In the quiet period between the NFL draft and the start of training camp, fans and the media alike will get new toy syndrome. Rookies and free-agent acquisitions are exciting. For many teams, they can represent an organization’s shift towards success.
Oft lost in these discussions are the previous year’s rookies, who teams expect to take a big leap. Rookies are usually bad. But a year of experience and an entire NFL-level off-season program can help prepare these sophomore players for more significant roles.
The Green Bay Packers expect Eric Stokes to continue on his promising rookie season. They expect Josh Myers and Royce Newman to develop and bolster a young offensive line. They have great expectations for Amari Rodgers after a rocky first season. And while the early picks garner the most attention, don’t sleep on the contributions from Day 3 picks, like defensive lineman T.J. Slaton.
The Packers defensive line got much better this offseason, and a Year 2 leap from Slaton could boost the group even more.
Drafted 173rd overall in the fifth round of last year’s draft, many scouts called Slaton a steal. Slaton made a name for himself in the draft community after Florida’s pro day when the 330 lb. defender ran a 5.09-second 40-yard dash. Viewed as a tough run-stopper, Slaton had the athletic ability also to be a factor on passing downs. We know the Packers love their athletic big men, and Slaton was a great value for them in the fifth round.
“A 325 lb. man that can do what he does, there’s just not many of them out there,” Brian Gutekunst noted during the 2021 preseason.
Gutekunst added, “At the same time, there were some parts of his game that needed to be developed. But that’s part of what we do here, as well, and I think he’s done a really nice job in a short period of time here doing what Coach [Jerry] Montgomery wants him to do and learning.”
Slaton had a strong offseason that progressed to a strong preseason. The rookie had seven run stops, three pressures, and a sack in three games. However, Slaton fell out of the spotlight once the regular season began. In the first half of the season, Slaton barely got any playing time. But following a Kenny Clark injury in Week 9, Slaton saw increased snaps and continued to earn more the rest of the season.
Slaton finished his rookie season with 255 defensive snaps with 23 total tackles, two quarterback hits, and a sack. Despite Green Bay’s occasional struggles against the run, Slaton, viewed as a gifted run-stopper, didn’t become a major factor. He showed promise as a pass-rusher, though.
But rookie years are rookie years, and the second-year defender has a chance to build on the flashes we saw last year.
Interior defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery believed Slaton could develop into a dominant run player following last season, and his faith appears to be paying off. Slaton seems to be trending in the right direction following a strong offseason program.
“I think he’s light years ahead of where he was a year ago,” Matt LaFleur said in June.
Slaton finds himself in a suddenly crowded defensive line. The Packers signed Jarran Reed in free agency and drafted former Georgia Bulldog Devonte Wyatt in the first round of this year’s draft. Dean Lowry is coming off his best season, and Kenny Clark is Kenny Clark.
Wyatt will take some time to learn the ins and outs of the NFL, but Green Bay won’t want their first-round investment just sitting on the bench. Meanwhile, as the experienced veteran, Reed will be expected to play a role right away. Lowry joins Clark as the most tenured D-linemen on the team. On paper, there are a lot more quality snaps to go around in assisting Clark, and Slaton will have to prove he’s earned them.
The key for Slaton will be a deep understanding of the playbook and finding a niche for himself. The reoccurring theme of the rebuilt line is versatility, with the players able to fill various roles and allow Clark, and even Rashan Gary, to play in different spots and create mismatches.
With his penchant for run defense, Slaton has already gotten some work in as a nose guard this summer, allowing Clark to play 3-tech. If the Packers can get better against the run while simultaneously creating more one-on-one opportunities for Clark as a pass-rusher, that’s a massive boon for this defense.
Slaton doesn’t have to carry the unit alone. Clark is the star, and the line tends to succeed or falter based on his performance. But a Year 2 jump from a gifted Day 3 pick can make all the difference in Green Bay becoming a dominant defense after years of investment. They were one of the worst team’s against the run in 2021, and an improved Slaton can be a major key to getting things right. The Packers are one of the best teams at getting value from Day 3 picks, and Slaton has the talent to be another example.