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Seven Days Until Training Camp: Defensive Line Preview

Two big keys are a rebound from Kenny Clark and the potential instant impact from rookie T.J. Slaton.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – Green Bay Packers training camp starts on July 27, with the first practice on July 28. Our Training Camp Countdown series continues with the sixth of our positional previews, the defensive line.

Packers Defensive Line Depth Chart Quick Reads

Kenny Clark: Given a four-year contract extension worth $70 million, Clark went from dominant to merely pretty good in 2020. In 2019, he finished sixth in ProFootballFocus.com’s pass-rushing metric, which measures sacks, hit and hurries per pass-rushing snap, and seventh in PFF’s run-stop metric, a stat that essentially measures impact tackles. In 2020, Clark was 42nd out of 115 in PFF’s pass-rushing metric, his pressure count plunging from 62 pressures and six sacks to 28 pressures and two sacks, and 23rd out of 101 in run-stop percentage. His tackle rate went from 9.8 snaps in 2019 to 14.5 in 2020. Montravius Adams, of all people, had as many tackles at or behind the line on running plays. The Packers need more from Clark, who is still only 25.

Dean Lowry: In five seasons, Lowry has played in 79 of a possible 80 games. While his tackle rate plunged from 10.3 in 2019 to 16.1 in 2020, he matched his career high with three sacks after not getting any in 2019. The impact plays, though, are fleeting. Of 101 interior linemen to play at least 140 snaps vs. the run, he tied for 88th in PFF’s run-stop percentage. Of 115 interior linemen with at least 140 pass rushes, he tied for 60th in PFF’s pass-rushing metric. In seven career playoff games, he has no sacks or tackles for losses. His was one of many contracts restructured to create some cap space.

Kingsley Keke: A fifth-round pick in 2019, Keke took a sizable step forward in Year 2. Notably, he had four sacks after not collecting any as a rookie. He tied for 67th in PFF’s run-stop percentage and 28th in PFF’s pass-rushing metric. In 15 games (nine starts), he had 21 tackles. His tackle rate of 19.7 snaps wasn’t good enough. All four of his sacks and four of his eight quarterback hits came in two games. So, the next step will be consistency.

Tyler Lancaster: Lancaster really has been a find as an undrafted free agent in 2018. While he offers next to nothing as a pass rusher – he had zero sacks or quarterback hits in 2020 and was 111th in PFF’s pass-rushing metric – he’s a rugged run defender. However, even Lancaster trended the wrong way last year. His tackle rate went from 12.7 in 2019 to 15.3 in 2020. Moreover, he’s gone from second in PFF’s run-stop percentage in 2018 to 22nd in 2019 to 69th in 2020. The Packers re-signed him with a $200,000 bonus.

T.J. Slaton: The Packers used a fifth-round pick on Slaton, a mammoth run-stopper from Florida. His production wasn’t great in college – at 44.7 snaps per game last year, he was overworked in the sweltering Florida heat – but he’s slimmed down to start his NFL career. Of his 14 career starts, a dozen came as a senior, when he set a career high with 37 tackles. He added 1.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for losses.

Willington Previlon: As a senior at Rutgers in 2019, Previlon won team MVP honors and was an honorable mention on the all-Big Ten team after posting a team-high 7.5 tackles for losses. In four seasons, he recorded four sacks and 12.5 tackles for losses. He went undrafted in 2020 and spent the season on the practice squad. He was elevated for one regular-season game but didn’t see any action.

Jack Heflin: Heflin was the only defensive linemen added in undrafted free agency (unless you count Carlo Kemp, who is listed as an outside linebacker but spent much of the offseason with the D-linemen). Heflin had zero scholarship offers following his career at Erie-Prophetstown High School in Prophetstown, Ill. So, he walked on at Northern Illinois, where he spent his first three seasons before transferring to Iowa for his senior year. In eight games (all starts), he had one sack and 3.5 TFLs.

Big Story Lines on Defensive Line

One: Simply put, Clark must return to his dominant self. Clark was absolutely superb in 2019. He was the only defensive lineman to finish in the top 16 in PFF’s pass-rushing productivity and run-stop percentage. Clark was sixth and seventh in those areas. In 2020, an early-season injury sidelined him for three games and took the starch out of his game. He did finish strong. Including playoffs, Clark played in 15 games. Of his 32 quarterback pressures, 17 came in the final six games. Of his eight tackles in the NFC title game, all came within 3 yards of the line of scrimmage.

“I think across the board, we started somewhat slow,” defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery said. “But towards the end of the year, he just each week got better and better and better. I think for him to do what he needs to do to take that next step is to keep doing what he’s been doing, because he’s played at a high level. He’s productive. He affects the quarterback and in the run game. Just excited about him and continue to grow.”

