Green Bay Packers

Green Bay's Rookies Should Play A Big Role Early On the Defensive Line

Photo Credit: Mark Hoffman via USA TODAY Sports

Part of the transition from Aaron Rodgers to Jordan Love means that the Green Bay Packers will rely on unproven players to fill a variety of roles rather than slotting in veterans. The team is no longer in Super Bowl mode, despite what they may tell you. Therefore, it makes sense to see which young players can be long-term contributors.

Green Bay entered the 2023 NFL Draft with 11 picks and somehow ended with a whopping 13 players. We know Brian Gutekunst hates to cut the players he drafts, so there’s a good chance all 13 make the active roster. It looks like the team will rely more heavily on these rookies this year than in the past.

This is especially true with the front seven. Thanks to lingering injuries and a need to inject some juice into a constantly failing run defense, expect the Packers to rely heavily on rookies in the defensive trenches.

The Packers aren’t typically a team that likes to throw their rookies into the fire. Even when targeting a position of need, the team likes to attack the position in free agency and then allow the younger players to learn from the veterans.

We’ve seen this particularly often in the first round. Rashan Gary got to learn under recently signed Za’Darius and Preston Smith, Jordan Love sat behind Rodgers for three years, and Eric Stokes studied behind Jaire Alexander and Kevin King. Quay Walker was expected to immediately play a big role. However, he still was second to All-Pro De’Vondre Campbell while Devonte Wyatt saw little playing time even when the defensive line needed some extra oomph.

Expect that to change this season.

Green Bay’s first-round pick this year, edge Lukas Van Ness, is going to play a lot of snaps early on, whether he’s technically the starter or not.

With Rashan Gary‘s return still TBD after last year’s ACL injury, the Packers don’t have much proven depth beyond Preston Smith. Justin Hollins and Jonathan Garvin. J.J. Enagbare will see heavy rotation opposite Smith, but last year’s group simply didn’t bring enough to the pass rush. The team will need their athletically gifted rookie to add a spark to the group.

Van Ness has already been an early stand-out at OTAs with the 2s. And as we all know, looking good in shorts directly correlates to being very good on game day as a rookie and never being remotely bad. Jokes aside, the Packers’ coaches are seeing exactly what you’d hope for in a rookie so far. That bodes well for a player who will need to contribute early on.

Thanks to his versatility, Van Ness won’t only play on the edge early on, either. While Green Bay often likes to have their rookies focus on a single role, thanks to his collegiate experience, we should also see Van Ness inside. The former Hawkeye brings a powerful build and athleticism that could help Green Bay’s stagnant run defense.

And Van Ness won’t be the only rookie the Packers use to glue together that porous run-stopping group. While they won’t be expected starters, rookie defensive linemen Colby Wooden and Karl Brooks will play key rotational roles.

As always, the defensive line lives and dies with Kenny Clark, who is still approximately 16 years old. It appears that Clark may finally have some help, with Green Bay expecting to lean more on Devonte Wyatt in his sophomore season. But the Packers don’t have proven depth, and even Wyatt hasn’t been in the spotlight yet.

The Packers lost Dean Lowry and Jarran Reed in free agency, and in the process a massive percentage of their snaps from last season. While Lowry struggled, he was still a seasoned veteran.

Green Bay will expect T.J. Slaton to step up, but the former fifth-round pick still has to prove he can handle a featured role. Beyond those three, there isn’t much starting experience. While this means the run defense is still one of the biggest areas of concern for the team, it provides a wonderful opportunity for Wooden and Brooks to stand out early. By making the most of those rotational snaps, they can carve out a path for more.

Even with “defense wins championships” becoming less of a universal truth, teams still win games in the trenches. The Packers struggled to get at the quarterback and to stop the run. To shore up those deficiencies, Green Bay looked to the draft rather than free agency. Compared to past years, the Packers will rotate their rookies into impactful roles with much more gusto.

While Rashan Gary got to learn from the Smith Bros., the Packers will likely throw Van Ness into the fire right away. Wooden and Brooks will also get plenty of opportunities to make an impact on the defensive line. Hopefully, these young players provide a long-term answer.

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