For quite a while, the Packers defensive line has consisted of Kenny Clark and little else. After Mike Daniels was cut following the 2018 season, Green Bay made do with Clark, Dean Lowry and an assortment of draft picks and undrafted free agents. Players like Montravius Adams, Kingsley Keke, and Tyler Lancaster have come and gone. Some flashed at times, but consistent contributors never fully appeared. Under Mike Pettine – and, last year, Joe Barry – the Packers run defense regularly failed to hold up. Every offseason, fans highlighted the defensive front as an area of the roster that needed an upgrade. Every year, disappointment followed. However, that lack of investment appears to have changed.
The New Additions
In the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft, the Packers selected Devonte Wyatt. The Georgia DT is their most significant investment along the defensive front since Clark himself was drafted. In addition, they added free agent Jarran Reed, a 6-year NFL veteran who has been highly productive in some of his past stops.
Both of these players provide valuable upgrades to multiple facets of the defense. One of the most important aspects of DL play in Joe Barry’s system is the ability to play both primary and secondary gaps. Barry’s defense emphasizes Quarters coverages and other two-high schemes, which keep two safeties on the roof to defend intermediate and deep passing concepts.
In most cases, keeping this two-high system intact requires maintaining a light box in the run game. This means that offenses often have more blockers than the defense has bodies to play the run. Barry’s defense – and other similar defenses, such as those used by Brandon Staley and Vic Fangio – rely on several means to solve this problem. One of their most important methods relies on high-level play from the DL. Defensive lineman are asked to cancel out multiple gaps, playing their primary gap assignment while still maintaining the ability to switch into their secondary gap. This method is often known as playing a “gap and a half.”
Last year, Kenny Clark was the only member of the defensive line who was able to consistently clog up multiple gaps in the run game. T.J. Slaton flashed at times. Dean Lowry performed passably. However, the run defense as a whole suffered from the lack of quality DL play. Green Bay ranked 30th in EPA per rush. Only the Chargers and the Giants performed worse. The Packers also allowed 4.7 YPC, near the bottom of the league. A large part of these failures was due to personnel issues up front.
Luckily, the addition of Reed and Wyatt should go a long way to rectifying the situation. Last year with Kansas City, Reed regularly demonstrated the ability to play more than one gap in the run game.
Devonte Wyatt flashed a similar ability, showing that he has the power and athleticism to play both his primary and secondary gap if required.
Having multiple DL that can play a gap and a half is a huge boost to the Packers defense, and one that should improve the unit’s performance as a whole in 2022. Better run defense means more third downs and long yardage situations. Few offenses, facing the Packers’ star-studded secondary, will relish the thought of throwing more often.
Reed and Wyatt can impact the game in other ways as well. Reed is a capable pass-rusher; with the Seahawks in 2018, he racked up an impressive 10.5 sacks. Watching his tape with the Chiefs, his ability to affect the passing game popped up multiple times.
Wyatt has incredible potential as a pass-rusher and penetrator. Throughout his college tape, he demonstrated tantalizing explosiveness, power, and hand usage. As an older, more experienced prospect who played against the highest level of competition in the SEC, he has an excellent chance to be an immediate disruptive force alongside Kenny Clark.
The addition of Reed and Wyatt adds both quality and depth to the Green Bay defensive front. With them available to bolster the defense against both the run and the pass, Clark will no longer have to stay on the field as much. This will allow him to stay fresher, healthier, and more effective. In addition, there are several in-house players that can provide even more depth.
One of the biggest surprises of the 2021 season was Dean Lowry. Faced with playing in a new defensive system, he responded by recording a career-high 5 sacks. He was able to use his powerful bullrush to great effect, becoming a valuable pass-rushing threat.
He’s not the caliber of run defender that Clark, Reed, and Wyatt are, but Lowry can still contribute in the run game at times, especially when matched up with a single offensive lineman.
While not stellar in any one facet, Lowry proved an important part of the defense in 2021. If he can provide a similar level of play in 2022, he could be a fantastic depth piece for the revamped DL room.
T.J. Slaton is another important depth player for 2022. However, he might end up being even more impactful as a rotational defensive lineman than Lowry. Although he was a rookie in 2021, he still flashed impressive strength in run defense. If the 6’4″, 330 pound lineman can take a second-year jump, he could become another player who can reliably handle a gap and a half. His size would allow him to play anywhere on the line, giving Barry a versatile run-stuffing force.
Although the massive Slaton doesn’t fit the traditional model of a pass-rushing DL, he did impress in the passing game from time to time. He’ll need to gain more consistency, but the potential seems to be there.
Notably, Packers HC Matt LaFleur recently singled out Slaton as a player that seems to be on an upward developmental track. A great deal of the offseason remains, but early signs indicate that Slaton could take a jump in 2022.
Kenny Clark is no longer alone. Over the offseason, Brian Gutekunst made a sustained effort to strengthen the defensive line – likely in response to the new needs of Joe Barry’s system. Jarran Reed and Devonte Wyatt give Green Bay significant upgrades against both passing and rushing attacks. Their addition, along with contributions from in-house linemen like Dean Lowry and T.J. Slaton, will enhance the capabilities of the defensive front. While there are many aspects of the 2022 Packers defense to get excited about, the defensive line might be the position group that will be the most improved.
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