Two: Is there a next step for Keke after a promising Year 2? Keke went from 11 tackles, zero sacks and zero tackles for losses as a rookie to 22 tackles, four sacks and three tackles for losses in 2020. He went from one pressure in 56 chances in 2019 (1.8 percent) to 22 pressures in 257 opportunities (8.6 percent) in 2020.

“Year 1 to Year 2 was a huge step. Year 3 should be another drastic step for him,” Montgomery said. “Obviously, affecting the quarterback, being more consistent in the run game and just building his brand. That comes with all the hard work that he’s put in during the offseason and that we’re doing right now and once fall camp comes. Definitely, I expect him to take a drastic step again this year.”

Three: Other than second-round center Josh Myers, you could argue there’s not a more important rookie on the team than Slaton because of his role as a potential run-stopper. At this point, Lowry, Keke and Lancaster are known commodities. Maybe they’ll have better seasons but the chances for drastic improvement are remote. Slaton, a big man with some impressive physical tools, could make a big difference even if he gets limited snaps.

“I liked that one,” a scouting director said. “He’s a big dude. To me, he’s one of those cases where he probably didn’t play to his talent level so you punish him for it. But, at the same time, you could see it at his pro day.”

Four: Green Bay ranked 21st with 4.55 yards allowed per carry in 2020 and 24th with 4.69 yards allowed per carry in 2019. So, there’s a ways to go for Green Bay to field even a mediocre run defense. The defensive line isn’t the only group to blame, obviously, but it does start up front. The Packers have played good run defense at times. It mostly dominated the NFC Championship Game, for instance. But for the Packers to take advantage of their pass rushers, they must play better run defense to force those coveted third-and-longs. Is it possible from this group?

Defensive line Coach Jerry Montgomery Says

On Lowry getting a restructured contract after speculation he might be released:

“That Tampa game at the end of the year, (Lowry) and Kenny inside dominated that line of scrimmage. I know the outcome wasn’t what we wanted but he was trending in the right direction there at the end of the year, exactly where we want him to be. If he can start the way he finished the year off, we’ll be heading in the right direction. Love his effort. He’s a great teammate and the guy just comes to work every single day like you’re supposed to.”

Countdown to Packers Training Camp

Feature: Charles Woodson on Packers, Hall of Fame, win

Feature: Bronson Kaufusi's position change

Training Camp schedule

30 Days Until Training Camp: Potential cuts

29 Days Until Training Camp: First-year starting QBs

28 Days: Aaron Jones, AJ Dillon and top running back tandems

27 Days: Record-setting red-zone dominance

26 Days: In Wisconsin sports, misery loves company

25 Days: Matt LaFleur's record-setting start

24 Days: The triumph of turnovers and the one that got away

23 Days: Jaire Alexander

22 Days: Green Bay's record-setting second quarter

21 Days: Aaron Jones' place in NFL history

20 Days: How many kicks has Crosby missed since 2018 at Detroit?

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Nos. 38-40: JK Scott, Josh Jackson, Vernon Scott

Nos. 41-43: Josiah Deguara, Devin Funchess, Equanimeous St. Brown

Nos. 44-45: Kylin Hill, Shemar Jean-Charles

Nos. 46-48: Randy Ramsey, Oren Burks, Ty Summers

Nos. 49-51: Jace Sternberger, Dominique Dafney, Hunter Bradley

Nos. 52-54: Yosh Nijman, Ben Braden, Simon Stepaniak

No. 55: Cole Van Lanen

Nos. 56-58: Isaiah McDuffie, Jonathan Garvin, Tipa Galeai

Nos. 59-61: Kurt Benkert, Juwann Winfree, Malik Taylor

Nos. 62-64: Patrick Taylor, Dexter Williams, Isaac Nauta

Nos. 65-67: Ka'dar Hollman, Kabion Ento, Stanford Samuels

Nos. 68-70: Jake Hanson and two specialist challengers

Nos. 71-74: Christian Uphoff, Henry Black, Innis Gaines, Jake Dolegala

Nos. 75-77: Coy Cronk, Willington Previlon, Jack Heflin

Nos. 78-80: Delontae Scott, Carlo Kemp, Bronson Kaufusi

No. 81: WR Bailey Gaither

Nos. 82-84: WRs Reggie Begelton, Chris Blair, DeAndre Thompkins

Nos. 85-88: LBs Ray Wilborn, Scoota Harris; OL Zach Johnson, Jacob Capra

No. 89: G Jon Dietzen

No. 90: K JJ Molson