2021 Packers Grades, defense/ST: Why there's hope for the future on 'D'
Bob McGinn's grades wrap up with a third dissection. Kenny Clark is a star. Rashan Gary was even better than you think. But what about Eric Stokes? Mason Crosby? All insight right here...
Part I: Team Grades
Part II: Offense
Last of a three-part series in which the Green Bay Packers of 2021 are graded. The individual grades include the 53 players on the roster and the seven players on injured reserve as of Jan. 22. Part 3 covers the 28 players on defense and the three specialists. Playing-time percentages in the 18 games (17 regular season, one postseason) are for defense only, not special teams. Almost all of the specialized statistics are my own and include 18 games. When an individual ranking for the season is cited, those statistics generally do not include the playoff game.
DEFENSIVE LINE (4)
Kenny Clark (73.2%): It’s a wonder where the Packers’ defense would have been without Clark. Certainly there would have been only minimal inside pass rush, and the run defense might have collapsed. Call him the modest superstar. This was Clark’s finest season rushing the passer. He posted 46 pressures (five sacks, 11 ½ knockdowns, 29 ½ hurries) to surpass his previous high of 38 in 2019. He averaged a pressure every 18 snaps, the best by a defensive lineman since Mike Daniels averaged one every 17.4 as a wave player in 2013. His most effective rush was straight power, but Clark is far from one-dimensional. He has developed into that rare nose tackle with the ability to use his hands, feet and getoff to beat blockers on the edge. Clark could show improvement raising his arms when stalemated and tipping some passes. He hasn’t batted down a pass in the last three seasons (he has just six deflections in his six-year career). He hasn’t been a ball guy, either. He had one turnover-producing play this season, giving him eight in his career. Clark led the defensive line in tackles for loss with four. He also missed seven tackles, four more than any other defensive lineman. Most nose tackles are double-teamed in the run game, but what makes Clark so special is blockers must say on him longer than on other noses. Thus, those blockers are late coming off the double, and that in turn enables linebackers to flow freely to the football. Clark has natural leverage, exceptional strength and an intensity that burns hot. He didn’t have a penalty, either. Clark does need to utilize much better lane awareness against mobile quarterbacks. After GM Ted Thompson drafted Clark at No. 27 in 2016, defensive tackle Chris Jones went to the Chiefs at No. 37. You couldn’t go wrong with either player. Grade: A.
Tyler Lancaster (30.7%): Lancaster, a rookie free agent from Northwestern in 2018, has been as steady as they come since moving into the rotation at mid-season of his rookie season. His playing time swelled to 25.5% in 2018 after injuries struck down Muhammad Wilkerson and Mike Daniels. It jumped to 38.1% in 2019 when Montravius Adams was a flop. He played 33.6% in 2020 and 30.7% this year aligned behind Kenny Clark, Dean Lowry and Kingsley Keke. Lancaster is a smart, athletic grunt whose main role has been absorbing blockers out of a three-man front on early downs. The Packers employed three linemen on 347 snaps, and Lancaster’s snap total was almost exactly that (348). He performs his function well enough to have survived four seasons. Lancaster averaged one tackle every 10.9 snaps, best at the position, and posted a career high in tackles for loss with 2 1/2. Toward the end of the season he became a real threat penetrating into the backfield in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Any pass rush he might provide would be considered gravy, but NFL teams are greedy when it comes to developing pass rush. He had merely one pressure, a career low after totaling eight over his first three years. Another reason why the coaches like having Lancaster around: he has just one penalty in four years. One of Lancaster’s 151 snaps on special teams won’t soon be forgotten: in the playoffs, 49ers safety Jimmie Ward easily blocked a field goal when Lancaster allowed him inside. Grade: C-minus.
Dean Lowry (63.5%): The Packers’ other veteran from Northwestern probably had his best season in a six-year career. At or about midseason it appeared as if Lowry made the decision to become a power rusher, which turned out to be a very wise move on his part. He started going right over the top of people on occasion, finishing with career bests in sacks (five) and pressures (21). He had averaged 11.7 pressures in his first five seasons. He posted clean bull-rush sacks against Bears LG Cody Whitehair, Cardinals RG Josh Jones and Lions backup C Ryan McCollum, and a half sack against Washington LG Ereck Flowers. Lowry hadn’t progressed far as a rusher earlier in his career given his modest quickness and explosiveness off the ball. Although his arms are short (31 inches), he’s an intelligent player with feel for sensing the throwing lane and when to fling his arms overhead. He had a career high of five batted balls, which was half of the team’s total of 10. Lowry towers almost 6-6, loves to compete and possesses a keen eye for recognizing blocking combinations and plays. He battles to hold his ground against double teams but also has his share of ugly blowbacks when his pads get too high. Grade: B-minus.
