The Green Bay Packers are a team heavily reliant on their young players, so much so that until this offseason the idea of the team bringing in an outside free agent was borderline impossible.
Though the team was more open to outside additions this particular offseason, the players key to elevating Green Bay to another level are their many youthful contributors.
With this in mind, every week during the 2017 season we’ll be taking a look at a different young player on the team and bringing to light their importance for the upcoming week’s game.
In Week 4, we deep dive on second-year defensive lineman Dean Lowry.
Lowry has been a positive surprise in his time with Green Bay.
His selection in the fourth round of the 2016 draft drew out a yawn, with his skill-set moreso appearing as one which could help in run defense but not much else.
Projections listed him as a 7th-rounder or even not drafted, so seeing him get picked up far sooner than that left little to be excited about.
As a rookie he didn’t get much chance to change that opinion (only 157 snaps on defense), but there were at least some signs of him being more than a throwaway name. He ended up being a key part of the team’s better defensive efforts after a painful 4-6 start to the year, actually.
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In back-to-back important games against Houston and Seattle, he managed to show a semblance of pass rushing skill, picking up a sack in each outing.
Those games were also the first in a string of four that found Lowry being on the field for at least 24 percent of the defensive snaps.
While that probably sounds low at first, a couple things should be noted.
First off, Green Bay had a relatively deep 3-4 lineman group in 2016. Mike Daniels, Letroy Guion, and Kenny Clark all had at least 333 snaps to their name, and beyond Lowry’s 157 snaps, three other players (Christian Ringo, Mike Pennel, and Brian Price) combined for another 188 together on the year.
Another is that in a league where the nickel defense is the new base defense, Green Bay has been one of the biggest proponents of the formation.
For an example of how much they rely on it, they played it heavily in their Divisional Round playoff win over the Cowboys despite facing a Dallas team built to run rampant over such an alignment.
Nickel (and the next level, dime) formations utilize more defensive backs; in turn, they often sacrifice a defensive lineman to do so.
All this is to say: Despite little room for opportunity, Lowry still managed to do a decent job (Pro Football Focus 2016 grade: 74.9) in playing a key (if limited) role at an important time for Green Bay last year.
This year, circumstances have elevated that role.
Besides Daniels, Clark, and Lowry, every other face on the line has changed.
Guion continued with off-field problems and got cut.
Ringo and Price missed the cut with all the additional names added to the talent pool.
Montravius Adams was a third-round selection in the draft. Ricky-Jean Francois and Quinton Dial were cut elsewhere before becoming additions in the offseason.
All the change already left Lowry at a spot to be more important, but injuries and ineffectiveness have heightened his role even more so far this season.
Daniels was injured early in Week 2 and hasn’t played since.
Adams has seen just four snaps of his own due to injury issues to start the year. Jean-Francois was cut for a game. Dial has gotten snaps but has been replaceable.
With all this happening, Lowry has just seen his role and snap count increase every game. He played 15 snaps against Seattle, 34 against Atlanta, 37 against Cincinnati, and then 47 against Chicago.
His play in those snaps hasn’t stood out positively (45.8 PFF grade in 2017), but the fact that in Daniels’ absence it has been him (rather than Dial, Francois, or Adams) who has been called upon as the nominal starter speaks volumes for how much Green Bay believes in him.
This week, Daniels appears set to finally return to the field. Knowing that, Lowry is undoubtedly going to see his role decrease to a certain degree.
How much will greatly depend on how nickel-heavy the defensive game plan is, but regardless of the actual number of snaps he receives Lowry’s role will still be important.
With Daniels expected back, that gives somewhere around 70% of the defensive snaps (based on his 2016 snap count percentages) to him. Clark is second in line, and as the main nose tackle he should see about 75% of snaps. The snaps for Lowry (and everyone else) will depend greatly on formation from there.
When Green Bay uses its 3-4 fronts, Lowry will be the first choice to join them, most likely lining up as the left 3-4 end. He’ll probably be the first choice in the rotation for those snaps where Clark and/or Daniels get a rest in the nickel alignments.
Should this expected outcome prove true, this will often be pitting Lowry against RG Zack Martin.
Martin is oft-discussed as the league’s best guard (currently #2 in PFF grade among his position mates), but that doesn’t mean he’s impossible to beat.
It will be a challenge for Lowry to break through, but even mucking things up a few times in his handful of snaps can be a godsend, and with a healthier rotation the constantly-hustling Lowry should be able to go even more full bore in his matchup.
It would be shocking to see Lowry change this game himself, but what he brings to the table embodies much of what ends up making the difference in most games.
Showing up better than expected in a matchup nobody in the audience (beyond a select few deep-diving line-play nerds) will be paying attention to?
That’s exactly where every week we see a player like Lowry to show up.
If he can make an impact here, this Green Bay team will be primed for a 4-1 start despite their endless injury list.
With a schedule that’s about to get easier soon (Minnesota has QB and RB issues, New Orleans can still be beaten on defense, Detroit is at Lambeau after Green Bay’s bye week, they just blew out Chicago, and Baltimore looks atrocious on offense), they could find themselves clearly leading the NFC field as we enter December.