D-line can pro­vide po­tent in­te­rior rush

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - Sports - Ryan Wood

Fifth in a nine-part Pack­ers po­si­tion-anal­y­sis series with 2018 grades.

GREEN BAY - On paper, the Green Bay Pack­ers en­tered last sea­son ex­pect­ing their de­fen­sive line to be the strength of their de­fense. And with good rea­son. Mike Daniels was com­ing off a Pro Bowl sea­son. Kenny Clark, en­ter­ing his third year, ap­peared primed to break out. And Muham­mad Wilk­er­son rep­re­sented the de­fense’s big­gest free-agent ac­qui­si­tion.

Then the sea­son started, and the col­lat­eral dam­age was prac­ti­cally a paper shred­der, rip­ping through the Pack­ers’ de­fen­sive line. Wilk­er­son went down with a bro­ken leg Week 3. Daniels’ sea­son ended with a foot in­jury in late Novem­ber. And though Clark had the big break­out the Pack­ers en­vi­sioned, an el­bow in­jury pre­vented him from fin­ish­ing the sea­son.

Of all the in­jury is­sues the Pack­ers dealt with last sea­son — once again, this is a bro­ken record — none were more prob­lem­atic than hav­ing their three de­fen­sive line starters end up on in­jured re­serve. But in a sea­son that was head­ing nowhere, it also meant young play­ers who other­wise would be glued to the side­line got po­ten­tially key de­vel­op­men­tal snaps. The longterm ben­e­fits could mean more depth — and bet­ter pre­pared­ness should in­juries strike again — at a po­si­tion that’s re­ally strong at the top.

The good

The Pack­ers tied for eighth in the NFL with 44 sacks, and a big rea­son was their de­fen­sive line. Led by Clark’s six, the Pack­ers’ de-

fen­sive line ac­counted for 121⁄2 sacks in 2018. In­side line­backer Blake Martinez had five sacks, and he said a con­tribut­ing fac­tor was the at­ten­tion op­po­nents paid to the de­fen­sive line. That might not seem like much on its own (it ranks about mid­dle of the pack in the league), but given the in­juries that hit the po­si­tion, there’s good rea­son to think that pro­duc­tion will in­crease in 2019. For a team lack­ing in edge rush, it helps to start from a ba­sis of qual­ity in­te­rior pres­sure.

The bad

Given the in­juries, this was a sea­son that begged for for­mer third-round pick Mon­trav­ius Adams to as­sume more snaps. It was the ideal sit­u­a­tion for Adams to come into his own af­ter a quiet rookie sea­son, but it never hap­pened. Adams played only 212 snaps (20 per­cent), fewer than Tyler Lan­caster (271). Lan­caster, an un­drafted rookie, started the sea­son on the prac­tice squad and wasn’t pro­moted to the 53-man ros­ter un­til Oc­to­ber. The Pack­ers drafted Adams be­liev­ing he had big up­side as an in­te­rior pass rusher, and that at no worse he would pro­vide depth if in­juries plagued the starters. He has a ton of ath­letic po­ten­tial, but his in­abil­ity to seize op­por­tu­nity ush­ers him into a crit­i­cal third off­sea­son.

Big­gest need

This may not qual­ify as a full-fledged need with Dean Lowry a ca­pa­ble starter to join Clark and Daniels, but if ev­ery­thing checks out med­i­cally for Wilk­er­son, it would make sense for both him and the Pack­ers to press re­set on the one-year, prove-it deal he signed last off­sea­son. He fig­ured to be a big part of their de­fense, play­ing two-thirds of the snaps in the first two weeks. For­merly one of the NFL’s top in­te­rior pass rush­ers, Wilk­er­son didn’t show much of that in his lim­ited time. He had no sacks or quar­ter­back hits, but it was still very early in the sea­son when he went on IR. Af­ter a tu­mul­tuous few years with the New York Jets, Wilk­er­son seemed to fit in nicely with the Pack­ers’ locker room, stay­ing around the team through­out the fall as he un­der­went re­hab. Even if Wilk­er­son, who turns 30 in Oc­to­ber, never re­gains the form he once had as a peren­nial dou­ble-digit sacker, he’s the type of solid vet­eran a good de­fense needs, and he should be af­ford­able. With Mike Pet­tine, a big sup­porter of Wilk­er­son’s, stay­ing on as de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor, there’s a lot of rea­sons to think he can and should re­turn.

