Packers defensive line needs supporting cast around Mike Daniels
Sixth in a nine-part Packers by Position series.
GREEN BAY - With pass rush and coverage topping the Green Bay Packers' list of offseason priorities, it would have been easy to overlook their defensive line needs.
For a unit that allowed 44 points in the NFC championship game, the line was not the problem. Anchored by Mike Daniels, the unit had up-and-comers in Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry. But their emergence was nothing more than projection, hanging on snippets of solid play late in their rookie seasons.
In truth, the Packers' defensive line was paper thin last fall, unable to quickly recover from B.J. Raji’s unexpected retirement. Daniels played 663 regular-season snaps (64 percent), the most among players in the front seven. Other than Letroy Guion (448), whose legal troubles throw his future into doubt, Clark’s 333 snaps were most among defensive linemen.
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To put it another way: Clark and Lowry, who potentially rank among the Packers' top three defensive linemen this fall, combined to play 173 fewer snaps than Daniels.
“Obviously Mike played the most of any of our defensive linemen last year,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said, “and I think with Kenny and Dean Lowry going into their second year, that you anticipate and expect both of those guys to take a step.”
The need for more depth ushered in a busy offseason on the defensive line. General manager Ted Thompson was aggressive both in free agency and the draft, prioritizing the position higher than what could have been expected.
The Packers signed ninth-year veteran Ricky Jean Francois in March, Thompson’s first free-agent defensive lineman since Guion in 2014. He doubled down a month later, using a third-round pick on Auburn’s Montravius Adams. In between, the Packers claimed former Chicago Bears tackle Ego Ferguson off waivers, but he was released two days later after a failed physical.
Thompson’s approach sprouted from necessity. The Packers lost Julius Peppers and Datone Jones in free agency, and though both were listed as outside linebackers on the roster, many of their snaps came as de facto linemen.
With more interior rotation, Daniels will find better support around him. Not that the Packers will be inclined to keep perhaps their best defensive player on the sideline. Daniels’ 663 snaps last season were his fewest since 2013. When he’s on the field, Daniels usually makes a difference.
DEFENSIVE LINE (9)
Mike Daniels (Ht.: 6-0½; Wt.: 312; Age: 28; Acquired: D4-’12; College: Iowa)
At some point, Daniels should become a Pro Bowl player. He’s compensated like a Pro Bowler, the $41 million total value of his contract ranking fifth among 3-4 defensive ends, behind J.J. Watt, Muhammad Wilkerson, Cameron Heyward and Corey Liuget, according to Over the Cap. His presence on the Packers' defense is unquestioned.
That’s not to say Daniels is coming off a career year. Daniels’ four sacks last season were identical to 2015, but he was more disruptive in 2015. Fair or not, the surest way for Daniels to secure his first Pro Bowl berth is to increase his sack production.
Of course, it’s difficult for interior defensive linemen to consistently reach the quarterback playing in front of a porous secondary, as the Packers had last season. Many times, the quarterback’s quick release negated sack opportunities.
But Daniels stands as one of Thompson’s best draft picks of this decade, a testament to the GM’s ability to unearth mid-round talent. Since 2013, Daniels’ 20 sacks ranks 17th among NFL defensive tackles, according to Pro Football Reference.
Kenny Clark (Ht.: 6-2½; Wt.: 315; Age: 21; Acquired: D1-’16; College: UCLA)
Among players the Packers most need to break out in 2017 is Clark, if only for what it would mean for their pass rush.
Clark figures to spend his second season lining up beside Daniels in the Packers' sub-package defenses. More pass-rush production from Clark would not only make things easier for Daniels, but upgrade the Packers' overall pressure.
Clark, who didn’t turn 21 until October, got off to a slow start as a rookie. He didn’t record a sack in 19 games counting playoffs. Outside Daniels, Clark’s lack of interior pressure has been a common trend among defensive tackle.
Daniels’ 20 sacks since 2013 leads all Packers interior linemen. In second place is Guion, with 3.5. Guion's last sack came in 2014.
Once the game slowed down, Clark improved late in his first season. He became more disruptive in the playoffs, doing things that often didn’t show up on the stat sheet. His breakout game came in the NFC divisional round at Dallas, when Clark made things difficult for the Cowboys' vaunted offensive line, finishing with four tackles.
During minicamp, coach Mike McCarthy said Clark “may be our best, most improved second-year player” entering the fall.
“I’m more comfortable,” Clark said. “I feel explosive as far as I know the system, I know the guys around me. I know what they like to do, so I can play off of them. I’m just not as anxious as I was before, trying to rush and run to the ball. Looking around, look at the formation, I’ve slowed down. I’m looking at what the offensive linemen are doing. I’m looking at his hands, at the alignments, all of that.
“It’s slowed down a lot for me.”
It’s worth noting Clark was the first defensive tackle Thompson drafted in the opening round since Raji in 2009. Raji’s best season was his second, when his sack production increased from one to 6.5.
Dean Lowry (Ht.: 6-5½; Wt.: 296; Age: 23; Acquired: D4-’16; College: Northwestern)
Lowry’s rookie season was a year of transition. In college, Lowry almost exclusively lined up over offensive tackles as a five-tech defensive end. But short, 31-inch arms make that a daunting task in the NFL, so the Packers blended more interior snaps in his first pro season.
