Four notable names find themselves back in Green Bay

Packers to succeed on defense, special teams with returnees
By: 
Luke Reimer
Green & Gold Express

While the start of the new NFL season often builds excitement for new faces joining a football team, sometimes retaining players is just as impactful.

For the Green Bay Packers this season, four notable names were retained, including defensive back and kick returner Keisean Nixon. In his two seasons with the Packers, Nixon has proved that he can be a gamechanger, most notably on special teams. In both of the seasons, Nixon led the NFL in kick return yardage, setting himself up with two straight First-Team All-Pro selections.

With how inconsistent Green Bay’s offense has looked at times over the past few seasons, Nixon has seemingly been able to put the offense in a great position. With his electrifying return game, Nixon has totaled a 26.4 return yard average. With the new kickoff rules seemingly giving more aid to the returners, bringing Nixon back seemed expected.

“When you have a returner as dynamic as Keisean, the more opportunities he can get to return, I think it can set us up,” said Packers head coach Matt LaFleur.

Outside of the return game, while inconsistent at times, Nixon is also a piece that can be used as the slot corner. While a three-year, $18 million deal may seem pricey, bringing Nixon back will help to improve the depth of another position that Green Bay desperately needs.

“(Defensive coaches) were really excited about what they saw on tape from his ability to play the nickel position, his willingness to fit in the run fits and then also his ability to play man coverage,” said LaFleur. “Certainly there are going to be some elements to our scheme that are going to be different, and he is going to have to learn the new scheme. He has played in the style before when he was with the Raiders, so he is familiar with some of the things that are going to be asked of him, but that was a big get for us to get him back.”

While retaining Nixon is not the most exciting thing that happened to the Packers over the offseason, bringing him back is important for a team that looks like it is gearing up to compete for a Super Bowl. Nixon is a starter who has familiarity with the rest of the defense in a nickel spot, where it can be tough to find bodies. Nixon should be able to be a centerpiece to help new defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley settle in with Green Bay.

Along with bringing back Nixon, Green Bay also re-signed linebackers Eric Wilson and Kristian Welch, defensive back Corey Ballentine and tight end Tyler Davis.

An eight-year veteran, Wilson was signed to the Packers in the middle of the season two seasons ago. Almost immediately, he made an impact. Against the New York Jets in Week 6, Wilson blocked a punt. His next big impact came in last year’s playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers. Wilson, following Nixon on a big return, recovered a fumble deep in 49ers territory to keep the ball with Green Bay at an important juncture.

As proven by both big plays happening on special teams, re-signing Wilson seemed to be a boost to that facet of the game. Wilson is seemingly around every play on each portion of special teams, something that Green Bay needs to be able to exercise its special teams’ demons from seasons past.

While Wilson’s strengths include special teams, he was given run as a backup inside linebacker last season. With Green Bay not re-signing De’Vondre Campbell, it seems likely that it will look for someone to fill that void. Wilson will probably not be the starter, but having depth at that spot on the defense is a positive.

Similar to Wilson, the re-signing of Welch looked to be more of a special teams move than anything.

Last season, Welch finished third on the team in special teams tackles. Being a key catalyst to the overall success of special teams, it seemed like a no-brainer to keep Welch at a minimum price. Unlike Wilson though, Welch did not see any time on the defensive side of the ball.

Could that change this year? Possibly, but overall retaining Welch means more to special teams than anything. Another thing Wilson and Welch have in common is that they are low-risk signings, meaning that if Green Bay was to go into next season without the two on the roster, it would not hurt the team much financially.

Another seemingly insignificant signing that should pay dividends for Green Bay was retaining Ballentine.

Ballentine started his tenure in Green Bay in 2022, and after appearing in only eight games, he found himself starting six games in 2023. While that had to do with injuries to Jaire Alexander and Eric Stokes, retaining another player who has experience with the team as a depth piece can only excite Gutekunst and his staff. Ballentine is also on a team-friendly deal with no guaranteed money, so if Green Bay were to cut him before the season started, there would not be too big of a burden.

Finally, maybe the biggest special teams re-signing (outside of Nixon) is Davis.

Davis has been with the Packers since 2021 and has contributed most of his play on special teams. While fans did not get to see much of Davis last year after he tore his ACL against the Bengals in the preseason opener, in 2022, he was worth the roster spot.

In that 2022 season, Davis found himself on 80% of the team’s special teams plays. Special teams is a part of the game that sometimes gets overlooked, so having someone who special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia is familiar with should give the team a little flexibility when it comes to adding more pieces. Davis is yet another re-signing who is not guaranteed money, so if he is limited due to that previous ACL tear, moving on from him would not be a big hardship.

Overall, it seemed like Gutekunst prioritized special teams in his re-signings, which should never be considered a failure. Special teams has the ability to greatly impact the outcomes of games, and nailing down that spot should set Green Bay up for success in the future.