Grades

Kenny Clark: Clark showed signs of de­vel­op­ing as a pass rusher in 2017, when all 41⁄2 of his sacks came in De­cem­ber, and that car­ried into his third sea­son. Six sacks were the most for a Pack­ers de­fen­sive line­man since Mike Daniels in 2013 (61⁄2). Doesn’t win with speed, but pos­sesses good strength at point of at­tack and a re­lent­less mo­tor. Even bet­ter de­fend­ing the run. Con­stantly takes on mul­ti­ple block­ers, help­ing lineback­ers make plays on the sec­ond level. Only 23, Clark has a bright fu­ture. Grade: A-mi­nus

Mike Daniels: A foot in­jury ended Daniels’ sea­son in Novem­ber. Had only two sacks in 10 games, a dis­ap­point­ment af­ter Pro Bowl sea­son in 2017. Let one sack get away in Week 2 af­ter wrap­ping up Min­nesota Vik­ings quar­ter­back Kirk Cousins but not bring­ing him to the ground. Re­mains one of the Pack­ers’ top de­fend­ers with good strength and pad level, giv­ing him lever­age for bull rush on the in­te­rior. Tough to block against the run. Turns 30 years old be­fore start of next sea­son. Grade: B-mi­nus

Dean Lowry: Ver­sa­tile de­fender along the line. Has the build of a five-tech de­fen­sive end but ca­pa­ble of play­ing all po­si­tions. Three sacks last fall were a ca­reer high, one more than his to­tal in each of his first two sea­sons. Added five tack­les for loss. Height (6-6) is an as­set, help­ing him knock down passes at the line of scrimmage when he can’t reach the quar­ter­back. Has six pass breakups in his first three years, in­clud­ing three last sea­son. Grade: C-plus

Tyler Lan­caster: Un­drafted rookie from North­west­ern, where he played one sea­son with Lowry. Started sea­son on the prac­tice squad but was pro­moted to the ac­tive ros­ter in early Oc­to­ber. Started five of his 12 games. De­cent ath­lete but did not show much burst as a pass rusher. Solid run de­fender, will­ing to mix it up in the trenches. Fin­ished with 26 tack­les. Grade: C-mi­nus

Mon­trav­ius Adams: Played all 16 games af­ter miss­ing more than half his rookie sea­son be­cause of a bro­ken foot. There were glimpses of his im­mense ath­letic po­ten­tial. Blew past Mi­ami Dol­phins right guard Jesse Davis to record his first ca­reer sack. Good bull rush led to a half sack at Chicago. Speed is a plus, but needs to get stronger and play with bet­ter lever­age. Too of­ten blown off the ball. En­ter­ing crit­i­cal off­sea­son. Grade: D

Muham­mad Wilk­er­son: Started sea­son play­ing good chunk of snaps but broke his leg in Week 3 at Washington. Five tack­les in three games. No sacks but was solid de­fend­ing the run. Grade: In­com­plete

James Looney: Sixth-round pick last spring, started sea­son on prac­tice squad. Pro­moted to ac­tive ros­ter Nov. 24. Played 19 snaps in three games. Grade: In­com­plete

Fadol Brown: Started sea­son in Oak­land, where he spent rookie sea­son on prac­tice squad in 2017. Played eight games for Raiders in 2018. Signed with Pack­ers on Dec. 5. Played 39 snaps in four games with three tack­les and two quar­ter­back hits. Grade: In­com­plete

WM. GLASHEEN / USA TO­DAY

Nose tackle Kenny Clark had six sacks last sea­son.

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