When the Green Bay Packers announced that they were waiving Kingsley Keke late in the 2021 season, the outlook at the position became a lot hazier than what was previously assumed. Keke, who started 17 games over the last two years, figured to be one of the team’s starting 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 for the Packers over four years, the team got very thin at an already thin position early on in the offseason.
The team then shored up their defensive line room with two big moves: the signing of free agent Jarran Reed and the drafting of first-round selection Devonte Wyatt. Under the second season of Joe Barry, the defensive line’s versatility actually is now a strength. Out of the five expected contributors in the unit, four (Kenny Clark, Wyatt, Dean Lowry and Reed) fit as 3-4 defensive ends, three (Clark, Wyatt and TJ Slaton) fit as nose tackles and three (Clark, Wyatt and Reed) made ace under tackles.
As Acme Packing Company’s 2022 roster series continues, we’ll cover who our writers and podcasters believe is in or out in the unit this season. If we learned any lesson last year, it’s that Green Bay’s front office is fine with shorter numbers on the defensive interior.
Kenny Clark and Devonte Wyatt
Kenny Clark enters his sixth season as a starter for the Green Bay Packers and has the opportunity to add a third Pro Bowl season under his belt in 2022. Clark’s role has transitioned from a true full-time nose tackle to one of a player who can play defensive end if there’s a willing and capable body at nose tackle in the team’s base looks.
There will be competition for who will start opposite of Clark, but the likely winner of that battle will be first-round rookie Devonte Wyatt by way of Georgia. Wyatt has the size and strength to play nose tackle, but was featured as an under tackle and end for the Bulldogs. In 3-4 looks, expect him to play as a one-gap end. In nickel, which should be Green Bay’s most-played personnel package moving forward, Clark and Wyatt’s skills should be versatile enough that either can play nose tackle and/or under tackle.
Dean Lowry, Jarran Reed and TJ Slaton
APC’s staff only has five defensive linemen making the initial 53-man roster, which seems like a low number but matches the number of defensive linemen carried by the team at times last season. With that being said, there is little to no fat in the room if the Packers decide to roster only five in 2022, as all of the linemen will be expected to contribute week-to-week.
At 3-4 defensive end, Dean Lowry and the newly-signed Jarran Reed will have to battle for the title of the team’s third defensive line starter. Still, whoever loses will still be on the field for a significant amount of snaps in the Wyatt-Lowry-Reed rotation at the position.
The team’s backup nose tackle title in this situation will go to TJ Slaton, as he will backup one of the least-rotated nose tackle starters in Kenny Clark. Last year, the rookie saw increased playing time down the stretch 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 rostered for the entire regular season but only registered one tackle after a strong preseason campaign. With the additions of Devonte Wyatt and Jarren Reed over the offseason, Heflin is the highest-profile player on the defensive line roster bubble as it stands today.
Two other notable names to keep an eye on are former seventh-round selections Jonathan Ford and Chris Slayton. Slayton is on his sixth NFL franchise since his selection by the New York Giants in 2019 and has yet to see regular season action. Jonathan Ford who — unlike Heflin and Slayton — actually plays nose tackle, has the chance to be the team’s third-string nose tackle if the Packers elect to spend more numbers there. If TJ Slaton can see increased time and Kenny Clark gets pushed to 3-4 defensive end in base looks, maybe that makes rostering Ford more enticing to the team.
Undrafted free agent rookies Hauati Pututau and Akial Byers should be in the mix for practice squad spots but aren’t expected to make the roster. Pututau, a former receiver, linebacker and offensive lineman, was actually a 2014 high school graduate who went on a church mission and was awarded extra years of eligibility at the college level. Byers, a former highly-regarded recruit, was somewhat of a late bloomer at Missouri who is still adding on weight to his frame.
Read our roster preview for the defensive line position here.
On Tuesday, our series will touch on the edge rusher position.