Packers grades: Defensive line can provide potent interior pass rush
Fifth in a nine-part Packers position-analysis series with 2018 grades.
GREEN BAY - On paper, the Green Bay Packers entered last season expecting their defensive line to be the strength of their defense. And with good reason. Mike Daniels was coming off a Pro Bowl season. Kenny Clark, entering his third year, appeared primed to break out. And Muhammad Wilkerson represented the defense’s biggest free-agent acquisition.
Then the season started, and the collateral damage was practically a paper shredder, ripping through the Packers’ defensive line. Wilkerson went down with a broken leg Week 3. Daniels’ season ended with a foot injury in late November. And though Clark had the big breakout the Packers envisioned, an elbow injury prevented him from finishing the season.
Of all the injury issues the Packers dealt with last season — once again, this is a broken record — none were more problematic than having their three defensive line starters end up on injured reserve. But in a season that was heading nowhere, it also meant young players who otherwise would be glued to the sideline got potentially key developmental snaps. The long-term benefits could mean more depth — and better preparedness should injuries strike again — at a position that’s really strong at the top.
The Packers tied for eighth in the NFL with 44 sacks, and a big reason was their defensive line. Led by Clark’s six, the Packers' defensive line accounted for 12.5 sacks in 2018. Inside linebacker Blake Martinez had five sacks, and he said a contributing factor was the attention opponents paid to the defensive line. That might not seem like much on its own (it ranks about middle of the pack in the league), but given the injuries that hit the position, there’s good reason to think that production will increase in 2019. For a team lacking in edge rush, it helps to start from a basis of quality interior pressure.
Given the injuries, this was a season that begged for former third-round pick Montravius Adams to assume more snaps. It was the ideal situation for Adams to come into his own after a quiet rookie season, but it never happened. Adams played only 212 snaps (20 percent), fewer than Tyler Lancaster (271). Lancaster, an undrafted rookie, started the season on the practice squad and wasn’t promoted to the 53-man roster until October. The Packers drafted Adams believing he had big upside as an interior pass rusher, and that at no worse he would provide depth if injuries plagued the starters. He has a ton of athletic potential, but his inability to seize opportunity ushers him into a critical third offseason.
This may not qualify as a full-fledged need with Dean Lowry a capable starter to join Clark and Daniels, but if everything checks out medically for Wilkerson, it would make sense for both him and the Packers to press reset on the one-year, prove-it deal he signed last offseason. He figured to be a big part of their defense, playing two-thirds of the snaps in the first two weeks. Formerly one of the NFL’s top interior pass rushers, Wilkerson didn’t show much of that in his limited time. He had no sacks or quarterback hits, but it was still very early in the season when he went on IR. After a tumultuous few years with the New York Jets, Wilkerson seemed to fit in nicely with the Packers' locker room, staying around the team throughout the fall as he underwent rehab. Even if Wilkerson, who turns 30 in October, never regains the form he once had as a perennial double-digit sacker, he’s the type of solid veteran a good defense needs, and he should be affordable. With Mike Pettine, a big supporter of Wilkerson’s, staying on as defensive coordinator, there’s a lot of reasons to think he can and should return.
Kenny Clark: Clark showed signs of developing as a pass rusher in 2017, when all 4½ of his sacks came in December, and that carried into his third season. Six sacks were the most for a Packers defensive lineman since Mike Daniels in 2013 (6½). Doesn’t win with speed, but possesses good strength at point of attack and a relentless motor. Even better defending the run. Constantly takes on multiple blockers, helping linebackers make plays on the second level. Only 23, Clark has a bright future. Grade: A-
Mike Daniels: A foot injury ended Daniels’ season in November. Had only two sacks in 10 games, a disappointment after Pro Bowl season in 2017. Let one sack get away in Week 2 after wrapping up Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins but not bringing him to the ground. Remains one of the Packers' top defenders with good strength and pad level, giving him leverage for bull rush on the interior. Tough to block against the run. Turns 30 years old before start of next season. Grade: B-
Dean Lowry: Versatile defender along the line. Has the build of a five-tech defensive end but capable of playing all positions. Three sacks last fall were a career high, one more than his total in each of his first two seasons. Added five tackles for loss. Height (6-6) is an asset, helping him knock down passes at the line of scrimmage when he can’t reach the quarterback. Has six pass breakups in his first three years, including three last season. Grade: C+
Tyler Lancaster: Undrafted rookie from Northwestern, where he played one season with Lowry. Started season on the practice squad but was promoted to the active roster in early October. Started five of his 12 games. Decent athlete but did not show much burst as a pass rusher. Solid run defender, willing to mix it up in the trenches. Finished with 26 tackles. Grade: C-
Montravius Adams: Played all 16 games after missing more than half his rookie season because of a broken foot. There were glimpses of his immense athletic potential. Blew past Miami Dolphins right guard Jesse Davis to record his first career sack. Good bull rush led to a half sack at Chicago. Speed is a plus, but needs to get stronger and play with better leverage. Too often blown off the ball. Entering critical offseason. Grade: D
Muhammad Wilkerson: Started season playing good chunk of snaps but broke his leg in Week 3 at Washington. Five tackles in three games. No sacks but was solid defending the run. Grade: Incomplete
James Looney: Sixth-round pick last spring, started season on practice squad. Promoted to active roster Nov. 24. Played 19 snaps in three games. Grade: Incomplete
Fadol Brown: Started season in Oakland, where he spent rookie season on practice squad in 2017. Played eight games for Raiders in 2018. Signed with Packers on Dec. 5. Played 39 snaps in four games with three tackles and two quarterback hits. Grade: Incomplete