Sixth in a 10-part NFL draft position-preview series looking at prospects who might be of interest to the Packers. Today: Defensive line.
GREEN BAY – Two years ago, the Green Bay Packers’ defensive line was in disarray.
After 2009 first-round pick B.J. Raji’s unexpected retirement, the Packers were looking at Mike Daniels and little else in the trenches. Behind Daniels, the depth chart included Letroy Guion, Mike Pennel, Christian Ringo and Josh Boyd. There wasn’t a significant starter — let alone a legitimate difference maker — among them.
It’s commendable, then, that the Packers’ defensive line has become the unquestioned strength of their defense. A big part of their success this season could be newcomer Muhammad Wilkerson, an interior pass rusher the Packers signed through free agency. But the Packers’ line projected to be their defensive strength even before Wilkerson’s arrival, and its foundation was built through the draft.
Raji’s retirement surprised the Packers, who were planning to re-sign him when he decided to end his career before his 30th birthday. It also came in an ideal year, with a historically deep defensive line draft class allowing the Packers to reload. Former general manager Ted Thompson double dipped in the class, drafting Kenny Clark in the first round (27th overall) and Dean Lowry in the fourth (137th).
NFL DRAFT PREVIEW: Defensive linemen who might fit Packers
NFL DRAFT PREVIEW: Offensive linemen who might fit with Packers
By last spring, the Packers’ defensive line no longer was a glaring need because of the emerging Clark and Lowry. Regardless, Thompson doubled down on the line, using a third-round pick to select Montravius Adams. Though injury derailed Adams’ rookie season, it’s too early to discount his chances of contributing. Adams has the quick-twitch athleticism difficult to find in the third round.
Collectively, Wilkerson joining the quartet of defensive linemen drafted since 2012 gives the Packers a solid, five-man rotation, one coach Mike McCarthy plans to employ with more split snaps this fall.
“The most important thing about D-line is it’s a rotation,” McCarthy said. “I think when you’re playing your guys 650, 700 reps a year inside, that’s a tall task. And Mike Daniels (629 snaps last season) is a great example of that. We could do a better job of rotating our D-line. That’s something that we need to improve on from prior years.”
Indeed, Daniels’ decreasing snap count each of the past three seasons — last year dropping primarily because of injury — hasn’t limited his production. Instead, he’s coming off his best season since 2014, finally cracking into the Pro Bowl as an alternate last fall.
Wilkerson, who rarely left the field with the New York Jets, will eat a large portion of snaps this fall. But McCarthy’s less-is-more approach wouldn’t be possible without Thompson aggressively building the Packers’ defensive line each of the past two offseasons, especially through the draft. Outside of the Packers, only the Seattle Seahawks and Baltimore Ravens have drafted three interior defensive linemen in the first four rounds or higher since 2016.
It appears new general manager Brian Gutekunst has at least considered maintaining Thompson’s aggressive approach to building the defensive line through the draft. The Packers used one of their 30 pre-draft visits to host University of Washington nose tackle Vita Vea, the top interior lineman in the draft.
Vea, at 6-4 and 347 pounds, has the size to profile more as a run stuffer than interior pass rusher. But he showed superb athleticism at the NFL scouting combine, where he ran a 5.10 40 more in line with players weighing 40 pounds lighter. Vea has drawn comparisons to All-Pro nose tackle Haloti Ngata, who at his best was a shutdown run defender with a disruptive pass rush. Vea had 8½ sacks in his final two college seasons.
“He reminds me so much of Haloti,” said NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah, who was a college scout with the Baltimore Ravens when they drafted Ngata in 2006. “You play him up and down the line of scrimmage, they move him all over the place. He's got a nasty hump move as a pass rusher. You can see that physical power. You watch him just stack and toss offensive linemen.
“He can really roll his hips, and he's got tremendous power as a run defender. And I think he does have upside as a pass rusher.”
With teams picking before No. 14 in the first round like Miami and Washington needing defensive line help, there’s a solid chance Vea will be off the board before the Packers are on the clock. If he’s available, could he be a legitimate option? That likely depends on whether Gutekunst believes Vea improves the team’s pass defense — especially its pass rush — more than any other prospect available.
It’s unlikely, but the Packers have proven one thing in the past two years: They’re serious about using the draft to keep their defensive line stocked.