Can the Packers Defensive Line Be Better This Season?

The Green Bay Packers defensive line has been an area of concern for the team for several seasons now. The run defense has been below average and the team has not prioritized adding talent to this position group. The last defensive lineman the Packers drafted in the first two days of the draft was Montravius Adams who was selected in the third round in 2017. Unfortunately, Adams never fully realized his potential in Green Bay. The last defensive lineman drafted in the first round was Kenny Clark back in 2016.

But this year, there are signs that things could be heading in the right direction along the defensive line. Here are five reasons why the defensive line should be better in 2021 than it has been in recent years:

1. Kenny Clark Is Healthy

Kenny Clark was a Pro Bowl defensive lineman in 2019. He tied his career high with six sacks, was in on 62 tackles (also a career high) and had nine tackles for loss.

The former UCLA star seemed primed to take his game to an even higher level in 2020 but he suffered an injury in the season opener against the Vikings and didn’t get back to full strength until the later part of the season. He finished 2020 with just 38 tackles and two sacks but by playoff time, Clark was closer to being the dominant player he was the previous season.

This year, Clark is healthy and ready to go. He took off a few pounds in the offseason to prepare himself to play in Joe Barry’s new defense which will likely see him play both on the nose and on the outside depending on the situation.

If Clark is healthy and playing at the top of his game, the defensive line should see immediate improvement.

2. Kingsley Keke Is Ready to Take a Step Forward

The next big question facing the defensive line is the play and future of third-year man Kingsley Keke. The Texas A&M alum started nine games a year ago and recorded four sacks, a new career high.

Keke was also banged up late last season and missed both Packers playoff games. If Keke can make a third-year jump, he could give the team a second consistent pass rusher along the defensive line and improve the overall quality of the position.

Keke got off to a slow start in training camp due to injuries but he started practicing again and looks to be ready to go now.

During the offseason, Keke put on 10 pounds to help make him more effective at stopping the run. He has indicated he is determined to be a three-down player and to take a leap forward in his third year in the league.

3. T.J. Slaton Can Boost the Run Defense

The Packers also added big T.J. Slaton in the fifth round of this year’s draft. The former University of Florida star is listed at 6’4” and 330 pounds and has been a hard man to move out of the way in practice so far.

In the first preseason game, Slaton was in on five total tackles and again showed some promise. While it’s not yet clear how big a role Slaton will have as a rookie, but he is expected to join the defensive line rotation and help improve the Packers run defense. That would be a step in the right direction for the defensive line.

4. Other Linemen Are Hungry

Tyler Lancaster and Dean Lowry were starters last year but neither was particularly outstanding. Yet both these players should be hungry and have a lot to prove this season.

Lancaster was released by the Packers during the offseason and then re-signed for less money. The Northwestern product knows he must make a strong showing in training camp to keep his job. Once the season starts, he also needs to be productive to give him a chance at another contract in the NFL whether it’s with the Packers or elsewhere.

Dean Lowry may also have to fight for playing time with Keke and Slaton likely to have bigger roles. Lowry has had a good start to training camp and tends to be a consistent player along the line. With his relatively high cap number, he also knows he needs to be productive this year if he wants to have a job in the future.

5. Wild Cards

The Packers are still rumored to be looking for help along the defensive line to add depth. If they sign somebody, that could also bolster the position. In addition, Jack Heflin had a good game against the Texans and may show enough to make the team.

Overall, the potential is clearly there for this unit to be better in 2021, especially after they adjust to Barry’s system. If they do show improvement, the overall defense should be better as well. While there are no guarantees, the potential is clearly there for this group to improve this season.

You can follow Gil Martin on Twitter @GilPackers

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6 points

Comments (19)

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Bearmeat's picture

August 21, 2021 at 01:26 pm

Can the DL be better? Sure. If 3 of those 5 things happen, they’ll be better. Reasonable people really can’t state that the defensive line matters to the current personnel department at 1265. They haven’t invested in the defensive line - ever. Ted drafted Kenny - not Gute. Just like at ILB, Gute has chosen the DL to have one player and a bag of spare parts and hope the strengths on his team outperform the weak spots.

Analytically speaking, in a hard cap league, it’s not a bad bet. Where I take exception is 1265's outright refusal to buy low on cheap/average ILBs and 5 technique veterans, in addition to refusing to draft one every other year in the first 3 rounds. Accordingly, what we’re left with is KC.. and quite possibly the worst collection of interior front 7 “talent” in the NFL. It’s been that way since…what... 2010?

TL/DR: “average” isn’t the question really at play here. Perhaps the title should be: “Will the Packers run defense under Joe Barry be putrid, or play above their skill level to below average?" Below average when you have an elite pass defense and an elite offense is just fine and will win a lot of games. Putrid will get you beat.

I don’t know the answer. Putrid is quite possible.

