When the Green Bay Packers announced they would be without Kingsley Keke late in the 2021 season, the prospects for the position became much murkier than previously thought. Keke, who started 17 games in the last two years, was one of the team’s first 3-4 defensive ends until his rookie contract with the team expired. With the added loss of Tyler Lancaster, a nose tackle who played 1,323 snaps in four years for the Packers, the team went very thin in an already skinny position early in the offseason.
The team then bolstered their space on the defensive line with two big moves: signing free agent Jarran Reed and calling up Devonte Wyatt, who was selected in the first round. Under Joe Barry’s second season, defensive line versatility is actually a strength now. Of the five expected contributors in the unit, four (Kenny Clark, Wyatt, Dean Lowry, and Reed) fold as 3-4 defensive ends, three (Clark, Wyatt, and TJ Slaton) as nose tackles, and three (Clark, Wyatt, and Reed) fold as under tackles.
As the Acme Packing Company 2022 roster series continues, we’ll be covering who our writers and podcasters think is and isn’t in the unit this season. If we learned a lesson last year, it’s that the Green Bay front office is comfortable with smaller numbers on the defensive end.
Kenny Clark and Devonte Wyatt
Kenny Clark is entering his sixth season as a starter for the Green Bay Packers and has the opportunity to pick up a third Pro Bowl season in 2022. Clark’s role has shifted from being a true full-time nose tackle to a player who can play defensive end when there’s a willing and able body at nose tackle at the team’s base.
There will be competition as to who will start against Clark, but the likely winner of this fight will be first-round rookie Devonte Wyatt over Georgia. Wyatt has the size and strength to play nose tackle but was introduced as an under tackle and end for the Bulldogs. At 3-4 looks, expect him to play as a one gap end. At Nickel, which should be Green Bay’s most-played personnel package going forward, Clark and Wyatt’s skills should be versatile enough to allow them to play either nose tackle and/or under tackle.
Dean Lowry, Jarran Reed and TJ Slaton
APC’s staff has just five defenders, making up the initial 53-man roster, which seems like a low number but is in line with the number of defenders the team had at times last season. That being said, there’s little to no fat in the room if the Packers decide to list just five in 2022 as all linemen are expected to contribute week in and week out.
The 3-4 defensive end pits Dean Lowry against newly signed Jarran Reed for the title of third starter on the team’s defensive line. Whoever loses will still be on the field for a significant number of snaps in the Wyatt-Lowry-Reed rotation.
The team’s reserve nose tackle title goes to TJ Slaton in this situation as he will assist one of the least rotated nose tackle starters in Kenny Clark. Last year, the rookie saw more playtime over the course of the season, but there are still questions about how many snaps he can play at his size.
Jack Heflin, Jonathan Ford, Chris Slayton, Hauati Pututau, and Akial Byers
Last season, Jack Heflin was in the roster for the entire regular season but recorded just one tackle after a strong preseason campaign. With the additions of Devonte Wyatt and Jarren Reed in the offseason, Heflin is the most prominent player in the defensive line squad bubble as it stands today.
Two other notable names to keep an eye on are Jonathan Ford and Chris Slayton, who were selected in the seventh round. Slayton is in his sixth NFL franchise since being selected by the New York Giants in 2019 and has yet to see any regular-season action. Jonathan Ford, who — unlike Heflin and Slayton — actually plays nose tackle, has a chance to become the team’s third-string nose tackle if the Packers decide to spend more numbers there. If TJ Slaton can see more time and Kenny Clark is pushed to a 3-4 defensive end on the base look, that might make Ford’s lineup more enticing for the team.
Undrafted free-agent rookies Hauati Pututau and Akial Byers should be in the mix for practice team spots, but are not expected to make the roster. A former receiver, linebacker, and offensive lineman, Pututau was actually a 2014 high school grad who went on a church mission and earned additional years of college-level eligibility. A former highly respected recruit, Byers was something of a late bloomer in Missouri who is still gaining weight.
Check out our squad preview for the defensive line position here.
On Tuesday, our series touches the edge rusher position.