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Packers training camp preview: Loaded D-line must anchor defense

With Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, and the Packers’ other outside linebackers consistently dealing with injuries, the team needs much of the pass rush to come from the defensive line.

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

Continuing our series looking at the Green Bay Packers’ 90-man roster heading into training camp, we examine the defensive line and reveal our pre-camp predictions for the team’s 2018 53-man roster. Follow along over through the week as we break down the roster position-by-position and reveal our predictions.

The Packers defense endured one of its most trying seasons of recent vintage during Dom Capers’ final year at the helm. The secondary started poorly and deteriorated further over the ensuing months as rookie Kevin King battled through a bum shoulder and Morgan Burnett missed time with injury. Seemingly none of the team’s outside linebackers managed to stay on the field, greatly diminishing the pass rush.

However, the defensive line became on the few genuine bright spots, with Mike Daniels continuing to disrupt offenses and second-year man Kenny Clark emerging as a promising running mate. That group, bolstered by some offseason additions, will anchor the defense under new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.

Mike Daniels

NFL experience: Six seasons
Contract: Third season of four-year, $41 million deal
2017 stats: 34 tackles, Five sacks

Since emerging as a Pro Bowl-caliber player during his third season, Daniels has become the prominent feature of the Packers’ oft-beleaguered defense. He leads the defensive line in pressures over the past four years and has essentially become the face of the entire unit. Daniels doesn’t carry the same cachet as interior defenders like Ndamukong Suh or Geno Atkins, but he has proved to be just as valuable. Green Bay needs him to maintain his dominance for at least a few more seasons.

Kenny Clark

NFL experience: Two seasons
Contract: Third season of four-year, $3.59 million deal
2017 stats: 32 tackles, 4.5 sacks

Based on number of seasons in the NFL, Clark appears more or less in step with Daniels’ development trajectory. The Packers certainly wouldn’t have anything to complain about if Clark continued down that path, but his age suggests he might reach even greater heights. The former 2016 first-round pick didn’t turn 21 until the second month of his rookie season, which means he has another few months before reaching Daniels’ age upon entering the league. That suggests Clark has even more development runway available, meaning Green Bay could have a bona fide All-Pro on their hands down the line.

Muhammad Wilkerson

NFL experience: Seven seasons
Contract: One-year, $5 million deal
2017 stats: 26 tackles, 3.5 sacks

Just a few seasons ago, Muhammad Wilkerson ranked as one of the best defensive linemen in the league, recording double-digit sacks and leading a talented New York Jets defense. The team awarded him with a five-year, $86 million contract and planned to build their defensive front around him for years to come. Instead, Wilkerson’s productivity plummeted, leaving the Jets to release him after the 2017 season. The Packers, having just hired Wilkerson’s former defensive coordinator, took a shot on the former star hoping to strike gold. If it works out, Green Bay could have one of the best D-lines in the NFL. Otherwise, the one-year investment shouldn’t hurt them too much.

Dean Lowry

NFL experience: Two seasons
Contract: Third season of four-year, $2.34 million deal
2017 stats: 18 tackles, two sacks

Dean Lowry entered the NFL raw but with extremely intriguing measurables. While he hasn’t broken out through two seasons, he has shown signs that such a season could occur in the near future. Still, he will have to fight for playing time with the arrival of Wilkerson and the new defensive coordinator.

Montravius Adams

NFL experience: One season
Contract: Second season of four-year, $3.26 million deal
2017 stats: One tackle

Like fellow rookie Vince Biegel, Montravius Adams lost much of his rookie season to foot surgery. That injury essentially turned 2017 into a redshirt year for Adams, and the Packers can only now begin to figure out what he can contribute to the defense. Like Lowry, Adams will either need to carve out a role through strong training camp and preseason performance or wait for injuries to open up some snaps.

James Looney

NFL experience: None
Contract: First season of four-year, $2.55 million deal

A late-round pick this past April, James Looney brings NFL athleticism and bloodlines. That won’t guarantee him a roster spot, but he will begin training camp in strong position to lock one down.

Joey Mbu

NFL experience: Two seasons
Contract: One-year, $630,000 deal
2017 stats: Two tackles

Joey Mbu costs roughly as little as the Packers’ undrafted free-agent defensive linemen but with even less security. His deal contains no guaranteed money and expires after the 2018 season. Mbu has played a little in the regular season, but his four years drifting between NFL teams probably means more than anything else.

Tyler Lancaster & Conor Sheehy

NFL experience: None
Contract: First season of three-year, $1.71 million deal

Both Tyler Lancaster and Conor Sheehy joined the Packers after going undrafted in April. The franchise has kept undrafted defensive linemen before such as Brian Price and Mike Pennel, but the logjam at the position group leaves little room for either rookie.