To some, the selection of Georgia linebacker Quay Walker was the most head-scratching selection of the Green Bay Packers’ 2022 draft haul. Ranked 46th on the consensus draft board, the Packers made Walker the highest-drafted player at his position with the 22nd overall pick in the draft, even though there were 10 off-ball linebackers who were selected in the first three rounds of the draft last month.
Inside linebacker was also, maybe, not a position fans were expecting to be drafted first by the team, even if the Packers didn’t see a receiver worth taking that high in the draft. With that being said, it’s worth contextualizing the type of player that Walker is and the defense that was played in Green Bay last season.
The team went through a lot of soul-searching at the position, beginning the year with the combo of De’Vondre Campbell and Krys Barnes as the team’s starters. When Barnes went out of the lineup due to a concussion against San Francisco in Week 3, backup Ty Summers played all 29 defensive snaps of his season over a two-week period. To put it simply, the Summers experiment did not work.
In response, the Packers’ defense frequently used penny looks as a substitute for their nickel defense, which kept five defensive backs on the field, as they seemingly did not want to play Barnes every single down even when he was healthy. The team would eventually sign former second-round pick Jaylon Smith to play almost exclusively as a nickel linebacker, with Barnes playing next to Campbell in 3-4 base looks, but Smith was eventually released by the team.
After all that, Green Bay reinserted Barnes into the lineup as the full-time nickel linebacker where he saw 100 percent of the defensive snaps against the Detroit Lions in Week 18 and played 70 percent of defensive snaps in the playoffs against the San Francisco 49ers, which he hadn’t done previously — aside from Week 18 — since Week 1 of the season.
To explain why Walker’s specific fit with the team makes sense, even after describing how the team was pretty obviously not content with Barnes after he was shuffled out and back into the lineup, let’s take a look at their sub-packages. All of the sub-packages below were played on base downs against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 8 of last season.
The screenshot above shows a pretty typical nickel front with two interior linemen, two edge rushers and two off-ball linebackers. When people talk about nickel defenses, which just means having six box defenders so that a slot cornerback can enter the lineup, this is what they typically mean.
Nickel formation out of dime personnel
Green Bay also got into this front at times with strong safety Adrian Amos playing in the box as the team’s second linebacker. Usually, this happened when the Packers were in dime personnel, which means they had six defensive backs on the field. Often, they brought in safety Henry Black, who was not given a tender by the team, as the third safety which allowed Amos to move around while Black and Darnell Savage played deep. This did change throughout the season, though, with Black being replaced by cornerback Kevin King as the dime back and Amos and Savage playing deep. The Baltimore Ravens game was really the team’s turning point when it came down to their dime personnel.
Aside from their nickel defense, the primary base downs subpackage that Green Bay played was their penny front. The penny front is essentially the 3-4 front the Packers played, with the defensive ends often lining up in the B gap, while just one inside linebacker played sideline-to-sideline. This is the formation where the addition of Campbell was huge in 2021. Most linebackers do not have the foot speed and size to play out of this alignment, which is one reason Campbell was named an All-Pro and received a big contract for his efforts last season.
There are two benefits for the penny front when compared to the nickel: First, you clog up interior run lanes with three bodies lined up from B-gap-to-B-gap. Second, you’re almost always going to send the five players on the line of scrimmage in the passing game. Think of it as the front the team uses to stop inside run, whereas the nickel has more benefits on the edges or in coverage if the pass-rush can get home with four pass-rushers.
Penny formation out of 3-3 personnel
The Packers also got into their Penny look out of 3-3 personnel with “inside linebacker” Oren Burks playing on the edge. It wasn’t played too often but they did it enough to get some more speed on the field once their pass-rushing depth took a hit deeper into the season.
Penny formation out of nickel personnel
Another way that the team got into a penny look was out of nickel personnel, where they could walk down either a linebacker to nose tackle or the edge (kicking in an edge rusher like Rashan Gary over the guard.) This sort of gives you the best of both worlds, from a schematic standpoint. You can get a little more juice out there on the field, as Campbell lining up over the center will give you more than, say, Tyler Lancaster, but the interior is also still clogged up. Where it hurt Green Bay was on the edges, as Barnes was asked to play the Campbell sideline-to-sideline role. All it takes is one good block on one of the outside linebackers and it’s a footrace on the perimeter of the defense.
Everyone knows that Quay Walker can play nickel linebacker. It’s what he did best at Georgia and what he played most. He excelled at it and even played well enough in coverage where he would frequently bump outside to the Star (slot) position depending on the matchup. What people may not understand is that he also did fairly well dropping down as an edge defender on the defense.
Above is a screenshot of Georgia playing a penny look to Alabama’s I formation, with Walker (#7) playing the edge and kicking in first overall pick Travon Walker to the B gap. The reason Green Bay spent a first-round pick on Walker was not because he’s an inside linebacker, but because he’s an inside linebacker who can do things like this when he’s not five yards off of the ball.
Outside of depth issues due to injury, which you can’t really blame the team for, I would argue that one of the worst aspects of the team’s defense last year was their predictability when they broke out of the huddle. When the team had their penny personnel on the field, you knew they would run penny. When the team had their nickel personnel on the field, for the most part, they ran nickel. When they went out there in their 3-3 personnel, they did it to get speed on the field in penny.
With the size and speed of Walker and Campbell at linebacker, two nearly identical players athletically, the team has a whole lot more options on the table now. Maybe they don’t need to clog up the interior with defensive linemen anymore, as Walker and Campbell can both play the run well from nickel alignments. If they do need to play penny, they can probably do it a little better out of nickel personnel now that they have two sideline-to-sideline linebackers. This also gives them the ability to play pass-rushing matchup games with one of Walker, Campbell or Gary on the interior. With Walker’s speed, maybe they can play less dime personnel on passing downs, which could be a big factor this year considering their secondary depth at the moment.
That’s the biggest thing Walker’s addition brings to the team. It’s not necessarily the player himself but the skillset that allows the team to get into nickel, Penny or passing downs subpackages without announcing it to the opposing sideline every time Barnes does or doesn’t leave the huddle.
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