You May Not Believe In These 2, But the Packers Do
It will take at least a season before we can truly evaluate the surprising decision to release Mike Daniels. Daniels will certainly sign a generous contract with a new team shortly, and his performance will be closely monitored against the young, up-and-coming Packers defensive line.
While general manager Brian Gutekunst and head coach Matt LaFleur offered a few canned remarks about the football reasons behind the decision, I believe we can read between the lines of what they said to come to a fascinating conclusion.
The move is a vote of confidence in two unheralded defensive linemen that Packers fans may be quick to overlook – Dean Lowry and Tyler Lancaster. Compared to the fan-favorite Daniels, Lowry and Lancaster aren’t players that many fans may follow too closely. The team’s pro shop doesn’t sell their jersey. You can pay a modest $25 to get a video shoutout from Lancaster.
They may not have many believers outside the walls of Lambeau Field, but there sure are inside. Here’s what I think the Packers believe about the pair.
The Packers believe Dean Lowry is ready to be a full-time starter
The contract extension Dean Lowry signed Tuesday saddles the fourth-year defensive lineman with a different set of expectations than years prior. The Packers gave him more snaps in each of his first three seasons as they saw his development and consistency increase – two desirable traits in any football player.
Lowry shares the narrative that followed wide receiver Jordy Nelson early in his career – often mischaracterized as contributing solid fundamentals over athleticism. It’s simply not the case. If there’s an athletic comparable to Lowry, it might be former first-round pick Datone Jones. Lowry rates above-average in almost every athletic category except the length of his arms and the size of his hands. Jones didn’t have that disadvantage, and it carried him to the first-round and limited Lowry’s draft potential to the fourth round.
And it’s not like Lowry is the team’s shining example of fundamentals. Consider tackling, the defense’s primary objective. No Packers defensive player returning in 2019 was graded worse in their tackling than Lowry in 2018 by Pro Football Focus.
If his tackling improves, it will make him even more reliable against the run. He enters training camp as the team’s second-best run defender behind Kenny Clark and made 10 tackles last season on running plays that went one yard or less – third-highest of returning defenders.
The Packers believe Tyler Lancaster will continue his rapid ascension
The defensive tackle made his debut in the season’s fifth game and started five of the team’s final six contests as injuries devastated their defensive line depth. Usually, injuries create opportunities like this, and they’re filled by below-average players on the fringes of the league. Lancaster moved from that label to perhaps the defense’s most improved player from the start of training camp to the season’s end.
His ascension last season is just as surprising as Daniels’ release. Lancaster arrived in training camp as an undrafted free agent from a non-traditional program, where he was a three-star offensive line recruit. He wasn’t invited to the combine, adding a healthy grain of salt to any athletic testing results. The numbers that exist paint the picture of a long-armed lineman with bench press strength to embarrass any gym rat. Still, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel pegged him as ninth on the defensive line depth chart – out of nine – entering 2018’s training camp.
There’s an aura of old-fashioned mystery around the sturdy, 310-plus pound man that harkens back to the pre-internet days of scouting. A search of his hometown newspapers uncovers a trove of obituaries and track-and-field results but offers precious few nuggets about his football career. No record existed on Wikipedia of his presence until October 2018, five days after he made his NFL debut. Northwestern’s YouTube sizzle reel for Lancaster hardly shows any plays.
Players like Lancaster have been Gutekunst’s calling card since his promotion to general manager. He prioritized filling the bottom ten percent of the Packers’ roster with athleticism over production. The college-center-turned-defensive-lineman may be the best example of what the team hopes that strategy will produce – players with both high ceilings and even lower floors.