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Packers 2021 Roster Preview: Defensive line still needs contributors alongside Kenny Clark

Clark is the headliner, but the Packers need a few of their young linemen to step up around him.

NFL: OCT 27 Packers at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Green Bay Packers report for training camp on July 27th, with the team’s first practice coming the next day. In the week leading up to camp, Acme Packing Company will break down the Packers’ 90-man roster and give our predictions for who will make the initial 53 at the end of camp. Seven APC contributors submitted their 53-man predictions, and we have combined those picks into our annual consolidated prediction.

Our look at the Packers’ roster continues on with the defensive line, a group that has been blessed with one star but which needs to continue developing significant contributors around him.

DL on the 90-Man Roster

Kenny Clark

NFL Experience: 6th season
2020 Stats (13 games): 28 solo tackles, 42 combined, 2.0 sacks
2021 cap hit: $6.982 million

Kenny Clark is the most obvious answer here. A Pro Bowler in 2019, he is the most stable and dynamic force on the Packers defensive line. Clark got off to a bit of a slow start in 2020 due to an injury suffered in Week 1 and missed the following three weeks. His two sacks was the lowest season total since his rookie year.

Clark should be back to form this year. The injury was a groin injury and not a joint injury. He came back and finished the season without issue. When healthy, Clark eats up blockers, demanding the attention of blocking schemes and making the edge rush more effective. He opens up freedom of movement for the ILBs as well. In Dime formations, he is likely to be the only true down lineman on the field.

Dean Lowry

NFL Experience: 6th season
2020 Stats (16 games): 14 solo tackles, 36 combined, 3.0 sacks, 2 PD
2021 cap hit: $3.812 million

Lowry has been a very consistent performer along the line for several years now. He has been good for a few sacks a year and some solid play from the DE position. Still, he does not have the production to be considered more than a solid starter or significant backup.

Lowry has not missed a game in the last two years and actually led the defensive linemen in total snaps last year (since Clark missed three games). The biggest positive for Lowry is that he is a solid player who makes few mistakes. He may not make many game-changing plays, but he holds the edge when that is he job and he does not get out of position. His consistency allows other players on the defense to move more freely with flow.

Tyler Lancaster

NFL Experience: 4th season
2020 Stats (15 games): 8 solo tackles, 23 combined, 1 PD
2021 cap hit: $1.247 million

Lancaster is a traditional run stopper. He is a large body who does a nice job of holding his ground. Lancaster is not a pass rusher and will usually find himself on the field mainly on running downs. He was fourth among defensive linemen in snaps last year, but still played 34% of defensive snaps. Like Lowry, he is a Northwestern University product and has that same consistent play. Lancaster is what he is; he is not about to become a pass rusher, but he has been a solid role player with a key ability within the scheme.

Kingsley Keke

NFL Experience: 3rd season
2020 Stats (15 games): 12 solo tackles, 21 combined, 4.0 sacks, 2 PD and 1 FF
2021 cap hit: $928k

Keke is a strong pass rusher and finished third among the DL group in snaps last year. He joined the Packers as a fifth round pick in 2019 and was able to flash enough pass rush skill to hang to the roster. His 2019 season saw only limited playing time and he only had 10 combined tackles.

In 2020 he started nine games and was able to show some of that growth he had made. Keke had some significant leaps between his junior and senior years at Texas A&M and made a similar sort of jump after one year in the NFL.

Willington Previlon

NFL Experience: 1st season
2020 Stats [none: practice squad]
2021 cap hit: $660k

Previlon was on the Packers practice squad all last year. He did get elevated to the game day roster for Week 2, but never saw the field. He was a three-year starter at Rutgers before signing with the Packers as an UDFA last year. He does not have the size to rotate inside on anything other than an obvious passing down. He had several good games in college and was named an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention as a senior. Still, he is going to have to show that he made big strides from the opportunity to practice with the team last year and learn what expectations will be for him.

T.J. Slaton

NFL Experience: Rookie (5th round draft pick)
2020 Stats (Florida – 11 games): 14 solo tackles, 38 combined, 3.5 TFL. 1.5 sacks
2021 cap hit: $730k

Slaton might be the next Kingsley Keke in terms of his career trajectory, as he is another fifth-round selection who has some flash in terms of athleticism and pass rush. However, the biggest difference between the two is size. Keke is a little small for a 3-4 Defensive Lineman, but Slaton comes in at 330 pounds. He gives some flexibility to fill in with a 2DL nickel formations and also could step in for Clark at nose tackle in case of injury or longer drives. The biggest challenge he has is that he is a very raw talent. He had good production at Florida, but the number of plays where he found himself out of position or started guessing before the snap was something that dropped him to the fifth round.

Still, fans will likely enjoy seeing an enormous, dynamic player wearing Gilbert Brown’s old number. He is basically the anti-Lowry (at this moment): high ceiling and athleticism with issues of consistency.

Jack Heflin

NFL Experience: UDFA Rookie
2020 Stats (Iowa – 8 games): 13 solo tackles, 21 combined, 3.5 TFL, 1.0 sacks.
2021 cap hit: $662k

Helfin joined the Packers as an UDFA this offseason. He was an All-MAC Defensive Lineman with the Northern Illinois Huskies and then transferred to Iowa for the senior season. There was some drop off in production with the move from NIU to Iowa, but he still put up a few things on film that give you hope he can continue to grow from here. At 6’5” and 300 pounds, he has the frame to be versatile along the front if he can continue to improve.

APC 53-Man Roster Predictions

Starters: Kenny Clark, Kingsley Keke

Backups: Dean Lowry, Tyler Lancaster, T.J. Slaton

The consistency of the returning players is the key. While Heflin and Previlon have some skills they are not likely to be pushing past any of the returning players to reach the 53-Man Roster. Slaton has such a large upside he should make this roster and find the field some this year.

As far as looking at starters, we only named two because there has been a rather consistent decision to play two down lineman sets in nickel looks. True, there is a new Defensive Coordinator now, but this is as much to do with the offensive tendencies of the league right now as with personal preferences. Dean Lowry gives the team some significant flexibility for scheme and has a role on this defense. Lancaster has a limited role, but that role is very important on a team that has had issues stopping the run. Kingsley Keke gets the nod to start here due to his pass rushing skills and his continuing growth in the position.