Jerry Tillery photo

Notre Dame's Jerry Tillery is among those at the head of the class of a strong group of defensive linemen in this year's NFL draft.

This is the sixth in a series of stories previewing the Packers' draft.

GREEN BAY — Maybe this is the last year. Finally — as he heads into his fourth NFL season — Kenny Clark won’t look at the 2020 NFL Draft class and find a bunch of prospects who are, unbelievably, older than he is.

“It is funny to talk about,” the Green Bay Packers emerging star defensive tackle said earlier this month. Last year, for example, seventh-round pick James Looney arrived and the two immediately realized that the new kid was actually five months older than Clark.

“It’s funny to talk about,” Clark said. “Like, ‘You’re a rookie, and you’re older than me — that’s crazy.’”

Clark, who’ll turn 24 in October, is the second-most experienced defensive lineman on the Packers’ roster, behind only eighth-year veteran Mike Daniels. Dean Lowry was a member of Clark’s 2016 draft class, but Clark has played 1,737 defensive snaps in his three seasons compared to Lowry’s 1,348.

And while Clark figures to be in Green Bay for quite awhile — picking up his fifth-year option, which the Packers must do by May 2 to keep him under contract through the 2020 season — the defensive line doesn’t have the long-term depth that it requires.

Not only are Daniels and Lowry in the final years of their contracts, but veteran Muhammad Wilkerson, an inexpensive free-agent addition a year ago, has not been re-signed after a major leg injury ended his 2018 season in Week 3. After that, it’s Looney, who spent much of the year on the practice squad; Fadol Brown, an in-season pick-up last year; Tyler Lancaster, an undrafted free agent who was promoted from the practice squad; and Montravius Adams, a 2017 third-round pick who has had minimal impact to this point but has flashed potential at times.

Luckily for the Packers, it’s virtually unanimous among NFL general managers where the strength of the 2019 NFL draft lies.

“It’s the defensive line,” said Cleveland Browns GM John Dorsey, a former Packers executive. “We all know that.”

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At the head of the class of true defensive linemen — meaning, non-edge rushers who will be outside linebackers or defensive ends depending on which system they’re drafted into — are Alabama’s Quinnen Williams, Houston’s Ed Oliver, Clemson’s Christian Wilkins, Mississippi State’s Jeffery Simmons, Notre Dame’s Jerry Tillery and Clemson’s Dexter Lawrence.

Some of those names would be in play at No. 12, when the Packers go on the clock for the first of their two first-round picks; the others are potential options at No. 30, when the Packers are slated to pick again.

Also worth noting: They’re all younger than Clark, although Arizona State’s Renell Wren, a Day 2 prospect whose strong NFL scouting combine performance turned heads, will celebrate his 24th birthday just a few weeks after Clark does.

While Wren, a 6-foot-4, 317-pound redshirt senior defensive tackle, is pegged as a third-round pick, he might have been further up draft boards if not for the depth on the line in this draft.

“I’ve always said, and you know this, every draft class is different,” Dorsey explained. “You begin the process of evaluating those draft classes, the strengths and weaknesses of it, and there’s depth at a lot of positions. It just so happens this year, the defensive line to me truly sticks out over all the other positions.”

Added Mike Mayock, who became the Oakland Raiders GM after more than a decade as the NFL Network’s draft expert: “In the last ten years, I’d say it is the best defensive line group we’ve seen, both edge rushers and inside guys. I think when you start talking about the first round of the draft, I think it’s going to be dominated by defensive linemen.”

As good as Clark has been as the 27th overall pick in 2016 — despite finishing last season on injured reserve with an elbow injury, he still had his best season, registering six sacks and 55 tackles — that depth should benefit the Packers, who have a host of needs and could wait until later on to address the line.

Then again, the Packers have had limited success with mid-round defensive linemen over the years. Picks like Daniels (fourth round, 2012), Lowry (fifth round, 2016) and Aaron Kampman (fifth round, 2002) have been few and far between.

“I thought we saw some really positive signs,” Gutekunst said of last year’s line group. “Obviously Kenny Clark has turned into a dominant player for us. Mike Daniels was ‘Steady Eddie’ like he always has been. But I thought the ability late in the year, Montravius Adams and Lancaster (showed). To see those guys do some really, really good things gave us some pretty good hope going into this year that they can be significant factors for us.”


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Jason Wilde covers the Packers for ESPN Wisconsin. Listen to him with former Packers and Badgers offensive lineman Mark Tauscher weekdays from 9-11 on “Wilde & Tausch” on your local ESPN station.