Mike Pettine photo

Last season, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine talked often about versatility being important in his constantly changing defense, only he didn't have the kind of players he needed to make it work. Now GM Brian Gutekunst has given him the players he needs.

GREEN BAY — In defensive end news on the eve of the Green Bay Packers’ training camp, Dean Lowry got a hefty contract extension and Mike Daniels was released.

How many of you had that parlay in the roster pool?

Once you get past your initial surprise, however, you’ll see that these moves signaled a fundamental change in the Packers defense in its second season under coordinator Mike Pettine. Youth, length, availability and versatility are valued commodities on the Packers’ new-look defensive front. And gaining flexibility under the salary cap doesn’t hurt, either.

General manager Brian Gutekunst said Wednesday he couldn’t release Daniels earlier in the offseason due to injury considerations and had talked to teams about a trade in recent weeks but couldn’t complete a deal. Regardless, jettisoning a still-productive former Pro Bowler such as Daniels and re-upping a less-proven performer such as Lowry prior to the first practice is risky for a team trying to rebound from eight seasons of substandard defensive play. The Packers see it differently, making it abundantly clear by moving on from Daniels that they aren’t accepting the status quo on defense.

“I still think he’s a really good player,” first-year coach Matt LaFleur said. “I wish him well. We feel really, really good about the group we have with Kenny Clark, with Tyler Lancaster, Lowry, Montravius Adams, (Kingsley) Keke and Fadol Brown and just the versatility that (linebackers) Rashan (Gary) and Za’Darius (Smith) bring to us. So we feel like we have a group in place that can get the job done.”

Gutekunst said Clark, an emerging star at nose tackle, and the reliable Lowry will be the line’s pillars in the foreseeable future. Young players such as Lancaster, a nose tackle, and Adams and Brown, who play end, made positive impressions late last season and Keke, a rookie end, was considered by many to be a fifth-round steal in the draft.

Once the shock value wears off, the shuffle at defensive end makes sense. Given the schematic changes Pettine made in the defense last season and the many acquisitions the Packers made in free agency and the draft on that side of the ball, Daniels was no longer a good fit and Lowry in many ways was a perfect fit. A comparison of the two reveals where the defense is headed this season.

Daniels is 30; Lowry is 25.

Daniels is 6-foot and 310 pounds; Lowry is 6-6 and 296 pounds.

Daniels missed eight games the last two seasons with injuries; Lowry has never missed a game due to injury in his three seasons.

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Daniels, while still disruptive at times, is what he is after seven NFL seasons; Lowry has the body type and enough athleticism to play anywhere along the line.

Daniels was due to make $8.5 million overall (with a salary-cap hit of 10.7 million) in the final year of a four-year, $41-million contract; Lowry has another season left at $2 million followed by a three-year extension worth $20.3 million.

And those are just the nuts and bolts of the decision. More than anything, Daniels was a victim of the changing offenses in the NFL and the Packers finally recognizing that. Last season, Pettine talked often about versatility being important in his constantly changing defense, only he didn’t have the kind of players he needed to make it work. Now Gutekunst has given him the players he needs.

“I think together we’ve been able to change the pieces we had on defense to fit more what they may want to do,” Gutekunst said. “I don’t want to speak for them, but I think I’ve always had the mindset — this goes back two or three years — that we needed to get bigger, longer, more explosive. There was a time when we were lining up with Julius Peppers and Mike Neal as our edges. I think we got away from that a little bit. I think we needed to get back there and I think we’ve taken some steps to do that.”

It’s hard to argue with that, especially since the loss of Daniels shouldn’t hurt the Packers much, if at all.

Though there is still a need for linemen in the pass-happy NFL, the Packers played three down linemen on only 23 percent of the snaps last season, which ranked 30th in the NFL, according to footballoutsiders.com. Also, by signing Smith (6-4, 272) as a free agent and drafting Gary (6-5, 277) with their first-round pick, the Packers added two outside linebackers who are athletic enough to play outside and big enough to move inside. That versatility could allow Pettine to play without a down lineman on passing downs. And even if he does keep one on the field, Clark last season became a more effective interior rusher than Daniels anyway.

That didn’t make Daniels expendable, but the need for a player with his skill set was diminished. Gutekunst said he feels good about the depth in the line and the financial flexibility created by the moves. Mostly, though, the moves were made to match Pettine’s talent with his scheme.

“You’re going to see a rotation of guys come through in those different positions,” Gutekunst said. “I think the way Mike Pettine wants to play, and what we want to do on defense a little bit, you’re going to see maybe a little different look at times than what we were in the past.”

If you’ve been watching the Packers, you know that can’t be a bad thing.


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Contact Tom Oates

at toates@madison.com.