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Better, worse or the same? Coaching change will dictate fate of Green Bay Packers’ defense

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Matt LaFleur couldn’t live with another defensive meltdown in an NFC Championship Game, so the Green Bay Packers coach decided to change defensive coordinators.

It’s now Joe Barry’s turn after three seasons with Mike Pettine in control (two under LaFleur). While Pettine’s unit jumped all the way to ninth in the NFL last season (after finishing 18th in each of Pettine’s first two seasons), the meltdowns and miscommunications in the season-ending loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made it a palatable call for LaFleur.

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Barry’s track record as a coordinator isn’t great, but he didn’t have anywhere near the talent he inherited in Green Bay during his previous stints in the job with Detroit and Washington.

With the change in coordinator notwithstanding, here’s a position-by-position answer to whether the Packers’ defense is better, worse or the same as last year:

Defensive linemen

Additions: T.J. Slaton, Jack Heflin, Carlo Kemp

Losses: Montravius Adams, Damon Harrison, Billy Winn, Anthony Rush

Returners: Kenny Clark, Dean Lowry, Kingsley Keke, Tyler Lancaster, Willington Previlon

Better, worse or the same? The same

Adams, a third-round pick in 2017, never panned out. There’s a good chance Slaton, a 2021 fifth-rounder, can make a bigger impact. Keke showed signs of a breakout last year, and that could help take some of the pressure off Clark.

Inside linebackers

Additions: De’Vondre Campbell, Isaiah McDuffie, Ray Wilborn

Losses: Christian Kirksey

Returners: Krys Barnes, Kamal Martin, Ty Summers, Oren Burks, De’Jon Harris

Better, worse or the same? Better

This wasn’t the case until general manager Brian Gutekunst signed Campbell in June. The Packers paid him a $1.01 million signing bonus, which means they view him as someone more than just a guy off the street. Barnes played the most snaps of any Packers rookie last season, and he wasn’t even drafted. He starts this year ahead of Martin, who was a fourth-round pick in 2020.

Outside linebackers

Additions: None

Losses: None

Returners: Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Rashan Gary, Randy Ramsey, Jonathan Garvin, Tipa Galeai, Delontae Scott

Better, worse or the same? Better

How can they be better with exactly the same group? It starts with Preston Smith, who showed up in much better shape this spring than last year when he appeared overweight. His production declined sharply last year, but his teammates and coaches believe he will bounce back in a big way. He should be motivated after taking a pay cut (with incentives to earn back the money). Gary also appears ready to take off and don’t be surprised if Barry uses him plus the two Smiths on the field as a trio more often.

Cornerbacks

Additions: Eric Stokes, Shemar Jean-Charles

Losses: Parry Nickerson, KeiVarae Russell

Returners: Jaire Alexander, Kevin King, Chandon Sullivan, Josh Jackson, Ka’dar Hollman, Kabion Ento, Stanford Samuels

Better, worse or the same? Better

How can they not be better here with the addition of a first-round pick in Stokes, who can fly? His speed (in the mid-4.2s at his pro day) is an upgrade over King, who somewhat surprisingly was re-signed for $5 million. Jean-Charles (fifth round) also looks like a ball hawk. The question here is who plays Barry’s so-called “star” or nickel position. He’s often used his No. 1 corner in that role, but it’s unclear if he sees the All-Pro Alexander as a fit for that spot.

Safeties

Additions: Christian Uphoff, Innis Gaines

Losses: Raven Greene

Returners: Adrian Amos, Darnell Savage, Will Redmond, Vernon Scott, Henry Black

Better, worse or the same? The same

Amos and Savage established themselves as a solid duo. If Savage starts this season like he finished the last one (with four interceptions over the last six games), then this group could go from solid to spectacular.

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