This is the fifth in a series of stories that’s examining the Packers’ roster, position by position, leading up to the 2019 NFL Draft. The series continues with the defensive line.
GREEN BAY – Through the highs and lows, the Packers’ 2018 season will be remembered as the year Kenny Clark arrived as one of the NFL’s top young defensive tackles.
After breaking through with 4½ sacks during the final month of the 2017 campaign, the former first-round draft choice picked right up where he left off in his third NFL season.
Clark racked up 55 tackles and six sacks, the second most on Green Bay’s defense, on his way to being named a Pro Bowl alternate. His 36 QB hurries tied for seventh among NFL interior defensive linemen, according to Pro Football Focus.
Those totals likely would’ve been even higher had it not been for a late-season elbow injury that cost him the final three games.
His elbow has since healed and the 23-year-old Clark is back working to take his game to the next level this offseason. He’s one of several homegrown talents the Packers hope will galvanize the defense of second-year coordinator Mike Pettine.
Green Bay had comparable expectations for the defensive line last year before Mike Daniels’ and Muhammad Wilkerson’s season-ending ankle injuries caused the Packers to shift gears.
While Wilkerson remains an unrestricted free agent, Daniels is looking to bounce back from his first stint on injured reserve. Prior to last season, the Pro Bowl defensive lineman had missed only two games due to injury in his first six NFL seasons.
The silver lining to the rash of injuries the Packers endured was it created opportunities for Northwestern products Dean Lowry and Tyler Lancaster.
Lowry, a fourth-round pick in the same 2016 draft class that produced Clark, had to patiently wait his turn through the first month of last season behind Clark, Daniels and Wilkerson.
Lowry’s inactivity didn’t last long, though. He soon was catapulted into a starting role after Wilkerson was lost for the season in Washington on Sept. 23.
Playing in all 16 games with eight starts, Lowry finished second on the defensive line with 698 snaps, and established new career highs in both tackles (44) and sacks (three). He recorded his first career forced fumble against Chicago in Week 15.
The 6-foot-6, 296-pound defensive lineman has yet to miss a game due to injury in his first three NFL seasons.
Lancaster began last season on the practice squad, but started at nose tackle in place of Clark during the Packers’ final three games. Called up to the active roster after Wilkerson was placed on IR, the 6-foot-3, 313-pound defensive lineman displayed power and finesse en route to his 26 tackles.
Former third-round pick Montravius Adams also took a jump after playing sparingly as a rookie. The 6-foot-4, 304-pound defensive lineman saw action in all 16 games last year, picking up 20 tackles and 1½ sacks.
Despite the turnover, the Packers’ defensive line contributed to a respectable 11th-place finish in run defense (104.2 yards per game) and assisted the defense in registering 53 sacks.
The Packers also return two holdovers from the practice squad – Eric Cotton, of Stanford, and Northwestern State (La.) alumnus Deon Simon.
Simon, 28, spent a majority of last season on Green Bay’s practice squad. A seventh-round pick of the New York Jets in 2015, the 6-foot-4, 332-pound defensive lineman recorded 23 tackles and 1½ sacks in 16 games for the Jets in 2016.
Cotton, who was added to the practice squad on Dec. 18, transitioned from tight end to defensive end during his four seasons at Stanford. A college teammate of Packers linebacker Blake Martinez, Cotton (6-4, 272) went undrafted last year after recording 36 tackles and 3½ sacks in three seasons on defense.
Green Bay drafted Cal’s James Looney in the seventh round last spring to extend its streak to 22 consecutive years of selecting at least one defensive lineman.
This year boasts another elite class of D-linemen, with Alabama’s Quinnen Williams, Houston’s Ed Oliver, Michigan’s Rashan Gary and Clemson’s Dexter Lawrence at the top of most pundits’ boards.
Mississippi State junior Jeffery Simmons is also considered to be among the draft’s top prospects, but he’s currently rehabbing a torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered before the NFL Scouting Combine.