Moving inside, where the game speed quickens, is a difficult adjustment for young linemen. Lowry barely played through the season’s first 10 weeks, cracking double-digit snaps in a game only once (11 against the Detroit Lions in Week 3). Following Mike Pennel’s second suspension, which ultimately ended his time with the Packers, Lowry’s play time increased. He reached double-digit snaps in a game five times, including a season-high 34 against the Seattle Seahawks, the Packers' first opponent in 2017.
Lowry showed natural timing batting passes in college, and there were glimpses of that last season. He deflected a Brock Osweiler pass against the Houston Texans in December, then showed his hustle in disrupting Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson enough to save a touchdown the next week. In limited playing time, Lowry had two sacks.
With Peppers and Jones gone, Lowry should be given every opportunity to allow his game to grow this season. Capers said Lowry “added some strength” during the offseason.
“I look at Dean and physically, he’s a different looking guy than when he came in last year,” Capers said. “He’s got the height and the length, and I think he can really utilized that to his advantage.”
Ricky Jean Francois (Ht.: 6-3; Wt.: 313; Age: 30; Acquired: FA-‘17; College: LSU)
The Packers have been interested in Jean Francois for several years, starting after the 2012 season as a potential injury replacement for Jerel Worthy. Instead, he signed with the Indianapolis Colts, where he stayed for two seasons before moving on to Washington for the past two seasons.
Jean Francois won’t provide much sack production, although his recent numbers are more than the Packers have been getting from interior linemen not named Mike Daniels. He has 12 sacks in his career, never more than three in a season (2014 with the Colts). Jean Francois’ 1.5 sacks last season were his fewest since 2011.
As a rotation lineman, Jean Francois gives the Packers positional versatility. He can play inside or out, from the five technique to the one. McCarthy said he has been impressed when the Packers have played against Jean Francois, as he has each of the past two seasons.
“We’ve played a lot of football against Ricky over the years,” McCarthy said. “He became available, and we had the opportunity to get him in there and sit down and visit with him. It was a good fit. He’s a no-nonsense guy, a veteran with experience, and he’s actually done some good things playing out in the five technique, not just the one or the three, too. I thought he was an excellent addition.”
Montravius Adams (Ht.: 6-4; Wt.: 304; Age: 21; Acquired: D3-‘17; College: Auburn)
Adams is the ultimate wild card coming out of the draft’s third round. After three underwhelming seasons at Auburn, he posted easily his best season as a senior, finishing with four sacks and eight tackles for loss to receive all-SEC honors as a defensive tackle.
Adams, a former high school sprinter, led all defensive tackles at the NFL scouting combine with a 4.87-second, 40-yard dash. A former five-star recruit, Adams’ quick twitch off the snap gives him big-time potential. But he’ll need to continue sharpening his technique to reach it.
If Lowry finds a home inside, Adams could become the Packers' long-term five-tech defensive end. Adams has the ideal frame to line up across from offensive tackles. His 32 3/4-inch arms are almost two inches longer than Lowry’s, despite his being two inches shorter.
Letroy Guion (Ht.: 6-3½; Wt.: 325; Age: 30; Acquired: FA-‘14; College: Auburn)
In purely a football sense, Guion was unable to sustain a strong start last season. He’s best as a nose tackle, and his power inside was a big reason the Packers' run defense was so stingy through the season’s first month or so. But Guion’s play fell sharply as the season progressed, even if his snap count didn’t. He finished with only one pressure, and hasn’t had a sack since 2014. Guion provides some value in the run game, but it’ll be hard for him to find playing time in the Packers' sub-package defense.
Then there’s the real problem: Guion’s off-field behavior. Guion, already serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL policy against performance-enhancing drugs, was arrested and charged with driving under the influence last month in Hawaii. It was the second time he has been arrested while under Packers employment. The first time, a drug arrest in 2015, didn’t deter the Packers from re-signing him to a three-year contract.
With one arrest and one suspension already, Guion remains on the Packers' roster after his third strike.
Christian Ringo (Ht.: 6-0½; Wt.: 300; Age: 25; Acquired: D6-‘15; College: Louisiana-Lafayette)
After a year on the practice squad, Ringo cracked the Packers' roster for the first time last season. Squatty but quick, he played 75 snaps as a nose tackle. In eight games, Ringo finished with two tackles. He was the only defensive lineman to force a fumble last season.
Brian Price (Ht.: 6-2½; Wt.: 318; Age: 23; Acquired: UDFA-‘16; College: Texas-San Antonio)
Part of a bloated 2016 undrafted rookie class, Price arrived from UTSA underdeveloped but with a world of physical potential worth keeping around. Signed to the active roster in September, he appeared in one game against the Detroit Lions, playing 10 snaps before being sent back to the practice squad. A minor leg injury might have prevented him from being promoted late in the season. The Packers have high hopes for what Price can give them down the road.
Izaah Lunsford (Ht.: 6-3; Wt.: 310; Age: 23; Acquired: UDFA-‘17; College: Bowling Green State)
Lunsford signed with the Packers one week after the draft. Finished his college career with 5.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss.