Fifth-round picks don’t grab headlines, especially not 300-pound interior defensive linemen. Many Green Bay Packers fans wanted Ed Oliver at 12, which could make Texas A&M’s Kingsley Keke at 150 feel like a major letdown. But the same reason why Oliver made sense for Green Bay at 12 should make it obvious Keke has a chance to be a meaningful player for the team in 2019: they’re probably going to need him to play.
With Mike Daniels recovering from an injury during OTAs, Mike Pettine had to slide Kenny Clark outside so Montravius Adams could play nose tackle with Dean Lowry on the other side. Adams showed some flashes last season but isn’t ideally suited to be playing defensive end in this scheme. Ditto for Tyler Lancaster, who carved out a solid role last year as a run-stuffing interior defender who played well above his pedigree and projection.
There isn’t an obvious candidate to play for Lowry if he were to get injured. Most of the guys on the roster fit better playing inside like Daniels does, and though Fadol Brown has the body type to be that guy, we have next to no evidence he can be a consistent, reliable rotational player.
The same is true of Keke, of course. He’s a rookie. But his versatility in College Station, where he played everywhere along the defensive line, including his senior season at defensive end, can give Keke the opportunity to get on the field right away.
Clark comes into 2019 off a breakout campaign where he established himself as one of the premier interior defensive linemen in the game. If Lowry goes down or Daniels misses extended time again, Pettine won’t want to move Clark out of a position where he’s shown the ability to dominate games. Even if Lowry is healthy, he can’t play every snap, giving Keke the opportunity to spell him.
And while it’s true Adams flashed last season, he’s no where near a sure thing to take another step in 2019. Lancaster lacks pass rush juice. If Daniels or Clark are hurt, or simply just need to catch their breath, how does Pettine produce a ferocious interior pass rush with the personnel he has?
One option would be to go to his version of the NASCAR package, something Mike Smith already hinted could be on the table. Put Za’Darius and Preston Smith on the field with Rashan Gary and Kyler Fackrell. Go hunt.
But there will be other times, like on 2nd-and-9 or 3rd-and-6, where such an aggressive pass rush plan won’t be the prudent course. The Packers will still need some big bodies who can play the run while prioritizing pass rush.
In OTAs, the Packers have been playing their nickel look with two defensive linemen and two outside linebackers. With Clark and Daniels, those spots are spoken for, but in order to keep them fresh and on the field, Pettine could want to get a more rigorous rotation, especially on early downs, to save the wear and tear on his star players bodies.
Injuries and formational versatility with guys like the Smiths offers Pettine the flexibility of playing some of his edge rushers inside. Gary also stands as a potential factor along the defensive interior. That’s not a sustainable plan either, though it will be a look Green Bay will no doubt deploy often during the season.
Keke showed outstanding run defending capabilities at Texas A&M and flashes pass rush ability everywhere they lined him up. As a sophomore, he finished with 7 TFLs, 4 sacks, and 4 PDs in somewhat limited snaps playing along the interior of the defensive line. As a senior playing end, he put up 11 TFLs and led the team with 7.5 sacks in the SEC.
Sure, he might only be a fifth-round pick, but it’s not like he has to beat out a group of linemen who surpass his pedigree. And a guy like Adams, who does, lacks the kind of flexibility we think the TAMU rookie possesses. For Pettine, that malleability can be just as precious as pure talent.
Keke showed enough pass rush juice to ignite the switch to defensive end his senior season, a move made to maximize the guys on the field who could pressure opposing quarterbacks. He could wind up on the field for the same reason in 2019.