With nine days until the start of training camp, we continue our position previews with the defensive line.
Starters: Mike Daniels, Letroy Guion, Kenny Clark. Backups: Demetris Anderson, Tyler Kuder, Dean Lowry, B.J. McBryde, Mike Pennel (suspended), Brian Price, Christian Ringo.
Coming: Clark (first round), Lowry (fourth round), Anderson (undrafted), Kuder (undrafted), Price (undrafted). Going: None.
Depth: With the up-and-coming Pennel starting the season with a four-game suspension, the Packers almost certainly will go with Daniels, Guion and Clark as the starting trio in the base defense. Who else could it be? With B.J. Raji’s surprising decision to step away from the sport, Daniels and Guion will be the only defensive linemen on the opening roster to have even suited up for a regular-season game, much less beaten a block, tackled a running back or sacked a quarterback. That the Packers play so much nickel and dime will partially mitigate that shortcoming, since they use only two defensive linemen (and sometimes one) on about 70 percent of the snaps. Still, the Packers are going to need Clark and someone else to step up ASAP to prevent Daniels and Guion from melting like an ice cream sundae on Sept. 11 in Jacksonville, when the average high is 86 and the average humidity hovers around 90 percent.
“We’re going to have to have some guys step up, especially in those first four games. That’s just the way it is, defensive coordinator Dom Capers said.
Defensive line coach Mike Trgovac swears he likes the prospects. But what else is he supposed to say? Beyond Daniels, Guion and Clark, the candidates for No. 4 and No. 5 until Pennel returns are Lowry (fourth-round rookie), Ringo (a sixth-round pick in 2015 who spent his rookie season on the practice squad), McBryde (an undrafted rookie last year who signed to the practice squad on Nov. 18), Anderson, Kuder and Price (undrafted rookies).
Lowry (6-6, 296) arrives with an outstanding combination of production, athleticism (his 4.87 in the 40 was the fastest among defensive linemen weighing more than 285 pounds at the Scouting Combine) and strength (30 reps on the 225-pound bench press). He fell in the draft because of concerns about arm length (31 inches, shortest among the defensive linemen at the Combine). He overcame that shortcoming at Northwestern; his ability to do that again will dictate his success or failure in the NFL.
Ringo (6-1, 298) was Mr. Invisible last summer. As a senior at Louisiana-Lafayette, he piled up 11.5 sacks with 20 tackles for losses. At 6-foot-5 and 303, McBryde has prototypical size for the position. He went undrafted last year out of Connecticut, where he started eight games and recorded two tackles for losses in his career.
Kuder (6-3, 307) opened his career at Montana Western before spending three all-conference seasons at Idaho State. As a senior, he won the team’s Jared Allen Award as Defensive MVP following a season of 92 tackles, 3.5 sacks and 11 tackles for losses. Price (6-3, 318) spent three seasons at Texas-San Antonio after opening his career at Hancock (Calif.) Junior College. As a senior, he had 33 tackles, one sack and two tackles for losses. Anderson (6-1, 312), who opened his career with a season at Western Michigan, missed his senior season at Central Florida with a torn ACL and earned his way onto the 89-man roster as a tryout player at the rookie camp. In 2014, he had 34 tackles, 3.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for losses and was a two-time member of the conference all-academic team. If signing bonus is an indicator of pecking order, Kuder received $3,000, Price pocketed $2,500 and Anderson didn’t get a nickel.
IF THIS HAPPENS ...
If the Packers’ young guys pan out immediately, they’ll be in the hunt for a Super Bowl. If not, it’s awfully hard to see this team being anything more than fringe contenders.
Other than perhaps Clay Matthews, Daniels is the Packers’ top defender as a rare three-down defensive lineman. Daniels is power, energy and attitude. He led the unit with 67 tackles, four sacks and seven tackles for losses. According to STATS, he tied Matthews (and tied for 30th in the NFL) with a team-high 21 pressures. Teams averaged 0.35 yards less per carry when Daniels was in the game and he averaged one tackle for every 10.78 snaps. He got a big in-season contract extension and was voted the 95th-best player in the league by his peers in NFL Network’s annual Top 100 list.
“It was cool. Starting to get a little bit more recognition, and just got to keep improving myself, improving on my craft and everything else is a product of that,” Daniels said. “It’s not a goal; those are the products. The goal is to be the best.”
Pennel led the unit in snaps per tackle last season and Guion was second. Opponents averaged 0.61 yards less per carry with Guion on the field and 0.11 yards less per carry with Pennel on the field. The fate of the defense will hinge on whether this unit will be more than mere speed bumps for opposing running backs.
“There’s always pressure. No different this year,” Trgovac said of his role. “We play so much nickel that it’ll be Letroy and Mike in there, and then you’ll need to develop some good backups and I think we have some good candidates.”
The rookies. The Packers need Clark and Lowry to contribute. Not in 2007. Not by Week 8. But right away. However, defensive line isn’t a position where rookies tend to excel, and defensive line happens to be general manager Ted Thompson’s worst position group.
Since the move to the 3-4 scheme in 2009 and through the 2015 draft, Thompson drafted 11 defensive linemen: Raji (first round) and Jarius Wynn (sixth round) in 2009, Mike Neal (second round) and C.J. Wilson (seventh round) in 2010, Lawrence Guy (seventh round) in 2011, Jerel Worthy (second round) and Daniels (fourth round) in 2012, Datone Jones (first round) and Josh Boyd (fifth round) in 2013, Khyri Thornton (third round) in 2014, and Ringo (sixth round) in 2015.
The 11 combined for seven starts as rookies (Raji, one; Wilson, two; Worthy, four). With Jones’ move to outside linebacker, only two of the 11 (Daniels and Ringo) will line up on the defensive line this season, with Worthy and Thornton being absolute bombs and Jones and Neal having to change positions to salvage their careers.
That’s the history confronting Clark and Lowry, who must deliver on the Packers’ weakest unit. It certainly didn’t help that both had to sit out the four weeks of organized team activities with school in session at UCLA and Northwestern, respectively.
“I don’t anticipate them being behind at all, I really don’t,” Trgovac said. “They did a nice job with their bodies, keeping their bodies in shape, and they’ve done a nice job mentally coming back. We’ll have plenty of time.”
All Clark (6-3, 314) has to do is replace Raji. He was a two-year starter who was first-team all-Pac-12 and earned some All-America recognition this past season. In 2015, Clark set career highs with 75 tackles (47 solos), six sacks, 11 tackles for losses and five passes defensed.
Lowry, who arrived at Northwestern as a 225-pound, two-star recruit, was a three-year starter. As a senior, he earned second-team all-Big Ten honors with 52 tackles (31 solos) and three sacks. Of his 13.5 tackles for losses — second-best on the team — a whopping six came against Nebraska. That was the most by a Big Ten player in 10 years.
“I think Dean gets overlooked quite a bit, as most of us mid-rounders do,” Daniels said, “and I’m going to keep letting him know that ‘nobody’s talking about you so that should make you really upset.’”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.