Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst needed to nail the 2021 draft — and, so far, more and more of his picks from last spring have flashed immediate promise. As the preseason trudges along, the 6’5”, 340 lb. pound fifth-round draft pick T.J. Slaton is making his presence known in a position group that could use a jolt of energy heading into September.
One thing that can’t be taught in the NFL is size, and Slaton does not lack stature. He slipped to the fifth round due mostly to concerns that he wouldn’t be able to use that size to its full potential. But in nearly every draft report, a word like “unrefined” was always closely followed with a qualifier like “but explosive.”
Take what NFL draft analyst Dane Brugler said of Slaton in his yearly draft guide:
“His senior tape showed a more mature player, but his shed timing, gap leverage, and overall consistency require further development. Overall, Slaton is a massive athlete with the raw power, promising technique, and two-gap potential to be an intriguing project for an NFL defensive line coach.”
The defensive front is anchored by Kenny Clark and his 4-year, $70 million-dollar contract and is flanked by Kingsley Keke and Dean Lowry. It should be a competent front in its own right, but the goal is to occupy enough space so that the likes of Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, and Rashan Gary can wreak havoc from the edges. Having a rookie wild card like Slaton could make the defensive front that much deeper and more dynamic, especially at a position that is notoriously difficult to stay healthy at for a full season.
Following a preseason game in which Slaton had one sack and four tackles, Packers defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery was complimentary of the rookie but said that Slaton still has work to do.
“He’s a man, and he’s got a lot of tools. From Week 1 to Week 2, from a preseason standpoint, I think he’s taken some huge strides,” Montgomery said. “He’s not where we need him yet but he’s making some really good progress. We’re pleased with what he’s done so far, but (he needs) more consistency, and we’re headed in the right direction.”
Can you really ask for much more than that from a rookie fifth-round pick midway through the preseason?
With so much of the Green Bay roster unchanged from last season, it will be guys like Slaton who will help elevate the Packers to heights they haven’t been able to reach for the last decade. Certainly, there’s the hope of a bounce-back season for a guy like Preston Smith or banking on Rashan Gary taking the leap, but adding outside talent that makes an immediate impact would certainly have a significant effect in this position group in particular.
If the Green Bay defensive front can stay mostly healthy, Slaton may be able to make his impact on just 25 snaps a game. The idea of a rotational pass rusher is just that — come in, bust your hump while giving the offense a different look, and head back to the sideline and wait until your number is called again. If Slaton can take the next four months to figure out how to make the most of his limited snaps, the Packers can really have something here. At the very least, his 350 lbs. can take up a lot of space. At best, they can effectively draw double teams and allow the Green Bay pass rush to really thrive. Where Slaton falls on that continuum should, in part, dictate what this Packers defense can be.
Having a player like Slaton approach his potential, especially in his rookie year, would be nothing short of a home run for Gutekunst. The first two picks of the draft, cornerback Eric Stokes and center Josh Myers, will be counted on to play significant roles. Amari Rodgers and Royce Newman look like they will be needed to solidify depth at position groups, and seventh-rounder Kylin Hill looks to be an absolute steal. If Slaton ends up being a factor within the defensive line and gives Gutekunst and the Packers six immediate contributors out of this draft, it would be about as ideal a scenario that even the most optimistic Green Bay fan could have hoped for.