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The Packers should look at the veteran defensive lineman market

Green Bay’s biggest weakness is their defensive line after turning in a total of 13 picks on draft weekend

Washington Football Team v Green Bay Packers Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

One of the bigger areas of concern that the Green Bay Packers had going into the 2023 NFL Draft was their defensive line. After losing Dean Lowry and Jarran Reed in free agency — two players who should end up netting the Packers a pair of 2024 compensatory draft picks — there were major questions about who would start at 3-4 defensive end opposite of sophomore Devonte Wyatt.

In the first round, the team drafted edge rusher Lukas Van Ness and on Day 2 general manager Brian Gutekunst selected three straight pass-catchers. In the end, there were more holes to plug than the Packers had high draft picks, leaving Green Bay’s 13-pick draft haul with just two Day 3 selections on the defensive line: fourth-rounder Colby Wooden and sixth-rounder Karl Brooks.

Both Wooden (Auburn) and Brooks (Bowling Green) were primarily used on the edge at the college level, but are projected to play inside in the league. If you want glimpses of their games, take a look at the cutups below — which capture their interior snaps in premium matchups.

If you’re like me, you probably weren’t too impressed by Wooden or Brooks in the videos above. While both are above-average athletes on paper, their film leaves much to be desired, at this point in their careers, and goes to show you how far away they are from being difference-making players at the NFL level — let alone 17-game starters at 3-4 defensive end.

While Wooden clearly needs to gain weight (he stated he’s around 280 pounds in his post-draft availability) for the 3-4 end position, Brooks is of NFL size already and was highly graded by Pro Football Focus. PFF actually had Brooks graded as their highest-ranked line-of-scrimmage defender in all of the FBS last year. Unfortunately, they’ve had a poor track record of hyping up defenders from the weaker conferences in the FBS, like Bowling Green’s MAC.

Two recent examples of this were Joe Ostman (Central Michigan) and Sutton Smith (Northern Illinois.) Ostman was given a 91.1 grade by PFF in his final season of college, but only ever played 29 defensive snaps in the NFL regular season and is now out of the league. Sutton, back in 2017 with the Huskies, posted a 93.8 grade and through 2019 was the second-highest graded edge rusher that PFF had ever charted (only behind Ohio State’s Nick Bosa.) Despite being a draft pick, Sutton failed to make it through final cuts as a rookie, bounced around on five rosters, converted to fullback and hasn’t been heard of in a year. Smith played 44 defensive snaps for the Las Vegas Raiders in 2021, his only regular season snaps to date.

This is all to say that you should trust your eyes, not the metrics, on Brooks’ evaluation. Maybe Wooden and Brooks will develop into quality 3-4 ends down the line, but they have some work to do to get there.

Unfortunately, the Packers don’t really have the freedom to sit their draft picks and develop them in practice, as it stands today. Green Bay’s defensive line room is comprised of starting nose tackle Kenny Clark, backup nose tackle TJ Slaton, Wyatt, Wooden, Brooks, third-string nose tackle Jonathan Ford (who was a healthy scratch in all 17 games last year), practice-squadder Chris Slayton and undrafted free agent rookie Jason Lewan. If one of Wooden or Brooks aren’t starting opposite of Wyatt, there aren’t many other options already on the roster to turn to.

If Gutekunst and cap wizard Russ Ball are able to get an extension done with edge rusher Rashan Gary soon, the team should have enough cap space to enter the post-draft free-agency market in search of a defensive lineman who could buy them some time. Interior defensive linemen still available include the likes of Chris Wormley, Matt Ioannidis, Shelby Harris and Akiem Hicks — all potential upgrades over what the Packers have right now. Putting together a quality enough defensive line to genuinely evaluate if defensive coordinator Joe Barry is their guy going into 2024 should be Green Bay’s immediate focus.

If the Packers can’t add a veteran to their defensive line rotation, we’re going to find out a lot about defensive line coach (and running game coordinator) Jerry Montgomery this season. Montgomery’s unit hasn’t truly developed a long-term starter at the position since he took over the job back in 2018, under a different head coach (Mike McCarthy) and defensive coordinator (Mike Pettine.) The longest-tenured coach on the entire Green Bay coaching staff will have to prove that he can get something out of his pair of raw rookies, if the team doesn’t add a proven body.