Big Training Camp Battles: Defensive Line

Bill Huber

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers run a 3-4 defense, you say?

Nope.

Last season, the Packers ran their 3-4 alignment on just 19 percent of the defensive snaps. Only two teams lined up in their base defense less frequently. That reality shows up in Green Bay’s training camp roster. The Packers have only seven defensive linemen on the roster. That compares to 10 in 2019, nine in 2018 and nine in 2017.

The battle will be for the snaps behind Kenny Clark, the team’s three-down dynamo whose re-signing has been complicated by the declining salary caps related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s made it more difficult but the priorities that we had back then are still the priorities we have right now,” general manager Brian Gutekunst said on Sunday when asked about retaining key free agents, a group that includes Clark. “Yes, looking out to ’21 and possibly ’22, the ramifications of kind of what’s going on right now is something that does make it more difficult. At the same time, our job is to figure that out and then put the best team out there to win. The priorities haven’t changed, but it has made it a little more difficult.”

RELATED: NFL scout ranks NFC North defensive lines

Last season, those snaps went to Dean Lowry (39.8 per game), Tyler Lancaster (23.8), Montravius Adams (11.7) and Kingsley Keke (5.9). It could be quite a shakeup by the end of training camp, given the lackluster play from the group as a whole and the porous run defense in the NFC Championship Game.

Just before the start of training camp last season, the Packers handed Lowry a three-year contract extension through the 2022 season worth $20.325 million. Lowry was fine, even if the money ratcheted up expectations. Against the run, he recorded eight stuffs (a tackle at or behind the line of scrimmage) in 2019 compared to seven in 2018.

On the other hand, after collecting seven sacks in his first three seasons, he had none last year. Of 104 interior defenders who rushed the passer at least 160 times, Lowry finished 69th in PFF’s pass-rushing productivity, a metric that takes into account sacks, hits and hurries per pass-rushing snap. In 2018, Lowry was 44th. His pressure count fell from 29 in 2018 to 20 in 2019.

The Packers need more from a list of candidates with limited track records. Lancaster did less with more playing time last season after showing signs of being a stout run-stopper as a rookie. Adams opened the season as a starter but fell out of favor. After playing 22 snaps in Week 1, he played a total of 20 in the last four games. A third-round pick in 2017, it could be now or never.

“We have high expectations,” general manager Brian Gutekunst said a few days ago. “He’s a very talented guy. He always gives great effort, it’s just we have to make sure he knows what to do. We have to be able to trust him to put him out there. I think he has grown, there’s no doubt about it. He knows it, as well as all our coaches. It’s a big year for Mon. We’re excited to see him get out there, because we need more depth on the defensive line.”

The player to watch is Keke, a fifth-round pick last year who played only 14 snaps in the final four games. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine raved about Keke’s potential during an offseason Zoom call but it’s nothing but meaningless words until it shows up on the field.

“He was a guy that as the year went on, he got his opportunities in there (and) he was productive for us,” Pettine said. “That’s somebody that we’re looking forward to having a much more increased role. I don’t think it was any secret. It felt like Kenny played too many plays, Tyler is more of a true backup nose, we wanted to get Dean off the field some, too. So, developing some depth in that room [is important], so that means Keke is going to have to step up.”

The only additions were Treyvon Hester and undrafted rookie Willington Previlon. Hester was a seventh-round pick by Oakland in 2017. He’s started two games in three seasons and averaged only 8.8 snaps per game last year with Washington. As of Tuesday, he remained on the team’s COVID-19 list.

Final roster prediction (5)

In: Kenny Clark, Dean Lowry, Tyler Lancaster, Kingsley Keke, Treyvon Hester.

Out: Montravius Adams, Willington Previlon.

Big Training Camp Battles

QB: Boyle vs. Love

RB: Are the top four locks?

OL: Does Turner vs. Taylor mean Taylor vs. Wagner?

TE: Who will emerge as starter?

WR: Who will join Adams?

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