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flackcatcher's picture

August 21, 2021 at 03:09 pm

Well put Bearmeat. The really hard part for most fans to accept is neither DL nor ILB is high on the Packer personnel department. That was a decision forced by the league when they changed the pass rules in 2010, and have tilted the field heavily to offensives over the past decade. It's not an accident that the Packers have invested in the secondary under Gute, and have tried to compensate for the rush by returning to hybrid/OLB they had in the Dom Capers era. I think Mike Pettine did a fine job with what he had to work with. Joe Barry is an unknown factor with the short time he has been here. The big X has always been Gutekunst, and what he thinks of the front seven. We'll find out soon enough.

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Lphill's picture

August 21, 2021 at 12:35 pm

I would feel more comfortable had the Packers signed another veteran for the D line.

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packer132's picture

August 21, 2021 at 01:15 pm

The D line will be better than last year with the players on the roster. A healthy Clark, improved Keke, and large rookie Slaton is a start. Heflin looks like he could make the team, though I think Packers bring in one or two vets after roster cuts. I don't know why the front office does not view the DL the same as the OL. Draft and develop plus a couple of free agents have resulted in Packers having a top offensive line for the last few years. A new DC and scheme should help also, but please bring in a big hoss.

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NitschkeFromTheGrave's picture

August 22, 2021 at 02:54 pm

I could not agree more, "A healthy Clark, improved Keke, and large rookie Slaton is a start." I'm looking for big things out of Slaton. Also agree with your comment, "A new DC and scheme should help also, but please bring in a big hoss.". The D needs a guy that is feared, Slaton may be that guy but it's rare to see in a rookie year. Let's hope the Brass brings in your "hoss", this is a real missing link.

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Coldworld's picture

August 21, 2021 at 01:20 pm

Slaton looked promising but clearly tired later. Earlier he showed some disruptive ability. I think he helps both by being a better option than we had last year and keeping Lowry off the field more. Keke seems to have got closer to matching his lower body strength to his upper body power. That should make him both more versatile and effective.

The big question remains, how will we use Clark, Slaton, Keke and Lowry? That ties with can they stay healthy?

Behind them, Lancaster is prodigiously strong and able to clog effectively, unfortunately he has no burst. Can Heflin match that ability to hold position? I have not seen it. Heflin might have more versatility though. I like his chances of improving our depth and options if he can continue.

Previlon is just too small to be a force in the run game. Can he be penetrative based on quickness? I’m yet to be convinced that he can be a better Lowry than Lowry. Avery is intriguing, he shows some potential, but as yet he looks like a PS candidate to develop from how he was used last week and his lack of experience.

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canadapacker's picture

August 21, 2021 at 02:27 pm

The Dline would always look much better when the OLB's are able to fill holes and make tackles. Last year they would run outside of Preston Smith and then run inside Preston Smith all within a few yards of where the Dline was clogging things. IF Kenny and the boys can get some push into the backfield it makes things go much better - Clark Keke and Slaton and company need to be disruptive in their backfield - especially against the Vikes - as Cook ate us up. Push against pulling Oline really makes them go wide and is especially good for the offside OLB's in pursuit .

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jont's picture

August 21, 2021 at 02:34 pm

For my money, this is the real key to the team's success this year. A bit of improvement could put GB over the top. The DL can make everything more difficult for every opponent, and there's an increasing number of moibile QBs so a DL that can contain them is important.

Clark is very good, and if he steps up a little he could be real force and draw double teams to make it a bit easier for the others on the line and the LBs.

Keke is in great position to make an impact. Frankly, I can't say why, but from what I saw last season I simply have a feeling he could be good if he can focus and be aggressive. I'm hoping the new defensive scheme is little more instinctive and aggressive overall.

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stockholder's picture

August 21, 2021 at 02:46 pm

Starters No- Depth Yes- Go Big or Go Home. It's just that simple.

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splitpea1's picture

August 21, 2021 at 02:56 pm

Always a topic worthy of discussion here....

It can be better, but how much? Slayton is still an untested rookie, and we'll have to see how Keke's new approach works out. Clark is the only stud, and as for Lancaster and Lowry, what we've seen is what we're going to get. In summary, I would say that this unit can possibly be an eyelash better that adequate if we're fortunate to make it to the postseason.

If the DL is ever to be a strength, it has to be invested in. Using 2 fifth-round picks in the last four years when you're 2017 pick is a bust isn't going to get it done.

I had other fans remind me that the DL wasn't the strength of the draft this year. But other teams took (I believe) 9 of them before the Packers selected at 173. So i don't know; if you have a need, you have a need. I don't know anything about the upcoming DL class, but suppose it is less than promising again? Do we draft three more offensive linemen instead and sign a few more....or do we do what it takes to land the best DL prospect(s) we can find?

