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Pre-draft picture: Offseason departures create opportunity on Packers' young defensive line

Green Bay expecting jumps from Devonte Wyatt and T.J. Slaton 

DLs T.J. Slaton & Devonte Wyatt
DLs T.J. Slaton & Devonte Wyatt

"Pre-draft picture" is a position-by-position look at the Packers' roster heading into the 2023 NFL Draft. The series continues with the defensive line.

GREEN BAY – The only thing certain about the Packers' defensive line right now is two-time Pro Bowler Kenny Clark remains the centerpiece.

Outside of Clark, the rest is still to be determined in Green Bay after veterans Dean Lowry (Minnesota) and Jarran Reed (Seattle) signed elsewhere as unrestricted free agents. At the moment, the Packers have only five defensive linemen on their 90-man offseason roster.

Former first-round pick Devonte Wyatt and third-year defensive tackle T.J. Slaton are the two most likely candidates to fill the nearly 1,200 snaps Lowry and Reed vacated, though both 25-year-olds are still in the infancy of their respective NFL careers.

Wyatt, the 28th overall pick in last year's draft, spent most of his rookie season as the understudy to Clark, Lowry, and Reed. While the 6-foot-3, 304-pounder saw action in 16 games in 2022, Wyatt played more than 20 snaps in only four contests.

Three of those came after Lowry was placed on injured reserve with a calf injury in December and Wyatt made the most of his late-season opportunities. All three of his quarterback hits and 1½ sacks in 2023 came during the final month of the season, including a strip sack of Detroit quarterback Jared Goff in the Packers' regular-season finale on Jan. 8.

The deliberate approach the Packers took with Wyatt mirrored his freshman year at Georgia, where he recorded 19 tackles and 1½ sacks in eight appearances. By his senior year, Wyatt had blossomed into one of the country's top D-line prospects while recording 39 tackles (seven for a loss), 27 pressures and 2½ sacks for the national champion Bulldogs.

As much potential as Wyatt possesses, Slaton may be the one who enables the Packers to move Clark around more next season. The 6-foot-4, 330-pounder has the right build to be a run-stuffing nose tackle lined up over center and is coming off a sophomore campaign in which Slaton recorded 31 tackles and two pass deflections.

Since his arrival as a first-round pick in 2016, Clark has been a defensive staple and one of the most selfless contributors on the roster. The only drawback to Clark's proficiency at both rushing the passer and defending the run is the added attention that comes with it.

The 6-foot-3, 313-pound defensive lineman has grown accustomed to seeing a barrage of double teams, a necessary evil that's allowed others on the defensive front to win their one-on-one rushes en route to the quarterback. In spite of it all, Clark is still one of most of the effective pass-rushing defensive tackles in team history.

With 26½ career sacks, Clark needs just three more to surpass Mike Daniels and Cullen Jenkins for the most by a Green Bay interior defensive lineman since sacks became an official statistic in 1982.

Freeing Clark from one-technique nose tackle could be one way to accomplish that goal, which is where Slaton and 2022 seventh-round pick Jonathan Ford could come into play. Like Slaton, the 6-foot-5, 338-pound Ford has the frame to be a monstrous presence in the heart of an NFL defensive line.

Keen on Ford's long-term potential, the Packers kept the rookie on the active roster all last season despite the fact he didn't appear in a regular-season contest. The 24-year-old's last in-game action came in Green Bay's preseason finale against Kansas City, where Ford registered three tackles on 30 defensive snaps.

Filling out the Packers' defensive line room is 26-year-old Chris Slayton, who was claimed off waivers last May from San Francisco. He spent the entire 2022 season on Green Bay's practice squad.

The 6-foot-4, 307-pound prospect has worn six different NFL jerseys since entering the league as a seventh-round pick by the New York Giants in 2019 but has yet to play in an NFL regular-season game. He was elevated twice to the active roster (once in New York and once in Atlanta) but didn't see any snaps.

As usual, defensive line remains a solid bet for the Packers to address on draft weekend. Since 1997, there is only one instance of Green Bay not adding to its defensive line during the NFL Draft. It was in 2020 and even that comes with an asterisk since the Packers drafted Miami defensive end Jonathan Garvin and played him at outside linebacker the past three seasons.

Pre-Draft Roster Series:

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