This is the fifth in a series of stories examining the Packers’ roster, position by position, heading into the 2018 NFL Draft. The series continues with the defensive line.
GREEN BAY – While it remains to be seen what exactly Mike Pettine’s scheme will look like in his first year as the Packers’ defensive coordinator, it’s no secret the role the defensive line figures to play in those plans.
The Packers made a defensive strength stronger this offseason in adding two-time All-Pro Muhammad Wilkerson to a defensive line that returns Pro Bowler Mike Daniels, and 2016 draft picks Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry.
A first-round pick of the New York Jets in 2011, Wilkerson had a past connection with Pettine. The 6-foot-4, 315-pound defensive end played his first two NFL seasons in Pettine’s defense before recording 10-plus sack seasons in 2013 and 2015.
Still only 28 years old, Wilkerson said last month that Pettine’s presence in Green Bay and a young core of promising linemen are what contributed to his decision to sign with the Packers. He hopes the reunion with Pettine and change of scenery will help him get back to his “dominant play.”
Over seven seasons in New York, Wilkerson recorded 498 tackles (324 solo), 44.5 sacks, two interceptions, 26 passes defensed, 10 forced fumbles and a fumble recovery that he returned for a touchdown. Photos by AP.
Green Bay is coming off a turbulent 2017 campaign in which the defense was decimated by injuries and inconsistency. However, the one bright spot throughout last season was the play of the Packers’ defensive line.
Although the unit wasn’t able to match its eighth-ranked performance against the run in 2016, Daniels, Clark and Lowry each made significant strides in their own unique way.
Daniels tied a career high with 49 tackles and recorded five sacks en route to his first Pro Bowl appearance. Consistent and durable, Daniels has missed only four games in six seasons and is one of only four NFL defensive tackles to record at least four sacks in each of the last five seasons (Gerald McCoy, Ndamukong Suh and Jurrell Casey).
According to STATS, Daniels currently is three sacks shy of surpassing Cullen Jenkins (29) for the most in a career by a Green Bay defensive tackle.
Meanwhile, Clark emerged as one of the league’s top young defensive tackles. A first-round pick in 2016, the 22-year-old Clark got his sophomore season off to a strong start before sustaining a scary ankle injury against Baltimore on Nov. 19.
Incredibly, Clark missed only one game and had a career day in his return two weeks later against Tampa Bay, recording the first sack of his NFL career on a play that ended with Lowry returning a Jameis Winston fumble for a 62-yard touchdown.
That performance sparked an explosive month for Clark, who notched 23 tackles, 4½ sacks and a forced fumble in five December contests. His 55 tackles were the most by a defensive lineman in a single season since the Packers switched to a 3-4 defense in 2009.
Like his 2016 NFL Draft classmate, Lowry also made a considerable jump in Year 2. The 6-foot-6, 296-pound defensive end displayed across-the-line versatility in registering 32 tackles, two sacks and two pass deflections in 16 games (11 starts).
Lowry’s four tackles, sack and fumble returned for a TD against the Buccaneers earned him NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.
The one relative unknown at the position is 2017 third-round pick Montravius Adams, who played only 65 defensive snaps over seven games after missing most of training camp due to ankle surgery. Most of those reps came as an inside rusher in the Packers’ dime sub-package.
General Manager Brian Gutekunst told reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine in February the Packers still have big expectations for the 6-foot-3, 304-pound defensive tackle, who was heralded for his power and explosiveness coming out of Auburn last year.
Defensive line doesn’t appear high on the Packers’ list of needs entering this year’s draft, but it has been a popular position in the past. Green Bay has taken at least one defensive lineman in each of its nine previous drafts and 14 overall.