If Gute is willing to move around and sacrifice fourth-round choices to select other positions, then it shouldn't be a problem here (if that's what it takes).

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Leatherhead's picture

August 21, 2021 at 03:02 pm

65 plays x 2.5 defensive linemen per snap = 162.5 DL snaps.

If Clark stays healthy all season, you’d want him on the field for 45 snaps at least. That leaves 117 DL snaps. Let’s hope Slaton gives us another 20 good snaps, which would leave Keke, Lowry, and Lancaster almost 100 snaps to split. Even if Gary plays a lot of DL, it’s still quite a few snaps for the rest.

We might average more like 2.25 DL per snap, and that would bring our total to more like 146. In any event, we’re gonna need all these guys , including Lowry and Lancaster. I like these guys. They’re solid and dependable, smart and experienced.. If this is the weak point of the team, we have a pretty good team.

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Jonathan Spader's picture

August 21, 2021 at 06:20 pm

Heflin looked good against the Texans and now again some big plays against the jets. Including knocking a QB out of the game. It's backups but he's been a bright spot.

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PatrickGB's picture

August 21, 2021 at 06:21 pm

I hope so because their backups don’t look all that good. Yet I see flashes from TJ and Heflin. I hear from many that Keke looks like he might be better this year.

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

August 22, 2021 at 02:30 am

The Packers "released" Lancaster by their inertia. They declined to tender the RFA, which made him an unrestricted free agent with no action required. The team might not have had the $2.1M in cap space necessary to tender Lancaster, but more likely thought he was worth less. GB signed Lancaster for $1.25M with $305K guaranteed on March 30th or so, meaning he was on the market for a few weeks.

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CoachDino's picture

August 22, 2021 at 05:00 am

i dont understand theview of the run d being so terrible , that 1265 doesnt care ,wont spend resouces. imo its just a matter of resource allocation....1.the focus on d,which is league wide,is the passing game.thisdrives resources toward,pass rush and dbs. the pack has done this through fa and draft.2.the amount of dl snaps played reduces need. rember,they just set arecord for money spent on a nt/dl.so 1dl out of 2.5 is elite. keke was grded out as good, but was hurt. lancaster plaoyed fine against the run and is cheap. lowery is ok and is also cheap. while montravius, a 3rd rd picfailed, ts looks very promising. so for 2.5idl it seems the pack has 3 guys that shouold meet the need and a couple rotational,all done with limited resources. iget they could be better and its a weakness, but who would u not drafted or resigned and would it of made them better as awhole? imo,13.3 means you got it right

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CoachDino's picture

August 22, 2021 at 05:23 am

i have been astaunch supporter of Jace for amultitude of reasons. but from what im hearing from the media on what coach feel about him,outside of talent/potential, and his play, sure its a tough catch but he needs those. plus i saw a wiff block. what,imo,he has over dafney is the inline te ability, and im not seeing it so far. jk is another guy i thought has been a fan,media over reaction, but inconsistency through great hangtime,led the nfl, on 2of3 and 3being not up to par is one thing but 3 being 21 yards? i wonder how good of aholder he is? it might be his saving grace.

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Vforrest's picture

August 22, 2021 at 11:51 am

Spot on Gil. Much more concerned about the DL coming together in some fashion than the OL. Certainly all of the skilled offensive weapons don’t mean jack if the OL doesn’t come together quickly but they got options there and am very optimistic about that. Same for the DL makes the whole defense churn but I am less optimistic. I think you’re right and they pick up another big body when final cuts are done but have no idea what that looks like.

Ever go back and watch a game and don’t follow the ball because that’s what we all do during the game? Just focus on the line of scrimmage. We don’t know jack about technique on either line or what the calls are and who trying to do what…face it we’re simps that don’t get that watch the ball.

But you can notice easily who’s side of the line of scrimmage the game is being played on, very telling. Probably the best two games to notice that we’re the last two Tampa played. Line play neutralized the most dynamic combo Qb in the super bowl and Brady had three picks vs the Pack and with the game on the line we had how many 3 and outs in the 4th quarter?

It’s not a cliche take the time and go back and watch a game from the inside out…games are won or lost on the line.

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PhantomII's picture

August 22, 2021 at 05:46 pm

Heflin has showed a little something in the pre-season. Slayton also. Z has a bad back, I see him being on IR as soon as 53 is announced. Probably out 6 weeks unless surgery is needed. We may be thanking Gute for reworking his bookend. Preston and Gary will more than likely start the season. Backs are fickle. Z came back 1 practice and back out.

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Cartwright's picture

August 23, 2021 at 01:53 am

Get the feeling that this TJ lad will be hard to move off the ball allowing more space for KC to do his thing. That alone can, should it happen, would be a big improvement. The line gets shoved off the ball too much. TJ Slay could be the plug we've been missing since Gilbert Brown.

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