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Ideally, Packers can keep Kenny Clark and find next one

D-line has young players at different developmental stages

DL Kenny Clark
DL Kenny Clark

This is the fifth in a series of stories that's examining the Packers' roster, position by position, leading up to the 2020 NFL Draft. The series continues with the defensive line.

GREEN BAY – The Packers want to sign Kenny Clark to a contract extension. General Manager Brian Gutekunst has said that more than once.

They'd also love to find the next Clark in the draft. No one has said that in those exact words, but why wouldn't they?

The run defense was the Packers' biggest weakness on an otherwise vastly improved defensive unit overall in 2019, and struggles in that phase cost them big-time in the NFC title game when San Francisco's ground-oriented attack controlled the action from start to finish.

When the Packers drafted Clark out of UCLA with the No. 26 overall pick in 2016, they found the mix of traits that's paramount in the NFL right now for defensive linemen – big and strong enough to stop the run, quick and agile enough to rush the passer. Every-down players in that mold are harder to find than situational ones.

Coming off his first Pro Bowl and entering the fifth-year option on his rookie contract, Clark has developed into one of the best interior defensive linemen in the game. He's a top-notch run stopper who also has posted 16½ career sacks, including six this past season when he once again came on like gangbusters down the stretch.

Clark had 4½ sacks in December plus another in the playoffs as the Packers made their push to within a game of the Super Bowl. He had 4½ in December of 2017 as well.

Whether a draft pick possesses such a strong finishing kick or not, the Packers could use a high-level prospect to pair with Clark for the next several years, assuming that extension does get done.

Green Bay has just one other established veteran up front in Dean Lowry, who was signed to an extension a year ago as the 2016 fourth-round pick from Northwestern entered the final season of his rookie deal.

The Packers like the steady presence Lowry brings, but a sackless 2019 season was not what they envisioned after he had been trending upward in that category (two in each of his first two years, then three in 2018).

After that, it's three developmental players at different stages on this unit. Montravius Adams, a third-round pick from Auburn in 2017, had the best offseason of his career last year but it didn't translate to the on-field production the Packers hoped for.

Adams' playing time went from one or two dozen snaps per game through the first half of the season to half that as the year wound down. He's in a contract year.

So is Tyler Lancaster, an impressive undrafted find from Northwestern in 2018 who went from the practice squad to the active roster as a rookie and then to frequent starter last year. As an undrafted player entering his third season, Lancaster is scheduled to become a restricted free agent in a year.

Opening 12 of 18 games last season, Lancaster was used regularly as a big body up front against the run, and his reputation is of a hard-working, assignment-sound player. But thus far the one-dimensional label remains, as his pass rush continues to be a work in progress (1½ career sacks).

Kingsley Keke rounds out the Packers' current depth on the defensive line as the biggest unknown with also perhaps the biggest upside. A sixth-round pick last year from Texas A&M, Keke was a game-day inactive the first two weeks of his rookie season before playing sparingly in every game thereafter.

Coaches spoke very highly late last season of Keke's potential, but it's difficult to say how the lack of a full offseason program in Year 2 could impact his progress.

With just five defensive linemen currently under contract, the Packers are certain to add to this group in the coming weeks. In the draft, the questions are how high a draft pick they'll use, and how many.


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