One of the biggest question marks on the Green Bay Packers’ roster, as it stands in May, is how the team’s defensive line will shake out. The team’s two starting 3-4 defensive ends — Jarran Reed and Dean Lowry — left in free agency, leaving vacancies to be filled by fairly inexperienced players.
One obvious option to step up to the plate is 2022 first-round pick Devonte Wyatt, who will more than likely plug in as one of the two new starters at the position. Behind Wyatt and nose tackle Kenny Clark, though, the only other defensive lineman with regular-season playing experience on the roster is T.J. Slaton, who has mostly come off the bench as Clark’s backup at nose tackle.
In an effort to figure out how a Clark, Wyatt and Slaton defensive line would play out, I went back to the 2022 film to try to answer that question. What I found was that the trio only played four combined snaps together, outside of heavy-front goal line situations, and in every circumstance Clark played defensive end while Slaton played the nose tackle position.
On paper, this is the way for the Packers to get “their best three” on the field at the same time, but it would mean that every player on their defensive line would be entering a new starting situation in 2023. Clark’s conversion to the outside should allow him to make more plays in the backfield, but whether or not defensive coordinator Joe Barry and defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery stick to that plan will likely hinge on Slaton being able to hold the fort in the middle of the defense.
Over his first two seasons in the NFL, Slaton has played 255 snaps and 333 snaps, respectively, good for 24 percent and 32 percent of the defense’s total reps on the year. Expecting the 330-pounder to make the transition to being a full-time player is no small ask. For reference, Clark — playing the nose tackle position — played on 78 percent of the defense’s snaps in each of the last two seasons.
As we head into organized team activities this week, though, the expectation should be that we see Clark play more defensive end looks in the Packers’ 3-4 base than in recent seasons. If that plan doesn’t pan out, the backup options involve former Day 3 draft choices getting some playing time.
Colby Wooden (fourth-round pick, 2023) and Karl Brooks (sixth-round pick, 2023) are edge converts who are expected to play the 3-4 defensive end role at the next level with Green Bay. They could potentially fill in at defensive end if Slaton can’t handle the increased snap count as a full-time nose tackle, pushing Clark back to the position.
The other option is second-year seventh-round pick Jonathan Ford, a 338-pound nose tackle who was a healthy scratch in all 17 games as a rookie in 2022. If Slaton can’t play nose tackle full-time, but the team still wants to keep Clark on the field at the end spot, there’s a chance that Ford and Slaton end up spelling each other at the nose to keep Clark free to play on the outside.
What the starting lineup and rotations will look like should be solved with camp and preseason reps, but if you’re placing bets today, the smart one to make would be that Clark is going to get the first chance at the vacant defensive end spot opposite of Wyatt. Slaton, though, is the evaluation that the Packers’ staff needs to be comfortable with to be able to execute that plan.