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Packers 2017 DL Grades: Interior line evolves into a defensive strength

A Pro Bowl season for Mike Daniels and two second-year leaps marked an impressive year for the unit.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY Sports

Over a two week span, Acme Packing Company takes a look at each position group on the Green Bay Packers and provides grades and insight on how they performed in the 2017 season. Today, we examine the defensive line.

In a season in which Dom Capers’s defense was routinely downtrodden and out of sorts, a positive constant was solid play from the defensive line.

Heading into the regular season, much was riding on the continued development of second-year players Dean Lowry and Kenny Clark who showed flashes of potential in their rookie seasons. Even more pressure was placed on the duo after the injury to Montravius Adams in preseason and release of Letroy Guion in August.

The progress of both players, especially Clark, was an overwhelming success in stopping the run as well as generating an occasional pass rush. Along with seasoned veteran Mike Daniels, the youthful group was consistent and figures to be an important cog in new coordinator Mike Pettine’s defense.

Starters: Mike Daniels, Kenny Clark, Dean Lowry

Mike Daniels

2017 stats: 49 total tackles; 5 sacks; 1 forced fumble

A frequent Pro Bowl snub, Daniels finally made his first appearance in 2017 as an alternate in Aaron Donald’s absence. Daniels got off to a menacing start, tallying five tackles and 1.5 sacks in week one against Seattle. But after injuring his hip on the opening series of the very next game versus Atlanta, Daniels was forced to sit out the remainder of the game as well as the following two weeks. The injury, as well as double teams, seemed to slow Daniels, as he didn’t record a sack again until week 10.

Yet, Daniels finished the season strong and accumulated 15 more tackles and one more sack than he did in the 2016 season despite playing in two less games. Recognized as one of the NFC’s better interior linemen and still just 28 years old, Daniels should be a persistent force for the defensive line for years to come.

Kenny Clark

2017 stats: 55 total tackles; 4.5 sacks; 2 forced fumbles; 1 pass defended

A first round pick in 2016, there was a sense that Clark was only reaching the surface of his potential as a 20-year old rookie. In the 2016 season, Clark showed enough strength to be a run-stuffer in the middle of the line and the ability to fight off blocks. But in 2017, Clark turned it up a notch as a pass rusher, putting his athleticism on full display.

After finishing his rookie season without a sack, Clark totaled 4.5 sacks in 2017 and regularly earned high grades from Pro Football Focus. Clark graded out as a “high-quality” lineman by PFF and was a force as both a run defender and in pursuit of the quarterback. Once again, Clark showed excellent strength. But his improved technique with his hands and gaining leverage in 2017 blew up runs consistently and created added pressures over his 15 starts.

There were many games in which Clark seemed to overtake Daniels as the team’s best interior lineman and the final numbers would reflect that notion. If a very young Clark continues to progress in 2018, a Pro Bowl appearance may be in his near future as well.

Dean Lowry

2017 stats: 32 total tackles; 2 sacks; 1 fumble recovery for a touchdown; 2 passes defended

The Northwestern product won’t be flashy in name or in the box score, but he adds versatility and high effort against both the run and pass.

Lowry matched his sack total from a season ago, but increased his tackle numbers immensely (8 in 2016 to 32 in 2017) and started 11 games at defensive end. Lowry can also dip inside and, like Clark, played with a lot better leverage and hand usage last season. The jump from year one to year two was also noticed in Lowry’s pure strength, setting the edge with regularity and winning more one-on-one battles.

Lowry’s season will surely be remembered for his early December NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors after recording a sack and scoop-and-score touchdown versus Tampa Bay. But he does a lot of little things needed to win each week that won’t show up in his stat lines, but sure will for others on the defensive unit.

Backups: Quinton Dial, Montravius Adams, Ricky Jean-Francois

Quinton Dial

2017 stats: 19 total tackles; 0 sacks; 1 pass defended

Dial was an early September pickup after being released by San Francisco in the final cuts. Dial directly replaced Christian Ringo on the active roster and gave Green Bay interior depth while starting two games in 2017.

The large-bodied Dial ate up space as a run defender, but wasn’t much of a pass rush threat in his block-hoarding role. On a one-year contract, Dial will be an affordable free agent this offseason and may or may not return to Green Bay depending on his anticipated fit within Pettine’s defense.

Montravius Adams

2017 stats: 2 total tackles

After a foot injury sidelined the Auburn rookie during a large portion of training camp, Adams never quite got back up to speed in his first NFL season. Collecting just two tackles over 66 snaps in parts of seven games, Adams had a disappointing regular season after a promising beginning to offseason camp.

Fortunately for Green Bay, the defensive line was a strength in 2017 and didn’t feel the loss of Adams as much as it could have. Adams is by no means an NFL bust yet and could be a strong contributor as soon as next season since durability was not much of an issue in college. He is yet another example of a player that will be counted on to make a big jump in his second season and, if he can, could further bolster the Packers’ defensive line.

Ricky Jean-Francois

2017 stats: 2 total tackles

Jean-Francois had a short, adventurous tenure with Green Bay after signing a one-year contract in the offseason. A player that figured to play both inside and outside for Green Bay, RJF was released one week into the regular season before re-signing less than two weeks later and eventually being cut again.

In parts of six games for Green Bay, RJF totaled just two tackles and was not a factor for the Green Bay defense. However, his season finished with a Super Bowl appearance as a New England Patriot.

Overall Grade: A-

Several units on the Packers’ defense will need to be upgraded in the coming months, but the defensive line doesn’t appear to be one of them. The unit’s pass rushing figures rose in 2017, while still defending the run at a high rate in what is a staple of a base 3-4 system. Pettine is expected to use a variety of defensive formations in Green Bay and that will only help free up players like Daniels and Clark to make splash plays.

With the incredible contributions that contenders have received from their interior linemen, especially Philadelphia’s Fletcher Cox, there is optimism that Clark can become that same kind of disruptive player in the near future for the Packers. The unit is strong heading into 2018 and APC’s grade from this season mirrors that assertion.