The Green Bay Packers may have their deepest and most talented defensive line in more than a decade. Over the offseason, GM Brian Gutekunst prioritized upgrading this position that the team had neglected in recent years. He used a first round draft pick at the position for the first time since 2016 and signed a free agent to bolster depth.
While the team had its deepest defensive line group on paper heading into training camp, the team’s first preseason game against the 49ers showed that this unit may be even better than expected.
Kenny Clark remains the best defensive lineman on the roster. The former UCLA star is one of the few interior defensive linemen in the NFL who can occupy multiple blockers running plays, penetrate to stop other rushing attempts and get pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Clark made the Pro Bowl in 2019 and 2021. In recent seasons, he was the only player along the Green Bay defensive line playing at an elite level, but he could have company for the first time in his year.
During the offseason, the Packers signed free agent lineman Jarran Reed to a one-year, prove-it deal. Reed can play on the inside along the line and can rush the passer. He had a career-high 10.5 sacks in 2018 with Seattle. Reed has looked good in training camp and has been getting penetration into the backfield.
The biggest issue with Reed in the past has been a lack of consistency. Even from game to game he has looked spectacular at times and invisible at others.
Reed is expected to be a regular part of the Packers defensive line rotation and is a favorite to begin the season as a starter.
The third starter is likely to be returnee Dean Lowry. The Northwestern product is coming off the best statistical season of his career. He had a career best five sacks, nine quarterback hits and five tackles for loss. Lowry is steady and reliable. He has played in every game in each of the last five campaigns.
The Packers also selected Devonte Wyatt in the first round of this year’s draft. The former Georgia star did not play in the first preseason game and may not be a starter in his rookie season. But he has a great first step off the ball and is projected to be a starter once he gets comfortable in the defense and makes the adjustment to the NFL.
At 6’3” and 304 pounds, Wyatt should be a big part of the team’s plans along the line in the coming years and should contribute more this year as the season progresses.
The Packers depth along the line also appears to be better than it has been in a long time. T.J. Slaton took a step up this offseason and the former Florida star is having a good training camp. The game appears to be slowing down for the big man who would be a run stuffer in the team’s defensive line rotation. At 330 pounds, Slaton can occupy multiple blockers and hold his ground.
Second-year man Jack Heflin also appears to have improved in 2022. Last year he was a Cinderella story in training camp, making the team as an undrafted free agent. During the regular season, he only appeared in four games and played just 17 defensive snaps.
The Iowa product had a strong game against the 49ers in the preseason opener, making four total tackles including one tackle for loss. He did a good job stopping the run and getting into the opponent’s backfield.
Chris Slayton was expected to be a camp body but he is giving the coaching staff something to think about. The New York Giants drafted Slayton in the seventh round in 2019. He has yet to play in an NFL regular-season game since then but he’s having a good camp and he tied for the team lead against San Francisco with six total tackles including one tackle for loss.
Even Jonathan Ford, this year’s seventh-round pick out of Miami, had a few good moments in the preseason opener. Ford was drafted primarily for his ability to contribute on special teams but he was in on two tackles on Friday night and is fighting for a roster spot or at least a spot on the practice squad.
The defensive line looks stronger and deeper than it has in years and this could make the defense much harder to run against and give the Packers more options when they seek to rush the passer. In recent years, it was Kenny Clark and plenty of question marks. Now it seems like a unit that has the potential to be reckoned with.
Follow Gil Martin on Twitter @GilPackers
Click here for more great Packers coverage