As the Green Bay Packers approach the NFL’s free agency period and draft, there are several spots the team could look to upgrade. Although rookies Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs came on towards the end of last season, the Packers still need to add playmakers in the passing game. Receivers and tight ends will likely top fan wish-lists. The safety room needs bodies as well, with Darnell Savage coming off a rough season and both Adrian Amos and Rudy Ford entering free agency. With Rashan Gary likely out for the first part of the year, Green Bay’s edge rushing corps could do with reinforcement.
However, another critical path to improvement lies through the defensive line. Green Bay is potentially facing the losses of both Dean Lowry and Jarran Reed on the open market. Their departure weakens an already dubious room. As it stands, the Packers are betting that Kenny Clark comes roaring back to form and both Devonte Wyatt and TJ Slaton take big jumps. Behind those three, they lack both bodies and talent. Clearly, the DL could badly use upgrades. What exactly will Green Bay be looking for in new defensive linemen?
What is Asked of the Packers DL?
Each defensive system requires different qualities out of their defensive line. Some emphasize penetration and playmaking; others require an ability to control multiple gaps and eat up blocks.
In Joe Barry’s scheme, the defensive line is asked to fill a variety of roles. As a system that prioritizes two-high shells and light boxes, Barry’s defense has to find a way to “steal” gaps. They often do this by having defensive lineman play a “gap-and-a-half” technique, which involves a lineman getting upfield far enough to control one gap while staying in position to switch over to a secondary gap if the running back’s path necessitates it. Other times, the defense uses line movement – stunts, slants, etc. – to disrupt the run game.
These varying approaches are emphasized to differing degrees depending on where the lineman aligns. Over his tenure as Packers DC, Joe Barry has made heavy use of four-man nickel fronts, with a NT in a 2i or 1t paired with a 3t. When the Packers are in base, however, things have been a little more varied.
After using a lot of “tite” fronts in 2021 (two DTs in 4i alignments with a 0t nose), Barry leaned heavily into Under fronts in 2022. Under fronts consist of a nose tackle shaded to the tight end, a 3t away from the tight end, and a 5t to the tight end. Taking into account the composition of Under fronts and nickel fronts, the different roles of the defensive line can be roughly divided into three buckets: nose tackle, 3t, and 5t.
Some schemes ask their nose tackles to play a true two-gapping technique. This isn’t as common for Joe Barry. His nose tackles align in a variety of positions, from 2i (inside shoulder of the guard, often seen in 4-man nickel fronts) to 0t (head up on the center, more common in odd fronts).
Generally, Barry asks the nose to fire off the ball, resetting the line of scrimmage and dominating opponents at the point of attack. Depending on how the offensive line’s blocking scheme plays out, the NT will often have to absorb a double team. The key trait needed at this position is dominant strength that can be used to overwhelm blockers, control double teams, and disrupt the running game.
There are several players who could fit this mold in the draft. Defensive tackles like Mazi Smith, Siaki Ika, and Jaquelin Roy could all be fits as Green Bay nose tackles. Arguably the greatest benefit in upgrading the NT position is that it would allow Kenny Clark – who possess rare traits as a pass rusher and disruptor – to move out to the 3t position where he can focus on creating havoc.
The 3t role in the Packers defense may be the most difficult, diverse role on the line. Barry asks these players to do almost everything – absorb double teams, penetrate upfield, generate disruption on stunts and loops, and control blocks with gap-and-a-half technique. It’s not a coincidence that they spent one of their 2022 first-round picks to bolster this spot with Devonte Wyatt. 3-techniques have to be powerful enough to control gaps in light-box schemes and quick enough to avoid reach blocks and generate vertical disruption.
A few draft prospects who could fill this role are Zacch Pickens, Gervon Dexter, Keeanu Benton, and Karl Brooks. This is a particular area of need given the current roster construction – though the Packers have Wyatt, they are losing both of their other primary 3t players in Reed and Lowry. They could look to add some players here through free agency – or, as previously mentioned, pick up a NT who would allow Kenny Clark to move out over the guard on a full-time basis.
Although a 5t is technically an alignment on the outside shoulder of the tackle, the Packers often move this player around to different alignments over the tackle such as 4t (directly over the T), or 4i (inside shoulder of the T). For the sake of brevity, these alignments will all be grouped together in this article.
The 5t role has some overlap with the 3t – players like Reed and Lowry often spent time here as well as over the guard. Given how often the Packers are in nickel, this is the least important role on the line. However, an upgrade could still be helpful.
Ideally, the 5t would have enough power and gap control ability to match up with tackles and tight ends, both when they attempt double teams and when they face the 5t in one-on-one situations. However, it’s also possible to manipulate alignments in order to “hide” the 5t to a degree. You can move him around to make double teams harder and produce better angles. For example, you can move the 5t to a 4i to make a tackle-and-TE double team on zone more difficult.
This is often where Lowry – who consistently struggled with double teams and was often lackluster vs. the run in general – was relegated when he was on the field in odd fronts. The malleability of the 5t/4t/4i position made it easier to minimize his weaknesses.
Unfortunately, that type of line manipulation brings disadvantages as well. To expand on the previous scenario, a 4i is in terrible position if the opponent decides to run power – the tackle has a great angle to wash him down. Upgrading this position could lessen Green Bay’s need to tweak their fronts, improving the overall effectiveness of Green Bay’s odd front packages.
A few players to watch for this role would be Colby Wooden, Adetomiwa Adebawore, and Byron Young. As mentioned, there’s some player-type overlap with the 3t. Many of the 5t prospects in the draft could also play over the guard.
If Green Bay wants to field a top-tier defense, then an excellent defensive line is a great place to start. Multiple playoff teams, such as the Eagles and 49ers, benefitted from dominant fronts. The Packers would be well-advised to emulate their pursuit of talent in the trenches. Whether Aaron Rodgers returns or not, the defense will be an important part of Green Bay’s team next year.
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