The Unpacking Future Packers Countdown is a countdown of 100 prospects the Green Bay Packers could select in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Green Bay’s run defense gave up 2,372 yards on the ground, which ranked 26th overall. They gave up five yards per carry, which was tied for 29th in the league.
The Packers needs to improve against the run next season and if past history is any indication, Brian Gutekunst will invest resources into fixing a leaky defense.
Last season, the Packers had to significantly improve their special teams. Gutekunst attacked the issue with great ferocity. The Packers went and hired one of the best special teams coordinators in the league. They signed players like Keisean Nixon and Dallin Leavitt. They drafted players with a lot of experience on special teams like Tariq Carpenter.
It’s reasonable to expect Gutekunst to add a player or two up front to bolster the defense.
The player Green Bay’s general manager could target in the 2023 NFL Draft is Zach Pickens. The South Carolina defensive lineman checks in at No. 60 on the Unpacking Future Packers countdown.
Pickens, a South Carolina native, finished his career with 32 career starts for the Gamecocks. During his sophomore season in 2020, Pickens recorded 2.5 tackles for loss and one sack. In 2021, Pickens recorded five tackles for loss and four sacks. Last season, Pickens recorded 42 tackles, four tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and three pass deflections.
“Pickens was the heart of a defensive line that went through several changes and lineups due to injuries,” said David Cloninger, a reporter for The Post and Courier. “A cornerstone in the middle of the defensive line, he had his most productive and best season at USC. He was one of the three players I picked for Defensive MVP.”
Pickens is well built with long arms (34). He has a lot of power in those long limbs and when he plays with the right leverage, he can fight with the best of them. He has good initial speed off the bat to climb quickly.
The South Carolina linebacker really showed his potential as an interior pass rusher during the Gamecocks’ matchup against Kentucky last season. Pickens recorded one sack and five pressures against the Wildcats.
“He can really get his hands and arms up quickly, either to get over the tackler’s hands or get his hands up quickly in the defender’s field of vision,” Cloninger said. “He has a lot of pure raw power.”
Against the run, Pickens controls his spacing. It is strong at the point of attack and difficult to eradicate. Pickens has strong, active hands that help him work his way through holes. He has the short-area speed and lateral agility to play up and down the line of scrimmage.
The former five-star recruit finished his career with just 11.5 tackles for loss. While he didn’t poke eyes, Pickens blocked or blew up running lanes that allowed teammates to make plays behind the line of scrimmage.
“The Gamecocks were bad against everybody last year and he shares some of the blame,” Cloninger said. “I can’t say that he is the cause of it, because that would be incorrect. I can’t say that the rest of the line kept him because that would also be incorrect. It was group guilt. A lot of teams lined him up because he seemed to be the guy they had to take care of first, and as a result, Pickens would get frustrated easily and maybe give up too quickly. I don’t think that’s an alarm bell, though; more of a ‘we’ll get it out of him’ when he gets to the NFL.”
Fits with the Packers
Ask Kenny Clark for help. That’s probably what Gutekunst hears when he walks into Woodman’s Food Market.
Dean Lowry and Jarran Reed are set to hit the open market this season. That leaves Clark, Devonte Wyatt and TJ Slaton as the notable defensive linemen on the roster.
With those two veterans on the way, Gutekunst could add a defensive player or two in the upcoming NFL Draft.
Pickens could be a potential second or early third day target for the Packers. The South Carolina defensive tackle has the size, strength and quickness to develop into a potential interior force for the Packers.
“He was very effective with what he had, and the potential is limitless,” Cloninger said. “It’s often said that Pickens hasn’t reached his full potential yet, and if he’s doing this now at half or 75 percent of what he could do, imagine what he could do when he doesn’t have to worry about school and stuff. Just football all the time. He could be a starter in his first year.”
Clark has needed help upfront for some time. Wyatt played limited snaps during his freshman season and has the tools to develop into a dominant defensive player for the Packers.
Pickens isn’t as twitchy as the former Georgia Bulldogs. The South Carolina quarterback wins with his strength. Adding him to the mix with Clark and Wyatt could give Green Bay a potentially strong group ahead of Joe Barry.