Green Bay Packers

Do the Packers Need To Bolster Their Defensive Line?

Photo Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Green Bay Packers’ defensive line has not been the same since Za’Darius Smith’s injury and departure from the team. Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, and Kenny Clark combined for 31.5 sacks, and the Packers’ defense was solid back when they were all wreaking havoc. Green Bay can return to that this year after a few streaky seasons on the defensive side of the ball.

Green Bay’s defensive unit enters its third year under Joe Barry. The embattled Packers defensive coordinator does not have the greatest track record. While his prior relationship with Packers head coach Matt LaFleur got him hired, his units have been uninspiring and inconsistent. He certainly has much more talent at his disposal than he had in his previous two stops in Detroit and Washington, where his defenses were putrid. Mike Pettine also spent three years as Green Bay’s DC before being let go. This one is a make-or-break year for Barry. Stability in a system is good for the players’ development. Not having to learn a new system is one less thing to worry about.

The Packers still have the cornerstones of their defense: Kenny Clark, Jaire Alexander, Preston Smith, and Rashan Gary. Clark is the pillar of the defensive line. Everything revolves around him. Clark enters his third year in Barry’s scheme, and he needs to get back to being a dominant interior presence. Green Bay’s interior defensive line has mostly been Clark and a plethora of replacement-level guys over the past few seasons. But the Packers finally have some legit help for him this year.

On the interior, Devonte Wyatt showed flashes of being a first-round talent at the end of the season. He played better with an increased role and more snaps. The snaps are his for the taking, as there is nobody in front of him to really compete with anymore. He’s projected to start this year at defensive tackle. He accrued a sack and a half over his last four games — a good sign as he heads into Year 2.

Furthermore, T.J. Slaton could allow Clark to rush as a 3-tech and play over the shoulders of guards or tackles. The third-year player out of Florida is a run-stopping specialist; his 6’4”, 330 lb. frame is difficult to move around. Entering his third season and in a position to start, Slaton will see a lot of time on first and second down or in short-yardage scenarios.

“They got to take huge steps,” Clark said about the two young linemen. “Love how they came in, and they’ve been getting better every day. We are all expecting T.J. and DY (Devonate Wyatt) to take big steps this year. I’ll be there every day, pushing them, and I know the coaches will be pushing them so we going to make sure they right by Week 1.”

If it pans out, this trio is arguably the best the Packers will have had since the B.J. Raji days. It should no longer be Kenny Clark Island along the interior of the Packers’ defensive line.

There are other young players that also need to take a jump. Rookies Colby Wooden and Karl Brooks are new to the NFL, but the Packers need them to be impact rotational players. They should not start, but Brooks and Wooden can get reps behind the big three and make contributions to the team in a depth role. Both will be adjusting to the NFL level. For rookies, especially defensive linemen, it takes time to adjust to the speed and size of the NFL. They are in a position to succeed because Green Bay doesn’t expect them to be starters.

Lukas Van Ness is also another wild card for the Packers defense. He has the ability to rush the passer from the interior, something he excelled at with Iowa. Van Ness’ versatility gives the Packers’ defensive line another element. He could dovetail into Za’Darius Smith’s former role as a versatile defensive player who can line up anywhere. Smith would often rush from the inside or even right over the center. Van Ness could play a similar role for Joe Barry if he wants him to. It could give the Packers a scary-obvious passing-play rush.

Quay Walker is not on the D-line but in the front seven. He blitzed a fair amount for the Packers last year and was pretty effective when he did. Walker collected 1.5 sacks and implemented it more into his game as the year went along. His blitzing effectively adds another element to the Packers defense that opposing coordinators have to worry about.

A healthy Rashan Gary is also a must for this to work out. Gary is Green Bay’s undisputed No. 1 edge rusher. He was on pace for around 12 sacks until getting tearing his ACL in week nine. His skills have improved every year. If he comes back healthy like the Packers need him to, watch out.

Some may argue that the Packers defensive line lacks experience and that is true. They lack experience. But if Green Bay was going to bring in a veteran, it probably would have happened by now. They let Dean Lowry and Jarran Reed walk for a reason. They want to let the young guys play and see what they have. While the potential is there for all the young players, if the potential is not put into action, that’s all it is. Experience is more important than everything.

The help for Kenny Clark is here, and it’s going to come from within. There is reason for optimism. While there are risks with the trust the Packers are putting in Slaton and Wyatt, there is reason to believe they are ready for the challenge. The Packers are letting the kids roll in Joe Barry’s third year, and it’s for the better. With the versatility coming from all over, the possibilities are endless, and the hope that the Packers defensive line can be a strength is higher than ever.

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