This is the sixth in a series of stories examining the Packers’ roster, position by position, leading up to training camp. The series continues with the defensive line.
GREEN BAY – Last year’s plan for the defensive line never materialized as intended, but the Packers are in good shape for a reset this year.
Heading into 2018, the veteran trio of Kenny Clark, Mike Daniels and Muhammad Wilkerson was projected to anchor coordinator Mike Pettine’s first Green Bay defense. But Wilkerson was lost for the season in Week 3, and Clark and Daniels combined to miss nine games over the final month and a half due to injuries.
Wilkerson is gone, but Clark and Daniels return as the mainstays with more proven depth behind them due to the playing time allotted to reserves as last season wound down.
Clark (6-3, 314) is a budding star in the league who has recorded his 10½ career sacks over the last 18 games he’s played in, a standout total for an interior pass rusher. The former first-round pick from UCLA was named a Pro Bowl alternate last year and likely would have gone for the first time if not for the elbow injury that cost him the final three games of the regular season. The Packers exercised their fifth-year option on Clark this past offseason.
The Packers practiced inside the Don Hutson Center on Wednesday for Day 2 of mandatory minicamp.
Daniels (6-0, 310) is now two years removed from his first career Pro Bowl, but he’s the longest-tenured member of the unit and been a steady presence his entire career. His injury-shortened season last year was his first without at least four sacks since his rookie season of 2012.
That’s when Daniels came to Green Bay as a fourth-round pick out of Iowa with something to prove, an attitude he’s never lost but very well may assume in full force again in the final year of his contract. Coming off the foot injury that landed him on injured reserve last December, he was present but sat out OTAs and minicamp this spring.
Behind those big two, fourth-year pro Dean Lowry (6-6, 296) is also entering a contract year and is coming off his best season to date in 2018. He recorded career highs across the board, including 57 tackles. As his playing time increased over the second half of the season, the 2016 fourth-round pick from Northwestern posted all three of his sacks and all four of his batted passes while tallying at least four tackles in six of eight games.
Third-year pro Montravius Adams (6-4, 304) also came on strong late last year, with 12 of his 26 tackles, a half sack, and a forced fumble over the final three weeks. The 2017 third-round pick out of Auburn lost the bulk of his rookie season to injury, but the productive finish in Year 2 may have sparked something, as Adams was lauded by position coach Jerry Montgomery for coming back this spring in great shape and putting together a solid offseason.
Last but not least to show a finishing kick a year ago was Tyler Lancaster (6-3, 313), who came to Green Bay as an undrafted rookie out of Northwestern, began the season on the practice squad, and ended up starting five of the last six games. A classic run-stuffer, Lancaster jumped off the film at Chicago in Week 15 with 10 tackles, a huge building block for a young prospect determined to add more pass rush to his game moving forward.
The battle for roster spots also will include second-year players Fadol Brown (6-4, 282) and James Looney (6-3, 287), who both ended last season on the active roster and played sparingly. Brown was claimed off waivers from Oakland in December, while Looney was a seventh-round pick from Cal who began his rookie year on the practice squad.
Two other practice-squad holdovers are Deon Simon (6-4, 332) and Eric Cotton (6-4, 272). Simon is on his third NFL team, coming to Green Bay last September after a brief stint in Tennessee. Originally a seventh-round pick of the Jets in 2015, Simon has 16 games and 28 tackles with New York to his credit. Cotton was a late-season signee to the practice squad as a rookie from Stanford who moved from tight end to defensive end after his first college season.
The lone new addition to the group is rookie fifth-round draft pick Kingsley Keke (6-3, 288). The Texas A&M product was an interior lineman in college before moving out to end as a senior in 2017 and recording seven of his 12 career sacks. Keke changed his diet and dropped 20 pounds to make the switch, and the Packers selected him for the upside they believe he just started tapping into last year.
COUNTDOWN TO CAMP SERIES