The Green Bay Packers caught fans by surprise earlier this week when they released defensive lineman Kingsley Keke, a 2019 fifth-round pick, from their roster without much explanation. Now, their reasons have become clearer.
According to the NFL’s transaction wire, the Houston Texans were awarded Keke off the waivers from the Packers on January 20 with his official addition to their active roster deferred until the Monday after the Super Bowl. The claim is sensible for the Texans with both of their top interior defensive linemen due to become free agents in March, but adding Keke would not have been possible without him falling out with the Packers coaching staff in recent weeks.
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As Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle revealed through a league source, Keke was released on January 19 “following a disagreement with the Packers’ coaching staff, including coach Matt LaFleur, about his practice role after recently dealing with a concussion and COVID-19.”
Keke was inactive for the final three games of the Packers’ regular season, including for their finale against Detroit while he was on the reserve/COVID-19 list. He was also made a healthy scratch in both Week 16 and Week 17; though, none of the Packers’ coach or player leaders had provided a clear reason for why they were sitting one of their better defensive frontmen.
Keke started 17 of his 41 career games for the Packers and tallied a combined 54 tackles, 6.5 sacks, five passes deflections and two forced fumbles throughout his first three seasons. Alas, he also struggled with concussions in each of the past two years with one prematurely ending his 2020 season before the playoffs and another costing him two games in the middle of the 2021 campaign.
DL Now a Priority for Packers in 2022
The Packers may have felt moving on from Keke now was the best decision for them as they prepare for the postseason, but it doesn’t change the fact that his absence in 2022 will force them to place a greater priority on adding talent to their defensive line.
In terms of free agency, the Packers won’t be at risk of losing any significant pieces when March 16 arrives. The only two defensive linemen who are scheduled to become free agents are special teamer Chauncey Rivers — currently on injured reserve with a season-ending ACL tear — and fourth-year contributor Tyler Lancaster. The latter has played some meaningful snaps in 2021, but it wouldn’t be too surprising if the Packers let both of them walk as they put their funds toward more substantial upgrades.
The bigger questions pertain to veteran defensive end Dean Lowry. The 27-year-old had his contract restructured for 2021 in order to prevent him from becoming a cap casualty, and he rewarded the Packers’ faith in him with one of his best seasons to date. Lowry started every game for a third consecutive year and finished the regular season with a career-high five sacks along with 42 total tackles, nine quarterback hits, four pass deflections and a fumble recovery.
At the same time, Lowry will be entering the final year of his contract with the Packers in 2022 and could be released in the offseason to help save the team nearly $4 million in cap space. And even if he does stick around, the Packers will still have to figure out what to do about the rest of their defensive line room with Kenny Clark and fifth-round rookie TJ Slaton the only others currently under contract for next season.