GREEN BAY – Had everything remained the same with the Packers’ defensive line from the end of last season until now, the team would have felt pretty good about the unit.
Mike Daniels made his first Pro Bowl last season, Kenny Clark is a rising star who went on a sack binge as 2017 wound down, Dean Lowry continues to grow into a versatile player capable of lining up anywhere across the defensive front, and Montravius Adams would be getting a chance to show why the Packers drafted him in the third round a year ago, after injuries derailed his rookie season.
Then Muhammad Wilkerson walked in the door.
“We can be dominant, man,” Clark said after a recent OTA practice. “We can be dominant. We’ve just got to put in the work and play ball like we know how. A lot of us, we’ve played at a high level.”
That certainly includes Wilkerson, the Jets’ 2011 first-round draft pick who made the Pro Bowl as recently as 2015, when he posted double-digit sacks for the second time in his career. He had a personal-best 12 that season.
His numbers fell off the last two years and led to his release from a big-money deal with the Jets, so he signed with Green Bay as a free agent motivated to revive his career.
Coming to the Packers also reunites him with the defensive coordinator from his New York days, Mike Pettine, who has taken over Green Bay’s defense.
Wilkerson downplayed his role in helping his fellow D-linemen learn Pettine’s scheme, pointing out he has some new terminology to get down himself. But his knowledge does provide assistance, particularly with some of the smaller details that aren’t necessarily spelled out in the playbook.
“We lean on him a lot,” Clark said. “He remembered most of the calls that Coach Mike was calling. Our stunts and things like that, he basically gave the rundown of how he wants it done and the angle and all that type of stuff. Coach Jerry (Montgomery) and Mo have been helping us out with that a lot.”
As for the secret to Pettine’s defense, which has a strong track record, Wilkerson keeps it simple.
“He probably has a better answer for you,” he said. “But it’s all about 11 guys making plays, knowing their job and just doing their assignment.”
Wilkerson’s understated ways are in contrast to the other New Jersey native on the unit. Daniels, drafted one year later in 2012, is as loud as Wilkerson is quiet, making the veterans a curious pairing. As a side note, Wilkerson was a college teammate of Daniels’ brother, Sean, at Temple.
But different personalities line up alongside one another all the time, and Wilkerson appears to have no reservations about how he’ll fit in.
“Amongst each other, we're brothers and we want to compete, but at the same time, come game day, it's us against our opponents,” he said. “We're always going to push each other to be the best out there.”
With the Packers potentially counting on multiple rookies and second-year defensive backs to play significant roles, and with a young, unproven edge-rush rotation behind Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, the line is shaping up as the foundation of the defense.
The interior pass rush it can provide could be a huge key to improving Green Bay’s 28th-ranked third-down defense from a year ago.
Daniels has recorded at least four sacks each of the last five years. Clark’s 4½ sacks last season came in a span of just five games, and he felt “there’s some stuff that I left out there.” Wilkerson tops the group by a longshot with 44½ career sacks.
As much as his fellow linemen are leaning on Wilkerson to absorb Pettine’s scheme, the entire defense will be leaning on the group up front to set the tone for 2018.
“Now, it’s putting in the work and getting in tune together,” Clark said. “You’ll see how dominant our defensive line can be.”