There are only two positions that the Green Bay Packers have reinforced both via free agency and the draft so far this offseason. The first one is obvious: wide receiver. They replaced Davante Adams, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and Equanimeous St. Brown with Sammy Watkins, Christian Watson, Romeo Doubs, and Samori Toure. But they also added to the defensive line. It was less of a forced move. Instead, their focus was on improvement.
In March, the Packers signed former Seattle Seahawks and Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Jarran Reed. At that moment, it looked like they signed him to alleviate the need and to use draft resources in other areas. One month later, general manager Brian Gutekunst opted to draft not only one but two defensive linemen. He used the 28th-overall pick on Devonte Wyatt and a seventh-rounder on Jonathan Ford.
The Packers have many options now, and defensive end Dean Lowry is no longer a lock to make the 53-man roster.
Lowry had a good season last year under defensive coordinator Joe Barry. The interior DL had five sacks and four passes defended, both career highs. Lowry finished the season with a 66.7 PFF grade, much higher than Jarran Reed‘s 46.7.
But there are also reasons for the Packers to trade or cut Lowry. The first and maybe most impactful to the discussion is the salary. Dean Lowry will have an $8 million cap hit, just below Kenny Clark‘s number ($9.9 million).
There is also another factor regarding his cap hit. Last year, the Packers restructured his deal to create cap space, adding void years. But they haven’t done anything to his contract this offseason, which can indicate a predisposal to move on from the player without creating much future dead money.
If they trade or release Lowry after June 1, his dead money will be $2.12 million this year and $1.86 million next season. That means $6.2 million in cap savings, a significant number considering the Packers currently have only $6.5 million in effective cap space. They need more than that to operate and make in-season moves. The decision would be easier if a team were willing to part ways with a late-round draft pick to acquire Lowry. However, that’s not a likely scenario because of his contract.
After releasing Za’Darius Smith, Gutekunst admitted that the salary cap is sometimes an important factor when figuring out who will be on the roster.
“We really thank Z for what he’s done for our organization for the past couple years,” Gutekunst said during the NFL annual meetings. “That was a big addition to our defense when we kicked off ’19. But I think obviously that nasty word, salary cap, drives a lot of decisions. I think with the emergence of Rashan and Preston playing so well last year, I think those things came into play.”
Lowry’s situation is similar to Za’Darius Smith’s. Although Lowry hasn’t been as impactful as Smith, he has been a good player. Still, his salary is a problem, and new players have arrived on cheaper deals.
Another point is the scheme fit. Lowry played well last year under Barry, but the Packers’ defensive coordinator prefers heavier defensive linemen because they need to occupy space to protect lighter boxes. That’s why replacing Lowry (296 lbs.) with bigger bodies would make sense. Think Devonte Wyatt (304 lbs.), Jarran Reed (306 lbs.), and nose tackle Jonathan Ford (338 lbs.). Meanwhile, starting nose tackle Kenny Clark is 314 lbs. and could be able to play more open in 3- and 5-technique to explore his pass-rushing abilities.
Lowry has been a valuable player for the Packers and could be a useful piece to the rotation. But his salary and the depth at the position are complicating factors. Outside of Lowry, Green Bay’s defensive line unit has Kenny Clark, Jarran Reed, T.J. Slaton, Devonte Wyatt, Jonathan Ford, Jack Heflin, plus undrafted rookies Hauati Pututau and Akial Byers.
Fortunately for Gutekunst, it’s a decision he doesn’t have to make right now. Lowry doesn’t have any roster bonus date to accelerate a decision, so the Packers can wait and let him be part of the training camp. If Reed fits nicely into the defense and young players emerge, it will be easier to cut Lowry. If necessary, the Packers will have more information to decide if they should give Lowry a more significant role, restructure his contract, or perhaps give him an extension to lower his cap hit.