Changes haven't altered optimism for Packers' D-line

Young positional group reflects defensive transformation

DL Dean Lowry
DL Dean Lowry

GREEN BAY – Blake Martinez was talking recently with Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry when it dawned on the Packers' fourth-year linebacker just how different the defense looks from when the trio entered the NFL together three short years ago.

That point was driven home Wednesday when the organization released veteran Mike Daniels, a move that leaves Martinez, Clark, Lowry and fellow draft classmate Kyler Fackrell as the lone remaining members of the Green Bay defense that took the field for the 2016 regular-season opener in Jacksonville.

"It's crazy to think about," said Martinez after Thursday's first practice of training camp. "(But) just like everybody knows, this is a business. We want to bring back that winning culture and I think we have the right guys right now."

While coordinator Mike Pettine has returned for a second season, it has been an offseason of significant change on the defensive side of the ball. Veterans Za'Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Adrian Amos arrived in March, while Clay Matthews, Nick Perry and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix have all departed.

The one constant has been the defensive line, which remains one of Green Bay's deepest positions even after Daniels' exit. A big reason for that is the emergence of Lowry and Clark, whom General Manager Brian Gutekunst heralded as a "dominant player" earlier this week in recognition of the former first-round pick's career-high six sacks in 13 starts last season.

Lowry came in as the less heralded of the two defensive linemen three years ago, but the former fourth-round pick proved capable of handling an every-down role after Daniels and Muhammad Wilkerson succumbed to season-ending injuries in 2018.

Lowry responded with a career-high 44 tackles, three sacks and three passes defensed. On Tuesday, the 6-foot-6, 296-pound defensive lineman became the first member from that fruitful 2016 draft class to sign an extension.

Lowry said he considered waiting for free agency but made the decision to sign now due to three factors – his love of the area, close proximity to family in Illinois and how he fits in Green Bay's locker room.

"I think it shows that I'm viewed as one of the core players of the team, and that means a lot," Lowry said. "There's a lot of guys that can do different things with the guys we added in free agency and the draft. That's one of our strengths as a defensive line is we can line up anywhere and attack."

As much as Clark and Lowry will stand as "the pillars" of Green Bay's front moving forward, the Packers wouldn't have moved on from a Pro Bowl defensive lineman like Daniels if they didn't feel good about the position as a whole.

The one silver lining to all the injuries Green Bay weathered on the defensive line last year was the opportunities it afforded to 2017 third-round pick Montravius Adams and 2018 undrafted free agent Tyler Lancaster, who started the last three games of the year at nose tackle in place of an injured Clark (elbow).

Adams took a big step in 2018 after a broken foot derailed his rookie season. He played in all 16 games, registering 20 tackles and 1½ sacks in 212 defensive snaps.

As he did all offseason in Daniels' injury absence, Adams was again lining as the third defensive lineman in Green Bay's base defense on Thursday. While Daniels' release came as a surprise, it hasn't changed Adams' mindset whatsoever.

"I'm going to keep the same approach to every practice and every game," Adams said. "At the end of the day, if he's here or not, I still have to work on my game. I'm still going to keep doing what I'm doing and learn from the older guys."

Lancaster, a former teammate of Lowry's at Northwestern, didn't make Green Bay's roster coming out of camp last summer, but he showed the signs of potential undrafted find after an October promotion to the 53.

The 6-foot-3, 313-pound defensive lineman started five of his 12 games during his rookie season, recording 16 of his 26 tackles in the final three games of the year.

Lancaster still feels he's competing for a roster spot this summer, with fifth-round pick Kingsley Keke, veterans Fadol Brown and Deon Simon, 2018 seventh-round pick James Looney and practice-squad holdover Eric Cotton all vying for spots.

"Competition is what makes everybody better," Lancaster said. "If you can sit back and say I know I have my spot, you're not going to strive to get any better. … Everything is going to come together because we're competing so hard with each other."

At 25, Lowry is now the oldest entrenched player on Green Bay's defensive line, a microcosm of the transformation the defense has undergone over the past three years.

Despite the slew of changes, there is optimism that this year's defense could be the one that finally re-establishes the Packers as one of the NFL's top units – and the line knows it has a pivotal part to play in helping the defense get to that level.

"Guys in this locker room are very hungry," Lowry said. "I think you have a good combination of guys who have experience but also guys who are really talented and young, so it's exciting. So far, the chemistry has been really tight and strong."

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