T.J. Slaton (23.5%): Fifth-round draft choice from Florida. Played in every game, with his role increasing later on following the demise of 3-technique Kingsley Keke due to injury (2 ½ games), COVID-19 (two games) and eventually an unexpected January pink slip. Early on, Slaton struggled to get off blocks, wasn’t violent with his hands and was too slow locating the ball. He played with more confidence and awareness down the stretch. At 6-4 and 330, he’s a space-eater. The 5.09 speed and the ability to do back flips are a reflection of the abundant athletic ability that got him drafted higher than some scouts expected. Slaton was up and down against double teams. With a tight, two-hand strike he can stack blockers, but he also was turned away from the hole too often. With seasoning, one could see Slaton pounding on centers and wearing them down. His pass rush, regarded as nil at Florida, showed surprising promise. He had four pressures, part of a defensive line that totaled 85 ½ in all. That was 28 more than last year and the unit’s most since it had 101 ½ in the 20-game season of 2010. There were times when Slaton demonstrated impressive change of direction and heavy hands as a rusher. He needs to get in better condition, but when fresh there is tape of him chasing down plays near the boundary. Grade: D-plus.
INSIDE LINEBACKERS (5)
Krys Barnes (49.9%): Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine got a lot out of Barnes in 2020 after the Packers signed him a rookie free agent from UCLA. Ditto for Joe Barry this year. Barnes is OK. But whether De’Vondre Campbell leaves as a free agent or not, the Packers need to find better than Barnes as one of their top two inside backers. Many of Barnes’ inadequacies cropped up this season in coverage, both zone and man. An average athlete with average speed, he lacks the bend, lateral quickness and range to keep up in man. In zone, he’s an inconsistent processor. He gets manipulated off his given area due to his lack of feel for receiving threats near him. His eyes get him in trouble. Against the run, Barnes has become more physical than he was for the Bruins. When he sees it, he goes hard downhill and can make jarring stops. He has made gains exploding through the tackle. Last season, Barnes missed just six tackles in 508 snaps. This season, he had a team-leading total of 14 misses in 565 snaps. Too many times he just wasn’t athletic enough to break down in the flat and ball carriers escaped down the sideline. Grade: D.
Oren Burks (18.5%): A third-round draft choice in 2018, Burks never has and never will play to that expectation. He was overdrafted. It might not be saying much but this might have been the best of his four seasons. Joe Barry made use of his size, speed and athleticism in various subpackages as both an edge player and strong-side backer. In coverage, Burks did a respectable job covering tight ends and backs. He just isn’t physical enough. His total of five missed tackles was three more than a year ago. Burks played more snaps than any player on special teams (357), but he didn’t stand out. He was second in tackles with 11 but also tied for first in missed tackles with five. There’s little reason to offer him another contract. It’s time to move on. Burks is what he is. Grade: D.
De’Vondre Campbell (92%): In 2020, his fifth season, Campbell played 79.4% for the Cardinals’ 13th-ranked defense. Arizona decided to let him walk after they drafted Zaven Collins in the first round to join Isaiah Simmons and Jordan Hicks at the position. Campbell remained unsigned until June 9 when the Packers offered him a one-year, $2 million deal. In the opener, Barry played Barnes almost as much as Campbell. From Game 2 on, Campbell played virtually every snap, took over direction of the defense and had by far the finest season of a career that began with four years in Atlanta (2016-’19). He made five turnover-producing plays, led the team in tackles with 152 (the runner-up had 98) and was extraordinary in coverage. The knock on Campbell usually was his inability to play physical in the run game. Late in his career for Atlanta, one scout called him a “very passive run defender” who “turns down contact too often.” For the Packers, Campbell didn’t all of a sudden become a downhill thumper that violently shed blocks. Instead, he played to his strength, which in this case was patiently sorting through trash and getting people down. Just three of his tackles were for loss. However, he missed just eight times, a huge plus for a defense that watched Christian Kirksey miss 12 in 59.1% play time last year and Blake Martinez miss 19 as the every-down backer in 2019. For reasons unknown, Barry moved Campbell out of the middle in the last half dozen or so games. Maybe the Packers considered Barnes a more physical presence behind the line and wanted Campbell more in coverage. Campbell was more valuable against the pass. With his 4.65 speed and much improved instincts from his days in Atlanta, he was an ideal fit matching up with all types of underneath receivers. Despite it being his first year in a new system, Campbell looked comfortable not only playing pass but calling the defense. He was quite quick enough to break up a lot of throws (he had six PBUs). But he sunk nicely into zones, used his peripheral vision to impede shallow crossers and wasn’t easily looked off by quarterbacks. He prevented some receivers from crossing his face by maintaining leverage, and when the ball was caught he closed fast and tackled well. Barry blitzed Campbell 44 times, 28 more than any other inside linebacker or defensive back, and he responded with seven pressures. His successful rushes were in keeping with his run tactics. He beat blockers with timing, technique and length (33 5/8 arms) rather than sheer power. He was penalized only once. If the Packers don’t make a competitive offer he’ll be gone and his loss will reverberate. Grade: B-plus.