Being a rookie in the NFL isn’t always easy and Green Bay Packers defensive lineman Devonte Wyatt knows that only too well. Green Bay selected the former Georgia star with their second pick in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft (28th overall) and expected him to give them more talent and versatility along their much maligned defensive line. But Wyatt couldn’t earn a starting job and barely saw the field on defense in the first half of the season.
It’s not unusual for rookie defensive linemen to struggle in their first season in the NFL. Pro offensive linemen are bigger, strong, faster and more experienced than their college counterparts and the offensive playbooks in the NFL are bigger and more complex than they are in the NCAA. There is a definite learning curve and it often takes a full season before defensive lineman start to make an impact.
Wyatt showed the Packers what he could do when he first stepped onto the field at OTAs. Head coach Matt LaFleur told reporters, “He sure looked good in some of the pass-rush things we were doing. I love his intensity, his focus. You can tell he’s been coached hard. There’s a reason he was a first-round pick. You can see it.”
Once the regular season started, however, Wyatt was buried on the depth chart behind veteran starters Kenny Clark, Dean Lowry and Jarran Reed.
Late in training camp, Wyatt admitted to reporters that he was adjusting to life in the NFL. “I feel like a freshman when you go to college,” Wyatt said. “That’s how I’m treating it, just trying to develop every day, every week. It took me, I’d say, about a year. That second year, I started clicking and moving fast and doing things, and I started moving up on the depth chart. So, I’d just say, you never know. It might be fifth game of this year, 12th, 18th game, 24th game. You never know. I’ve just got to take my time, be patient, take it step-by-step and just detail after detail,” he said. “The predicament I’m in right now, I’m not mad because I got the guys in front of me, [and I’m] learning from them. And when my time comes, I know I’m going to shine. My wings are going to open.”
Over the first half of the season, Wyatt was barely on the field. In the first nine games, he never played more than 12 snaps on defense in any game and had only three solo tackles and six total tackles. Even when he was on the field, it was tough to notice him because he did not make many impact plays.
But as the season progressed, Wyatt began to find his groove. He played 20 snaps in the Packers loss to the Eagles in Philadelphia and picked up a half a sack, the first of his pro career, in the win over the Rams in Week 15.
He also started to make noticeable plays whether it was getting some pressure on opposing quarterbacks or penetrating the offensive line to help stop run plays for short or no gain.
In the win against the Dolphins last Sunday, Lowry suffered a calf injury and could not continue. The Packers placed him on injured reserve on Tuesday, meaning that he will miss the rest of the regular season. This gives Wyatt a chance to play more on defense and show what he can do.
He finished the win over Miami 24 snaps on defense. He also had a quarterback hit for the second consecutive game as he is beginning to showcase the skills that made him a first round pick back in April. Gradually, as the season progressed, Wyatt started to take some pass rush reps away from Lowry.
Defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery likes what he’s seen from Wyatt so far but knows it will take time for the rookie to reach his full potential. “He’s going to be a really good player in this league,” Montgomery said. “And again, you’re learning a system. Things are new to you, calls are different, there’s a lot of adjustments. The more comfortable you get with something, the better you get at it. That’s why all of a sudden, you see a huge jump from year one to year two, and then year three from year two.”
Now, with Lowry done for the season, Wyatt will get a chance to play more as he and T.J. Slaton are expected to split Lowry’s reps. Look for Wyatt to play more on obvious passing downs while Slaton will likely see most of his reps in base defenses.
The Packers need Wyatt to play well as they need to win both their remaining games to have a chance to qualify for the playoffs.
Montgomery feels he’s able to handle the challenge. “Like I said, I think he’s got a bright future, I think he’s going to do some really great things.”
The question is, will he do them soon enough to help the Packers defense in their final two regular season games this season.
Follow Gil Martin on Twitter @GilPackers
Click here for more great Packers coverage