The defense didn’t get through the offseason completely unscathed, as cap constraints factored into the decision to release Za’Darius Smith, who then signed with the Minnesota Vikings.
The maturation of 2019 first-round pick Rashan Gary made the Packers feel better about the move, though. Upon graduating into a full-time starting role, the 24-year-old pass rusher set career highs with 28 quarterback hits and a team-high 9½ sacks.
Across from Gary, Preston Smith bounced back with 38 tackles, nine sacks, 17 QB hits and two forced fumbles. Smith and Gary each started 16 games and combined for 1,370 snaps, shouldering a bulk of the edge-rushing workload with Za’Darius Smith missing all but one regular-season game.
“We really thank Z for what he’s done for our organization for the past couple years,” Gutekunst said. “That was a big addition to our defense when we kicked off ’19. But I think obviously that nasty word, salary cap, drives a lot of decisions. I think with the emergence of Rashan and Preston playing so well last year, I think those things came into play.”
The Packers spent the next wave of the free agency building depth on the defensive line and in the secondary, signing Reed and former Raiders cornerback Keisean Nixon.
A mainstay on Las Vegas’ special teams under Rich Bisaccia, Nixon possesses inside and outside defensive versatility. Meanwhile, the 29-year-old Reed has missed just eight regular-season games over six NFL seasons.
The 6-foot-3, 313-pound defensive tackle has played at least 600 defensive snaps in four of his last five seasons, giving Barry another lineman with three-down potential to work with Kenny Clark, Dean Lowry and 2021 draft pick T.J. Slaton.
“It gives us a fourth in that rotation right now,” said Gutekunst of Reed’s addition. “Certainly when we go base … he’s a guy I think we can plug right in there. As a pass rusher, maybe he’ll give us a little more than we’ve had in the past. Getting a proven player like Jarran at this point in free agency was important for us.”
Later this month, Gutekunst and his scouts have an opportunity to add even more to the defense with the Packers currently holding 11 picks in this year’s NFL Draft. After everything Barry’s defense accomplished in the face of injuries last year, the anticipation is building for what might be possible in Year 2.
“I’m excited about that group, seeing what Joe can do with them in the second year, especially with some healthy pieces that weren’t there last year,” Gutekunst said. “It will be interesting what we can add between now and September, but I like the group we have coming back.”