This is the next in a series of articles on the young players at each position on the Green Bay Packers roster that the team will be counting on to take a step forward and make bigger contributions in 2023 and beyond. If these players make progress, the team can get back to playoff contention. If these players fail to improve, the Packers are likely to continue to struggle.
Along the defensive line, the two young players who the team will be counting on to take the next step forward are Devonte Wyatt and T.J. Slaton.
The Packers are likely to part ways with Dean Lowry who was not very productive this season and is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Jarran Reed is also scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent and may not be back in Green Bay.
That means that 2022 first-round pick Devonte Wyatt and third-year man T.J. Slaton are going to step into bigger roles in 2023 alongside Kenny Clark and whoever GM Brian Gutekunst decides to add to the roster or via free agency.
The Packers selected Wyatt with their second pick in the first round in the 2022 NFL Draft. The former Georgia star was the first defensive lineman the Packers took in the first round since Clark in 2016.
Wyatt needed time to adjust to the NFL and make the jump from college football. He got off to a slow start and did not see the field much in the first 10 games of the season. For the next three games, he started to see the field a bit more and made an impact when he was in the game.
After Lowry went down with an injury, Wyatt stepped into a more substantial role. In the final three games of the season, he played at least 48 percent of the team’s defensive snaps and assumed a significant role in the defensive line rotation.
In 16 games over the season, Wyatt was credited with 15 total tackles, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and one pass broken up. He also had three quarterback hits.
“I knew my time was coming. Just be patient because it started off like this in college. I was behind people. I was learning. It’s just all about patience,” Wyatt said after the season ended. “That’s all it takes is patience, learn, stay positive and help your teammates develop.”
Defensive coordinator Joe Barry also noticed the improvement in Wyatt’s play as the season progressed. “He’s earned that because of the way he’s worked,” Barry said late in the season. “It was exciting to see him kind of coming on…It’s been good to see D-Wy grow.”
The Packers will need Wyatt to grow even more in year two of his NFL career and to give Clark more support and improve a run defense that still ranked near the bottom of the league in yards allowed per game and per carry.
Wyatt should also be able to provide some pass rush push from the interior defensive line which is something the Packers have lacked in recent years except for Clark’s contributions.
Slaton was a fifth-round pick by the Packers in 2021. While he doesn’t have the athleticism that Wyatt brings to the table, Slaton is a year ahead of Wyatt in his development.
In his second season, the former University of Florida star started two games and played in all 17. He made 31 total tackles, broke up two passes and had two tackles for loss.
Slaton played 32 percent of the team’s defensive snaps this season in addition to seeing substantial action on special teams.
Scouts view Slaton as more of a run stuffer than somebody who can get consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. At 6’4”, 330 pounds, Slaton is tough to move off the line of scrimmage and he can occupy multiple blockers or even penetrate to stop running plays when he’s at his best.
Defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery has been impressed with Slaton’s tools and ability but feels he needs to develop more consistency to be a full-time starter in the NFL.
“He’s got all the tools in the world,” Montgomery said. “So that’s my goal with him every single day, is just consistency. Consistent technique, consistent fundamentals, consistent play style. And when he does it, man, he’s really, really good. It’s his second year in the league. I expect him to be where Kenny [Clark] is at some point in time. That’s how much I think about his ability.”
Getting that ability out of Slaton is the key. He fell to the fifth round of the draft in part because he wasn’t consistent in college.
Slaton and Wyatt will be called upon to play larger roles on the defensive line in 2023. The success of the unit may depend on how equal they are to the task.
Follow Gil Martin on Twitter @GilPackers
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