GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Football isn't played on paper, but until there is real football to be played, that's all anyone has to go on at this time of the year. So when quarterback Aaron Rodgers raved about the prospects for the Green Bay Packers' defense in 2022, he did so with a noticeable caveat.
"It's one of the best defenses on paper that we've had," Rodgers said at one point during a session with reporters in training camp.
"I like our defense on paper for sure," Rodgers said as part of another answer.
More than a month later, when presented with the possibility that it is the Packers' best defense on paper in recent memory, there was another assessment.
"On the field, I think it looks even better," fourth-year safety Darnell Savage said.
Day after day, practice after practice, the defense showed up in training camp.
It was linebackers Rashan Gary and Preston Smith winning off the edge and getting pressure on the quarterback. It was defensive linemen Kenny Clark, Jarran Reed and Dean Lowry clogging up the middle. It was De'Vondre Campbell and Quay Walker covering more ground than a pair of inside linebackers should be able to. It was cornerbacks Jaire Alexander, Eric Stokes and Rasul Douglas not only breaking up passes but confidently letting everyone within earshot know about it. And it was safety Adrian Amos and Savage, when he wasn't out with a hamstring injury, keeping anyone from beating them deep.
"We've got two really good edge rushers, we've got four really good inside players, we've got three really good corners, we've got two really good safeties, [and] we've got two really good inside 'backers," defensive coordinator Joe Barry said.
"It'll be exciting to see what the remaining part of the roster is going to be. But I think when you've got really good players that are great guys that have the No. 1 common goal of they don't care who gets the success they just want to win, that's the thing that I'm most proud of with this group -- that they work and they grind and they compete every single day, and at the end of the day all they want to do is win."
The last time anyone saw Barry's regular group on the field, they were holding the San Francisco 49ers to just six points on offense in the 13-10 NFC divisional playoff loss.
Still, the narrow loss left a bitter taste.
"Maybe if we would have only gave up three, we got into overtime and see what we can do in overtime," Smith said this offseason. "Maybe we give up none, now it's 10-7, we win, we [advance in] the playoffs against the Rams. We beat them before, we kind of had the up on them, so we probably had a better chance -- who knows, we go to the Super Bowl.
"There's always these 'what ifs' and all these hypotheticals. I just feel like there's a lot of big plays we might’ve missed in that game that we could have made to prevent us from being in certain situations."
Even before that, the Packers finished ninth in total defense during the regular season. They did so without Alexander for most of the season and outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith (who was released this offseason) for nearly all of it. Alexander played in only the first four regular-season games. (He returned for a limited role in the playoffs.) In the two previous seasons, he held opponents to 6.3 yards per attempt as the nearest defender in coverage, which was third best among all defensive backs in that span, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
Rodgers was largely joking early in training camp when he said, "We're a defensive team now," following all of the questions about their offense after receiver Davante Adams was traded to the Las Vegas Raiders.
'In reality, general manager Brian Gutekunst has been building the defense ever since he took over in 2018. He’s used six of his seven first-round picks on defensive players, including Walker (No. 22 overall) and defensive tackle Devonte Wyatt (No. 28) this year. They drafted Walker to play right away, and he will. They don't need Wyatt just yet, which is a good thing, since he's been slower to develop.
Most of his Gutekunst's major free-agent signings have come on that side of the ball, too, with Smith, Amos, Campbell and Douglas still around from that group.
"The big thing about defense -- and this is something we've been stressing since we all got here – is just the communication aspect of it and all being on the same page," Savage said. "I feel like the majority of us have been here for so long, and even the guys we just brought in, it feels like they've been here forever too. We're a family, and we expect the most out of each other, and we get the best out of each other. Really, I'm just excited for our whole group."