3 scheme.

With the college game and the NFL being quite different, how Hafley attacks offenses will differ, but if the same general principles from his time at Boston College carry over to Green Bay, the need for a consistently effective pass rush is a must.

Under Hafley, Boston College played Cover-1 the most in all of college football during the 2021 and 2022 seasons. In 2023, the Golden Eagles ranked fifth. For the cornerbacks, this means a lot of one-on-one coverage without safety help over the top. An ineffective pass rush means having to cover receivers for a (relatively) long period of time.

As Bill Huber of Packer Central noted in a recent article where he dove into the numbers, Hafley blitzed relatively heavily on third-down pass plays, but often, on first or second down, he relied on his front to get home.

That, again, stresses the importance of the pass rush being able to pressure the quarterback, not to mention that a susceptible part of this 4-3 system is over the middle, such as on crossing routes. A quarterback with time will be able to play pitch-and-catch with his receivers, attacking the middle.

Long-term, the Packers do have Rashan Gary and Lukas Van Ness at the edge rusher position. However, Kingsley Enagbare suffered a torn ACL against Dallas, and when he will be back on the field is unknown. Preston Smith, who I do expect to return but is a potential cut candidate, is likely in his final season with the team. Brenton Cox comes with a lot of upside but is still an unknown.

Previously, this has been a heavily rotated position, with typically a minimum of four players seeing snaps each week.

With players like Colby Wooden, Karl Brooks, or even Kenny Clark, when the Packers are in their base 4-3 defense, they potentially have other options to line up at defensive end outside of the pass rushers just mentioned.

With that said, if we look at the San Francisco 49ers, for example, which this Packers defense is going to look somewhat similar to, they still utilize two traditional edge rushers often, as do the New York Jets under Robert Saleh, who Hafley coached under when he was with the Niners.

Possible changes in how the Packers address the edge rusher position could include getting lighter and faster at the position. Brian Gutekunst has typically preferred big-bodied pass rushers, but the 49ers do have Randy Gregory, and the Jets drafted Will McDonald in the first round of the 2023 draft, and both players are around the 240-pound mark.

“It’ll have some,” said Gutekunst when asked if the addition of Hafley would change how they approach the draft, “but I don’t think, it’s not gonna be like a wholesale change — hey, we gotta ship off and bring a bunch of new guys in — it’s not gonna be like that. I think as we get into the nuances of what Jeff wants to do, certainly it may with our current players, maybe conversations about where they play and how they fit, but one thing I think we prided ourselves here, both sides of the ball, is versatility and bringing in guys that can be versatile.

“And I think with our front, particularly on defense, we’ve got a lot of versatile guys that can do a lot of things. We got a lot of edge guys that can probably move inside and do some things, pass rushing inside.”

Looking for players with experience playing with their hands in the dirt for when the Packers are in their base 4-3 defense could also be something that is now on Gutekunst’s radar.

As a collective defense in 2023, the Packers ranked seventh in total pressures but 16th in sacks. Overall, their ability to get after the pass rusher was very hot or cold. According to PFF, there were seven games where the Packers pressured the opposing quarterback greater than 45 percent of the time – which is very efficient – but there were also seven games where they generated pressure on fewer than 30 percent of the quarterbacks’ dropbacks, and to put it simply, that is not good at all.

So when you take the need for the Packers to have more consistency in this regard, couple it with some questions around depth, along with the importance of the pass rush to Hafley’s defense, and also don’t forget to add in that the Packers have five picks in the top 100, you get a recipe for what could be considered a surprise pick to some.

Six edge rushers made Daniel Jeremiah’s top 50 prospects list for the 2024 NFL Draft.

Story originally appeared on Packers Wire