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 2018 season. Today, we examine the defensive line.
The expectation heading in to the season for the Green Bay Packers’ defense was that a strong defensive line would help mask the shortcomings of an inexperienced secondary. Meanwhile, young linemen like Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry would continue to improve and the addition of Muhammad Wilkerson would add an instant starter with high potential.
That vision seemed to be coming true early in the season when everyone was healthy; unfortunately, just like most recent seasons, health became a problem and derailed the ascending trajectory of the unit.
2018 stats: 18 total tackles; 2 sacks; 1 TFL; 5 QB Hits
Daniels began the season strong against Chicago, with three tackles and a sack while only playing 47% of the defensive snaps. In terms of statistics, that was the peak of Daniels’ season as the numbers stayed pretty low throughout the season.
Unfortunately the season only lasted 10 games for Daniels; Diesel sustained a knee injury in week 11 against the Seattle Seahawks. Mike McCarthy, infamous for his vague injury timelines, initially said he would be “out a couple of weeks”. Any Packer fan familiar with McCarthy’s usual injury updates knew that the head coach meant the injury was serious, and Daniels was put on IR on December 1st.
While some of the blame for Daniels’ low numbers can be placed on scheme as Pettine asked Daniels to take on more double teams, his production didn’t live up to his usual standards.
2018 stats: 55 total tackles; 6 sacks; 8 TFL; 9 QB Hits
Kenny’s ascension is here. Finishing the 2018 season with a 90.5 PFF grade, the UCLA product has become the premiere pass-rushing nose tackle in the league. After showing flashes of pass rushing ability in 2017, Clark put his growth on display this year with 1.5 more sacks in two fewer games than the year prior. As a consistent disruptor, Clark played over 90% of the defensive snaps in a game five times this season.
Again, however, the injury bug bit the defensive front and Clark was placed on IR on December 26th with an elbow and tricep injury. With the playoffs out of the equation late in the season and Clark having played in such a high number of snaps during the season, an act of preservation is the right move for the defense’s premiere young - still just 23 years old - talent. Expect Clark to be a household name next season.
2018 stats: 5 total tackles
Poor Wilkerson. After coming to Green Bay on a one year ‘prove-it’ deal, Wilkerson badly broke his ankle in week 3 against Washington and had to be carted off the field in an air cast. The injury required immediate surgery and an overnight stay in a hospital. A second surgery was required but by all accounts appeared to be successful and Wilkerson should be making a full recovery.
In the games he was active, it was clear Wilkerson wasn’t quite the force he was early in his career as he was occasionally pushed around in the run game and didn’t generate much pressure against the pass.
2018 stats: 44 total tackles; 3 sacks; 5 TFL; 5 QB Hits
Backup is a loose term for Lowry. Dean ended up starting 8 games this season, and his jack-of-all-trades positional flexibility proved to be invaluable for a defensive line that was plagued by injuries to its starters. He, similar to Clark, ended up playing in over 85% of the defensive snaps in a game five times over the course of the season, but unlike Clark, Lowry doesn’t stand out on any given play as much. He’s solid in both rushing the passer and defending the run, and the former fourth round pick even earned some APC writers’ 2018 unsung hero nominations.
2018 stats: 26 total tackles; 1 TFL; 1 QB Hit
Ted Thompson isn’t the only GM to find talent in the UDFA pool; Lancaster, another Northwestern defensive linemen for the Packers (see Lowry, Dean), burst onto the scene in 2018 after being promoted from the practice squad in early October. Initially a depth promotion after Wilkerson went down, Lancaster started seeing the field with significant snaps after Mike Daniels was injured.
Lancaster seized the opportunity with both hands and impressed both fellow linemen and coach Pettine himself, especially after racking up 6 tackles against Chicago. Lancaster plays with better hands than expected, and a spot for him on next year’s roster looked more and more promising with each game he had.
2018 stats: 21 total tackles; 1.5 sacks; 1 FF; 1 TFL; 2 QB Hits
Adams, the former third round pick, saw himself surpassed on the depth chart by a UDFA in Tyler Lancaster. He had an opportunity to take over once Mike Daniels went down but failed to do so. Adams’ career has been a strange one so far; playing only 66 snaps his rookie year after suffering a stress fracture in camp and this year and really only seeing significant action in the final two games of the season, Adams doesn’t have a lot of tape to evaluate. At 23 years old Adams still has an opportunity to improve, but the early returns from the Auburn product haven’t been great.
Looney, a rookie seventh-round draft pick, was active for the final three games of the season, playing just 19 snaps on defense with no stats.
Overall Grade: B
The defense as a unit began to crumble as the season wore on, but all three of the years’ starters were on IR by week 16. For a defense predicated on having the linemen occupy blockers to free up linebackers, having quality linemen is imperative, and the depth of Green Bay’s defensive line was tested.
When healthy, the starting unit was good. Wilkerson didn’t a chance to develop into the home run signing many thought he would be, but Kenny Clark’s progression into the top nose tackle in football makes up for a lot. Daniels had a bit of a down year and is now 30 years old, but I would never bet against Diesel coming back with a better year.
The backups managed to pass their test, if only by playing better than expected. Finding a player in Lancaster was a pleasant surprise not many saw coming, and Lowry cemented his position as a sturdy, do-it-all backup who could develop into a starter if he works on his pass rushing ability. Heading into 2019, Green Bay should feel confident about the performance of their defensive line.